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  • Untergang

    Posted by Lexington Green on April 2nd, 2005 (All posts by )

    The Third Reich was hammered into the dirt once and for all sixty years ago this month. To celebrate this most fortunate turn of events, I went to see the movie Downfall. (Incidentally the Amazon reviews are very good and worth looking at if you want to know more about the movie.) My short version: It is a 4.5 star movie. Brilliant acting, sets, costumes — impeccable. Bruno Ganz is a very convincing Hitler. The films is shown mainly from the point of view of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, played by a talented and beautiful actress Alexandra Maria Lara, which is an effective way to tell the tale. It loses half a star because the battle scenes, raved about by other reviewers, struck me as inadequate. Mostly people running across rubble-strewn streets and diving to the ground as shells come down. We get only one T-34/85 tank? And we see Hitler pinning an Iron Cross on a kid for killing two Soviet tanks with a panzerfaust, but we don’t see him do it. This is just not sufficient. The capture of Berlin was the crescendo of the Soviet war effort, and this movie conveys nothing of the vastness of what was going on. The people who made this movie should have spent the money to have at least one scene with swarms of Soviet tanks, or a duel between tanks and anti-tank guns, or something. Film-makers used to know how to make massive war movies that were appropriate in scale to their grand themes. They don’t want to spend the money anymore, alas. These are decadent times we are living in. (Where are Lord Lew Grade or Darryl F. Zanuck when you need them?) But this quibble aside, this is far and away the best of the three Hitler-in-the-Bunker movies. You must go see it.

    (I had an email exchange with Jonathan about the movie. What follows is the “enhanced DVD” version of that exchange.)

    I saw Downfall last night, the new movie about Hitler in the bunker. “My generals are all cowards! They should all be shot! I should have shot them all, like Stalin did!” “The German people were unworthy of my vision!” “I am proud of one thing: I stood up to the Jews!” “Albert, such opportunities! The world was in our grasp!” “We must retake the oil-fields!” All the great one-liners. The generals all just looking at each other nervously, while he goes off on one of his tirades. In true German fashion, they routinely update the situation maps, which once showed Kliest’s panzer columns barreling toward the Caucuses, and Guderian at the gates of Moscow, now showing which neighborhoods of Berlin have been captured in the last few hours. “Mein Fuhrer, the Russian front line is now only about 200 meters from here.” In the background, Soviet shells are constantly going off, shaking the whole place and making the electricity flicker on and off. Toward the end, a bunch of these military gentlemen take the Fuhrer’s route and shoot themselves — a guy in a uniform goes around the corner with a pistol: Bang! Thump.

    It is a story I am very familiar with.

    Jonathan responded astutely that it is a story that is familiar not just from Germany, but it seems to be repeated somewhere every few years.

    Agreed that Hitler’s closing hours were simply a supremely grotesque version of similar scenes which play out all the time. The increasingly detached and deranged leaders, trying to pretend the inevitable is avoidable, the “yes men” who’d lived parasitically off the regime still toadying, the scurrying around, the maneuvering and backstabbing going on even as the noose tightens, the support staff taking smoking breaks and doing the typing barely grasping that the whole thing is about to go down the toilet. I bet Enron at the end was pretty similar.

    Jonathan balked at the comparison to Enron, but suggested Michael Jackson as analogous, which is true (Hitler = tragedy, Michael Jackson = farce). I stuck to my guns:

    Hitler-in-the-bunker scenarios happen to businesses, too. So Enron for sure. I’ve read about it. Delusional b*stards. And the megalomania of some of the corporate chieftains in these places rise to near-Hitlerian proportions. They are just not in a position to do nearly as much damage. And, yeah, Michael Jackson, too. And Nixon. And the scene amongst the stupid commies when Yeltsin was taking over, ditto, I’m sure. It is a constant challenge to any leader not to end up surrounded by sycophants, to demand and get the truth from his subordinates. There is a great line in the Count de Marenches book which I wrote about recently. He talks about visiting the Shah of Iran, and being aware that the whole regime was about to slide off the edge any day. He complained to some senior Iranian that the Shah was way too detached, that he did not appear to understand what was going on. The Iranian guy told him, “The father, the old Shah, you didn’t dare lie to him. The son, you don’t dare tell him the truth.” We know which one died in his own bed.

    We are fortunate we have Constitutional government here in the good old USA. The Germans had no monopoly on malice, megalomania, stupidity, moral cowardice. Our leaders are constrained, in most ways, most of the time, so the kind of people who would want be like Hitler don’t go into politics, and if they do, they never get the chance to turn into Hitler because we have no provision for a “fuehrer” in our Constitution. And Hitlerian managers have a way of being taken out by ambitious subordinates, or their competitors, or shareholders or, in the last resort, by the Department of Justice. Nonetheless, the seductions and corruption of power are perennial threats in all walks of life.

    The most troubling thing about Hitler is not that he was superhumanly diabolical, and hence totally freakish and “nothing like us”. Rather, he was quite possibly the most extreme case of a bunch of bad things that happens all too often — a charismatic bullshit artist with bad ideas and no morals, a sociopath who tells people what they want to hear so he can use them, a seducer who gets them to buy into his evil plans and be complicit in them and who enables them to live out their own worst vices, a huckster who tells people all their problems are someone else’s fault –a perenially popular brand of snake oil, a thug who succeeds initially because he breaks all the rules and people at first can’t believe he is actually serious about what he is doing. Hitler was all of this rolled into one. Bad guys of these sorts often do well for a while, or seem to, but nearly always end up badly.

    Ganz’s depiction of Hitler is brilliant because he allows us to see that Hitler was evil, but also human, not a cartoon of evil or a symbol of evil, just a very, very bad man.

     

    18 Responses to “Untergang”

    1. Richard Heddleson Says:

      Bad guys of that sort often do well for a while, or seem to, but nearly always end up badly.

      But not before devastating the lives of many others in ways they never imagined nor know.

    2. David Foster Says:

      “They never get the chance to turn into Hitler because we have no provision for a “fuehrer” in our Constitution”…uh..neither did the constitution of Weimar Germany.

      Obviously, our democracy is much more stable and long-lasting than was Weimar. But there are some trends worth worrying about, particularly the rise of political violence and contempt for free speech.

    3. Lex Says:

      Uh… yes it did, David:

      *Article 48 of the German Constitution of August 11, 1919:

      If public safety and order in Germany are materially disturbed or endangered, the President may take the necessary measures to restore public safety and order, and, if necessary, to intervene with the help of the armed forces. To this end he may temporarily suspend, in whole or in part, the fundamental rights established in Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124, and 15.

      It did not use the word Fuehrer, but it conferred dicatatorial power, and it was meant to. Both the Nazis and the Communists were well aware of this article throughout the 20s and up to 1933. If either came to power it was generally understood that Article 48 would be invoked. Hitler immediately put into effect “emergency” decrees, and ruled under them with technical legality until the end of the war.

      See here for further details.

    4. David Foster Says:

      Very interesting…I didn’t know that. It would be interesting to compare this grant of authority, in detail, with the things that an American President could constitutionally do if he were so minded–viz, Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.

    5. Patricia Says:

      Saw Downfall yesterday myself. I missed the first couple minutes and came in just as the women were ushered into their job interview. I found Bruno GAnz’ performance to be unusual…but good, and am assuming the doddering old grampa routine was one side that the young girl saw or imagined she saw in him. I wish I had seen more from him about how he got there, you know the “arc” thing but maybe I missed it.

      Also agreed that the battle scenes were not very good. I guess they had a small budget.

    6. Ralf Goergens Says:

      Obviously, our democracy is much more stable and long-lasting than was Weimar. But there are some trends worth worrying about, particularly the rise of political violence and contempt for free speech.

      It did not use the word Fuehrer, but it conferred dicatatorial power, and it was meant to. Both the Nazis and the Communists were well aware of this article throughout the 20s and up to 1933. If either came to power it was generally understood that Article 48 would be invoked. Hitler immediately put into effect “emergency” decrees, and ruled under them with technical legality until the end of the war.

      David, Lex, what the Weimar Republic died of wasn’t a defect in the constitution, but a lack of democrats. The ‘contempt for free speech’ mostly shows that people are simply fed up with the antics of your politicians, while the ‘political violence’ is perpetrated by a few nutcases.

      And anyway, there are negative trends anywhere, at all times, but what counts is the resistance against them, and in Germany there simply wasn’t enough of that at the time.

    7. Richard Heddleson Says:

      Lincoln had no power under the Constitution to suspend habeus corpus nor to declare martial law, unless one argues it to be within his war powers as commander in chief for the later. Civil war found the constitution to be flexible to the point that it was honored by its breach.

    8. Lex Says:

      Ralf, agreed. But we also know Germans are renowned for following the letter of the law, even to a fault. The Weimar Constitution was badly drafted. The emergency provision should not have been included. It might well have made things harder for Hitler.

      Richard, you have it backwards. The Constitution proved so flexible that it snapped back into place after the war and we still have habeas corpus. I think you are wrong about martial law. He was commander in chief during a rebellion. Similar arguments are made about emancipation, though those arguments are less popular these days. Anyway, on a blog which a has a libertarian readership I can always count on a lot of people telling me about how Lincoln was a tyrant, etc. I still think the interesting thing about Lincoln’s measures, legal or not, is that they mostly went away after the war. That is not what happens in most countries.

    9. incognito Says:

      Good recommendation Lex, I’ll check it out. A book rec would be Anthony Beevor’s Fall of Berlin, but you you probably read that twice already…

      One thing I’ve thought before was that our megalomania tends to confine itself to the business world. While devastating, the damages are confined to money, ie we don’t have mass murder.

      Judicial dictatorship on the other hand…

    10. Lex Says:

      Nito, I have not read any of Beevor’s books yet. I’ve got the one on Stalingrad, which is supposed to be good, and it awaits my attention.

    11. incognito Says:

      Hey how ’bout that = ) Yes, highly recommend Stalingrad by Beevor. It was the first book I read on the subject. I liked it so much I read it twice (after a few years). Berlin by Beevor is very well researched as well, thanks to the opening of Soviet archives. Very thorough discussion of the final battles.

    12. David Foster Says:

      Ralf…the “contempt for free speech” that I referred to (in the US) has litle to do with politicians..it takes place largely on college campuses, and is largely directed against nonconforming students (and the occasional nonconforming professor)

      Re political violence, please see my post Be Afraid–the rise of political violence and intimidation in America

    13. Robert Schwartz Says:

      Context is everything. The Weimar Republic was created out of the ashes of the German Empire. Germany, at that time had been a nation for less than 50 years. It had no history of republican rule and had although it had a parliment during the empire,the parliment was not the most important part of government.

      Weimar was an experiment and it failed, not that it had much chance of sucess. Keynes had predicted the collapse of the Versaile settlement and it did.

      The American Republic is now 230 years old. Analogies to Weimar are silly.

    14. Lex Says:

      “not that it had much chance of sucess”

      A global depression had something to do with it. The Weimar regime, like most regimes, was popular during good economic times. A badly written constitution also may have had something to do with. (Paul Johnson has a discussion of why writing a good Constitution is important, I think it is in Modern Times) Severe economic times and bad legal drafting weren’t inevitable. They were the result of decisions.

      A few stray gunshots during the Beer Hall Putsch, and Hitler would have been dead and he would have been a footnote in history, if that. No Hitler, no Nazi movement, or nothing like the way it played out, no “Third Reich”, whatever else might have happened.

      “No history of republican rule” is an overstatement. There was a long history of various free cities which had been self-governing for centuries in Germany and lots of participatory civic life in the West and South and the old Hanseatic towns. Not all of Germany was authoritarian, like Prussia. There was active party politics from the end of the 19th century. Konrad Adenauer did not come from nowhere and build a democratic Germany out of air and sand after World War II. There were some things there to work with, to build on. The failure of 1933 occurred due to historical contingency and choices made by people, not some inexorable fate.

      There is no inevitability. There is just where you are now, the cards you hold now, the decisions you make now. The Germans played badly. But it was not inevitable.

    15. j.scott barnard Says:

      Great discussion, guys. Thanks. I’m pumped to see this now. The trailer is awesome.

    16. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “A global depression had something to do with it. . . Severe economic times and bad legal drafting weren’t inevitable. They were the result of decisions.”

      The causes of the great Depression are rooted in the Versallies Treaty, which was a decision taken before and without Weimar. The great Depression certainly deserves much of the blame for the Weimar collapse. As I said: “not that it had much chance of sucess”

      “A few stray gunshots during the Beer Hall Putsch, and Hitler would have been dead and he would have been a footnote in history, if that. No Hitler, no Nazi movement, or nothing like the way it played out, no “Third Reich”, whatever else might have happened.”

      The Nazi movement was not unique in Europe during the interwar period. Fascist/Communist/Syndicalist Parties dominated Italy, Spain, Hungary, Russia and Romania among others. Extreme nationalism, racism, and anti-Semitism were common throughout Eastern and Central Europe. It is easy to imagine that without Hitler, there would have been another fascist/communist/syndicalist regime with a tyrant and an adverturist foreign policy that would have wound up in much the same position.

      “No history of republican rule” is an overstatement.”

      Yes, but not by that much.

      “There was a long history of various free cities which had been self-governing for centuries in Germany and lots of participatory civic life in the West and South and the old Hanseatic towns.”

      The towns and cities were places where a small minority of the population lived before the late 19th century. Tocquville describes the the institutions of rural areas, like town meetings and juries, that were the cradle of republican civic life in the united states. Those institutions did not exist in Germany.

      “There was active party politics from the end of the 19th century.”

      This is not different from what I said. The perspective is that Weimar was less than a generation after the inception of those party politics. There were lots of people who thought that party politics was a problem, not a way to find a solution.

      “Konrad Adenauer did not come from nowhere and build a democratic Germany out of air and sand after World War II.”

      Adenauer had not air and sand, but ashes, which had taught his people a bitter lesson. He also had the allied armies which worked actively to promote democracy. The fascist parties had been outlawed and political activites were forbidden to most Nazis. Not only that but the US and Britan through Breton Woods, GATT and the IMF were able to construct a solid basis for economic growth in the aftermath of WWII.

      “The failure of 1933 occurred due to historical contingency and choices made by people, not some inexorable fate. There is no inevitability. There is just where you are now, the cards you hold now, the decisions you make now. The Germans played badly. But it was not inevitable.”

      There is no inevitability, but there are better and worse odds. The odds on the Weimar republic at its foundation were bad, for a number of reasons. Two major ones — Versallies and the political culture of Germany — were cast in stone before Weimar’s foundation. In 1933 (or even 15 years earlier) no one in Germany could have done anything about them.

    17. Rob W Says:

      Richard:

      It wasn’t clear who had the power to suspend habeus corpus. The Constitution merely says in Article 1 Section 9 “The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” It is unclear exactly who may suspend it, but certainly the executive is intended as Commander in Chief to hold the power.

      That was the problem with Article 48 “If public safety and order in Germany are materially disturbed or endangered” is too vague. Rebellion and invasion are terms that are more clear. The Framers were geniuses.

      Always love to see a reference to the T-34.

    18. Lex Says:

      “The Framers were geniuses.” Agreed. But the WAY they were geniuses is most important. They drew on centuries of hard experience in England. They had lots of historical examples to draw on. They were aware of the necessary balance.