Sunday, April 10, 2005


From a story at Jews Sans Frontieres, I see there has been a bizzarre discussion in the British Guardian's letters about the new German film Der Untergang (Downfall), but one that parallels some of my own thoughts raised by the film (I saw it last week).

The film recounts the last week in the life of Hitler, primarily based on a recent long taped interview of Traudl Junge, one of his secretaries, with other eyewitness accounts weaved in. Somehow both debating sides see the film as a right-wing nationalist account, one side even assumes that the film's thesis was "Germans were also victims". Well I got the opposite impression: maybe it was never seeing Germans suffering in WWII war movies that got the debatees focused on this part only and ignore the real message(s).

For me, who read excerpts from the transcripted-to-book version of the secretary's interview in the German press (Der Spiegel), and other articles on the finale of the Nazi regime, most events in the film weren't news - what captured me most was the excerpt from the taped Junge interview at the end of the film.

In the Adenauer era, West Germany's first decade-and-half, the Past was meant to be left behind after the Nuremburg trials: the new conservative elite didn't want a serious confrontation with history, especially not at the courts, nor did it want to kick out ex-nazis from top jobs. The bad-apples theory of West German ordinarism (which needed the '68-ers for a smashing) needed a national mythology with new idols: one where the "good" and patriotic German soldier is contrasted with the bad SS, and where a few Germans who resisted got lots of official worship, in representation for the supposedly all-innocent German masses (e.g.: see, "we" resisted!).

One of these real but abused group of heroes was the clique of army officers around Count von Stauffenberg who attempted to assassinate Hitler; another the White Rose group of students in Munich, who tried to agitate against the regime and organise resistance, but were arrested and executed, including the later most idolised, Sophie Scholl.

Even as someone who only lived in West Germany in its last few years (and continued to follow the political life after leaving), whenever I see von Stauffenberg or Sophie Scholl remembered, I have the faint feeling of self-absolution at work.

Now, one thing the film really is is a study of the various ways people deny reality, and go along with Hiter's madness one way or the other. And when the real secretary speaks at the end of the film, she speaks about how she felt guiltless even after the war, after learning of Auschwitz and the full scale of the crimes, thinking naivety and cluelessness is an excuse - until one day, she walked by a memorial stone for Sophie Scholl. She read the text, and realised Sophie was her age - and was arrested just when Traudl got her job with Hitler. Then she realised she could have known the truth if she had wanted, if she had looked for it, if she had thought about it.

So for some a real heroine was breaking the hypocrisy, rather than serving as means for it.


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