More than six months before the film ‘Downfall’ was released in the cinemas here, the British press speculated as to what significance the film would have in and for Germany. That it would cause international controversy was not difficult to predict. A film about the last twelve days in the Berlin bunker, Hitler's suicide, and the country's ‘downfall’ in every respect must be at once impressive, confusing, and bewildering.
Yet what is generally regarded as most controversial is seeing the dictator on screen not only as the man who ordered the Holocaust and started the Second World War, but also as a human being giving chocolate to the female bunker staff and stroking his dog Blondie.
A humanised Hitler who cuddles the children of Joseph Goebbels and launches into virulent anti-Semitic tirades? When his secretary, Traudl Junge, confides to Eva Braun: ‘I cannot understand him, he is so nice and then he says these terrible things’, Braun answers: ‘Oh you mean when he's being the Führer!’
In any case, whether it contributes to our understanding of Hitler sixty years on, or is little more than a bad farce, as some British and German critics have claimed, ‘Downfall’ once again demonstrates that Hitler still dominates our imagination more than any other historical figure. To try to understand him is not the same as to excuse him.
Hitler's place in history, as Professor Kershaw's lecture [Hitler's Place In History] shows, will last for ever if only because ‘he represented the most fundamental and frontal assault ever launched on all that we associate with humanity and civilisation’.
It is this place that makes Hitler so extraordinary among the twentieth-century dictators and their predecessors. To take Stalin and his grotesque crimes against humanity for comparison, Kershaw warns, could result in relativization. One needs only to remember that Communism, after all, was a universalist doctrine, while Nazism was geared to the benefit of the German people.
Hitler himself often referred to Stalin, if only to regret that he had been unable to reduce the officer corps as extensively as his Russian counterpart. This showed his increasingly psychotic disconnection from reality all the more. However, even a manifestly wrong idea can have an impact on reality. When the German army invaded Poland in 1939, the German economy did not need new Lebensraum [ the ‘living space’ policy Hitler used to justify expansion ] in Eastern Europe.
But Hitler believed strongly in this ideology, and consequently it was his psychosis, not economic necessity, that caused the greatest catastrophe in history. In the last days of the war he accepted the deaths of thousands of young officers, saying that to die for their fatherland was what ‘they were there for’.
Only in Hitler's imagination could German armies prevent the Red Army from invading Berlin, although the collapse of the Third Reich was imminent. Wrong ideas about past and present, it seems, are as important as the reality historians have been dealing with. This applies in particular if the ideas have become part of a collective memory.
There is no entry on Hitler in the highly successful, three-volume compendium Deutsche Erinnerungsorte (German sites of memory), edited by Etienne François and Hagen Schulze. It seems to go without saying that many of its articles have to address Hitler and his place in German history to some extent anyway. Joachim Fest, himself a well known biographer of Hitler, contributed an essay on the Führerbunker.
This actually gave rise to his later book entitled Downfall, which stimulated Oliver Hirschbiegel to produce the film of the same name. To see Hitler's idea of a world-dominating empire, with a capital to be called Germania, reduced to a claustrophobic bunker empire, whose remaining inmates are occupied merely with self-pity and the question of how to commit suicide, illustrates so vividly how Hitler's ideology of hate and destruction culminated in something hitherto unprecedented in history.
Before Hitler shot himself, he was the choreographer of downfall in an operatic, Wagnerian mode. In his novel The Worker of 1932, the author Ernst Jünger expressed this as follows: 'Humankind's deepest happiness consists in being sacrificed, and the highest art of leadership is to show people aims which are worth being sacrificed for'.
The unimagined evil is Hitler's place in history, as Ian Kershaw reminds us, connected with an appeal not to forget history, although it is becoming more and more detached from us, in order to show respect for the millions of victims of the Nazi regime, and to make a commitment to preventing any future crimes against humanity and civilisation. In this respect the Nazi past will indeed not pass away.
And there seems to be no suggestion that the past is becoming less attractive. Both the media and professional history are increasingly orientating themselves by anniversaries: sixty years since the liberation of Auschwitz, sixty years since the destruction of Dresden; and sixty years since the end of the Second World War. In all these anniversaries Hitler is present and central.
Almost forty years ago Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich famously spoke of the 'inability to mourn'. Their thesis articulated the psychoanalytically grounded belief that after the war the Germans could not confess their love for Hitler. Nor, therefore, could they confess their grief. The people (Volksgemeinschaft) had experienced the period of National Socialism as a positive time, which is why Hitler's motorways survived as a myth for so long in the collective memory.
Today the memory is of a different quality. When Prince Harry wears a swastika outfit to a party, and the first page of the Sun newspaper portrays him as ‘Harry the Nazi’, Hitler almost moves into the realm of pop culture, and becomes attractive to a young generation that deliberately employs provocative images.
Professor Kershaw, of course, is internationally regarded as the leading expert on Hitler and the Third Reich. His magisterial two-volume biography of the dictator cannot be surpassed. If one wishes to question one point in his lecture on Hitler's place in history, I suggest it could be the terminology of the ‘second Thirty Years War’ which Kershaw refers to.
This term has frequently been used to indicate continuity between the First and the Second World War, not only in Germany but within Europe. Hitler, as Kershaw demonstrates, was deeply marked by defeat in 1918 and the Versailles Treaty, and he would not accept a repeat, whatever the eventual cost in bloodshed and suffering.
Closely linked to the war was his anti-Semitism. Believing that the Jews were to blame for capitulation in 1918, Hitler, as a convert to the stab-in-the-back legend, claimed revenge and invoked the greatest genocide in world history, the ‘Final Solution’.
It was this genocide that conferred a new quality upon the Second World War. The National Socialist leadership declared genocide their ideological programme, in contrast to the genocides of the Armenian people in 1915/16 or the Japanese mass murders committed in China from 1937. But although it could be argued that the first great catastrophe of the twentieth century, the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, was the root of much worse to come, the Second World War was not the inevitable consequence.
Perhaps the term ‘Total War’ is appropriate for an age when the conflict became globalised and the politics of destruction were of a total quality: war aims became unlimited, like the unscrupulous methods applied; in all theatres of war civilians were the target of brutal attacks; and the total mobilisation of society which Goebbels had called for, and Hitler refused until late 1944, meant that children and old men were sent to war.
Thus, thanks to the splendid scholarship of Ian Kershaw, we are now much more aware of the history of the Third Reich and Hitler's place in it. No other period, no other event has shown with such brutality what human beings are capable of, the total negation of humanity, civilisation and everything worthwhile about life. However, in the human way in which Professor Kershaw tells his listeners and readers about the past, he inspires us to recapture the human perspective.
Götz Aly, Hitlers Volksstaat: Raub, Rassenkrieg und nationaler Sozialismus (Frankfurt/Main, 2005).
Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (London, 2000).
Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (London, 2003).
Norbert Frei, 1945 und wir: Das Dritte Reich im Bewußtsein der Deutschen (Munich, 2005).
Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991 (London, 1994).
Ian Kershaw, 'War and Political Violence in Twentieth-Century Europe', Contemporary European History, 14/1 (2005), 107-123.
Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler's Role in the Final Solution (London, 2003).