Evil's Willing Followers

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The extraordinary film "Downfall" is about the last days of Adolf Hitler in his underground Berlin bunker. The German dictator killed himself 60 years ago this month (April 30, 1945), ending World War II in Europe and, of course, the mass murder of civilians we now call the Holocaust. "Downfall" is a powerful, engrossing film, much praised for showing the often-caricatured Hitler as -- and I am quoting innumerable reviews here -- "a human being." It makes you wonder what, up until now, people thought he was.

In the movie, as in real life, Hitler is nice, considerate, thoughtful and incredibly cruel. He is a mass of contradictions, devoid of conscience -- a mass murderer who, as the Soviet army closes in and his situation gets more and more hopeless, becomes increasingly irrational. He orders around army divisions he no longer has and blames the German people for letting him down. "If the German people fail this test," he says about turning back the Russians, "I have no sympathy for them."

It was the stated intention of the movie's director, Oliver Hirschbiegel, to humanize Hitler and the others in the bunker with him, including his vapid mistress, Eva Braun. "What I hope I've done is complete the picture of what happened -- to make these characters whole in the mind of my generation, so we can really see them as human beings -- granted, horrendous, evil, ignorant and empty -- but still human, because we can't learn from monsters," he said in one recent interview.

And so we learn that Hitler really was good to his dog, Blondi, and kind to his secretaries, and solicitous toward the little Goebbels kids, all of whom were murdered in their sleep by their mother, Magda, so they would be spared life without Nazism. Later she and her husband, the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, concluded their own suicide pact. This is not cinema. This is history. No, it is both.

Frankly, I have never had a hard time humanizing Hitler. Ambition, brutality, hatred, courage -- these are attributes we can all understand. We have a piece of them in ourselves. Lesser sociopaths move around us all the time. We read about them in the newspapers and see them on television. It is not as if Hitler is something unique, unknown to history before, never repeated afterward. He was a man, nothing more -- and someone like him will come at us time and time again. He is the evil mutant of our imperfectible species.

The deeper mystery is the German people. There is, as one sharp historian noted, "a whiff of 'victim culture' about the film" -- the characterization of the Germans as victims of Hitler or, in some cases, of the rapacious Russians. This is in line with some recent German writings in which the inexcusable firebombings of Dresden and Hamburg are emphasized to show that Germans were victims, too -- and the atrocities of the Red Army are cited to explain the ferocity of the German resistance. These things happened, and they no doubt played a role in the remarkable -- and remarkably scary -- German resistance. After all, Germans fought for Hitler to his death and then, in a historic nanosecond, became remarkably good democrats. It is easier to explain Hitler than to explain that.

One man's madness, barbarity, charisma, boldness, courage and hatred -- all qualities of Hitler -- are easy enough to explain and to find. But a whole people's madness is a different story. That says more about us, and about what we are capable of, than anything about Hitler. And when the people are the people of Beethoven, when they provided the Jews among them with comfort and even riches before murdering them, when you could go by bike from the Weimar of the sublime Goethe to the Buchenwald of the cruel SS, then you are talking of the inexplicable. This quality of the Germans during the Third Reich, this quality of the Chinese during Mao's Great Leap Forward, this quality of the Cambodians or the Rwandans or -- in 1937-38 -- the Japanese in Nanking, resides in us all. This, really, is the great lesson of "Downfall" and of history itself.

It is good to humanize Hitler because a man, after all, is all he ever was. But once you strip him of any extraordinary powers, once he is reduced to mere human being, you have to confront the fact that where he madly led, people serenely followed. This -- not Hitler -- is what's chilling about "Downfall." It amends Alexander Pope, who said that the proper study of mankind is man. Yes. But the proper study of man is mankind.

cohenr@washpost.com


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