Hitler: The Rise of Evil. Alliance Atlantis.
Reviewed by Drew Bergerson
Published on H-German (May, 2003)
At first glance, it may seem inappropriate to criticize this mini-series from the perspective of Alltagsgeschichte. After all, its primary focus was the early life of Adolf Hitler: architect and archetype of the criminally extraordinary. Yet CBS claimed to do far more. As James Cross Giblin and Dr. Karen Riley wrote in the on-line educational supplement, this mini-series sought to dramatize not only Adolf Hitler's life and the experiences that shaped his personality but also how "this deeply disturbed man" rose "to supreme power in such a civilized country as Germany." By equating "The Rise of Evil" with "Hitler," they reduced the complicated question of the origins of the Nazi revolution to the mechanical process by which this one man seized power. The fundamentals of this story have been common knowledge at least since Karl Dietrich Bracher published <cite>Die Aufloesung der Weimarer Republik</cite>. It is now part and parcel of almost every textbook and curriculum for modern European history. So, there is hardly a pressing educational need to popularize these particular aspects of the history of the Third Reich. Nor is the appeal of Hitler biographies simply a matter of ratings or publications. Rather, its appeal lies in the way that it, by truncating the complexity of scholarship on the Third Reich, reassures us of our ability to categorize, contain, and eradicate the original "Axis of Evil." <p> The mini-series established its point of view in the opening credits with the rhythmic pulse of dictatorial terms like "power," "intimidation," and "fear." Under Weimar conditions of political and economic uncertainty, we were shown, Hitler manipulated the fears of the German people and mastered "the politics of hatred" (mostly anti-Semitism). Through the eyes of both Hitler's critics and sympathizers, the mini-series encouraged us to experience the morbid and sometimes even erotic fascination with which ordinary Germans viewed Hitler. The camerawork aggrandized Hitler as a public speaker. The melodramatic images of psychotic crowds certainly correspond to what Nazi propaganda wished us to believe about him and his charisma. They also correspond closely to the claims of ordinary Germans to have been "hypnotized" by Hitler. Helene Hanfstaengl described the swastika flag in these terms. Melodramatically foreshadowing her attraction to the Nazi movement, her evening dress even reflected its colors. Then in the 11:00 newscast after the program, a Hitler Jugend who actually met Hitler in the final months of the war bore "authentic" witness to the power of Hitler's "clear blue eyes" to "mesmerize." Clearly, we do need to try to determine the everyday dynamics at the core of these totalitarian modes of reciprocal perception, but it is bad history (and bad journalism) to take the claims of Herrschaft at their word. <p> It is also relatively unenlightening to depict Nazis as literally psychotic through scenes of sadistic violence, manic adoration, and sexual depravity. After the 1924 trial, the journalist Fritz Gerlach (representing "the voice of sanity") makes sure that the audience knows how to view Hitler properly: as a man who appears human but is not in fact. Even his niece corrects one of his loyal followers that her uncle is "a monster." Nazi crimes against humanity were indeed monstrous, but Adolf Hitler, his Nazis, and other ordinary Germans were human beings. We do the antifascist-antiracist cause a disservice to so dehumanize our enemies that we fail to understand how ordinary men and women could become Hitlers or chose to join their cause. In this case, the mini-series erred on the side of caution: they did not want us to identify with a more realistic depiction of Hitler. Still, in order to accurately demonstrate precisely how ordinary Germans were responsible for Nazi inhumanity, historians need to understand them--even those who were perpetrators. <p> After the conclusion to the program, CBS news broadcast an interview with Ron Rosenbaum, author of <cite>Explaining Hitler</cite> (1998), who also criticized the mini-series for making Hitler seem like the Hollywood archetype of evil; but post facto, this moment of self-reflection on the network's part seemed disingenuous to me. Still, the reporter from CBS news did admit that "evil" is not always as "apparent" as the mini-series made it seem. Here at least we see some recognition of the underlying problem with their dramatization; but again, it is hardly a new insight. Already in the 1980s, debates surrounding <cite>The Holocaust</cite> mini-series, Edgar Reitz's <cite>Heimat</cite>, and the Historikerstreit had raised the issue whether a treatment of everyday life during the Third Reich as if it had been normal necessarily normalizes a categorically abnormal regime and effaces its inhumane crimes. To be sure, we must never abandon our skepticism: the Third Reich was not really normal. Rather, the problem for Alltagsgeschichte is that ordinary Germans tried to imagine their normalcy in spite of the Third Reich and even the Holocaust. More to the point, the problem for historians of everyday life is to determine how normalcy is constituted in modern societies in general and with what particularly inhumane consequences in the case of the Third Reich. In its studied avoidance of the everyday lives of ordinary Germans (as well as ordinary Poles, Frenchmen, and so on), the mini-series made fascism seem exogenous to their biographies, when the real problem remains how they made National Socialism into a normal part of their lived reality. <p> To be sure, we cannot be too critical of CBS for failing to answer this set of questions. Since Hannah Arendt first encouraged us to confront "the banality of evil" during the Eichmann trial in 1961, the issue of normalcy has faced waves of acrimonious debate that are then quickly locked away to forestall its unsettling implications. Yet we cannot accept the contradictory assessments of ordinary Germans offered to us by this mini-series: the masses of nameless, idolatrous worshipers and yet an unrepresentative number of disillusioned Nazis among the leading characters. Our prime example of an ardent Nazi convert, Helene Hanfstaengl, "explains" rather ambiguously that she finally found someone to believe in; and yet we were informed mysteriously in the epilogue that, sometime later, she somehow lost that faith in the Fuehrer. All the while, she and her husband seemed remarkably numb and passive in the face of the dramatic events taking place around him: as if they witnessed these events without helping to create them. More generally, Fritz Gerlach and his wife offered contradictory assessments that, on the one hand, the Weimar republic was an "extraordinary time," and on the other, that ordinary Germans wished to ignore high politics and had therefore "gone blind" to the danger of national socialism. Confusing rather than clarifying the dynamics of normalcy and nazification, the mini-series gets us quite far from understanding the rise of this particular version of "evil." <p> Though belatedly, CBS seems to have recognized the appeal of Alltagsgeschichte: a history written about and from the perspective of ordinary people. The post-broadcast news programs tried to balance their unbalanced dramatization of Hitler with brief, "authentic" interviews with four Jewish victims and one Aryan collaborator respectively. For the most part, however, the mini-series got its Alltagsgeschichte wrong. In one of the few scenes directly addressing everyday life, the mini-series depicted the Jewish cabaret director and composer Friedrich Hollander telling his childhood friend, Ernst Hanfstaengl, that he was no longer welcome in his establishment because of his Nazi affiliations. Such incidents of direct, verbal confrontation between friends, initiated by the victims of Nazi hatred, did take place, but this depiction significantly misrepresents the dynamic of nazification and aryanization in everyday life. It almost seems like Hanfstaengl was the victim of his former friend's sensitivities. More to the point: there was no such thing as "a bystander" in the process of coordinating friendships and nazifying Germany. National Socialism required active implementation in everyday life by "ordinary" Germans. Although it is particularly true under a regime with aspirations to totalitarianism, ordinary men and women always constitute a particular kind of self and a society in every living act. They play the small but decisive role in shaping the larger processes of history, criminal or otherwise. To defend democracy, television producers should help their viewers think critically about this often hidden process: how ordinary people, not just psychotic demagogues, shape world history. This mini-series did not. <p> Finally, this mini-series posed a troubling counterfactual question that, precisely because it is unanswerable with reference to the past, seemed to be driven by a desire to mold opinion in the present. The Anti-Defamation League wrote that this mini-series depicts "how many times he could have been challenged and wasn't." CBS's Hitler was immutably evil. The story of the film is to show, instead, that other people were responsible for "the rise of evil" by "appeasing" Hitler (or saving him from suicide). The producers then slam us over the head with their answer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." That is, their cameras really focused neither on their caricature of the perpetrators nor on the very real suffering of the victims (both "authenticated" by witnesses in the news broadcasts following the episodes). By referring centrally to the absent "bystanders" of Hitler's violence, this mini-series was centrally concerned with, but never really addressed, the behavior of ordinary Germans. Moreover, this slight of hand effectively inverted the camera onto us, the contemporary audience of bystanders, as if to suggest that we too are appeasing seemingly similar, psychotic, and anti-Semitic demagogues -- and are therefore denying the lessons of history. A. J. P. Taylor notwithstanding, defeating fascism requires far more than what we today call "regime change." By reducing a complicated history of state and society to the handiwork of a single demagogue, this mini-series encouraged its audience to indulge in a dangerous fantasy: if we only cut off the head of the hydra of fascism, it will die. But the Nazi revolution, like many other fascist revolutions, involved the proactive labors of far more than one psychotic leader. Defeating them today will require policies based on a much deeper understanding of how fascism functions in everyday life than this mini-series provided. <p> Notes <p> . <a href="http://www.cbs.com/specials/riseofevil/common/riseofevil.pdf"><cite>Hitler: The Rise of Evil: Guide for Educators</cite></a>, p. 2. <p> . Anti-Defamation League, "<a href="http://www.adl.org/PresRele/HolNa52/425852.asp">ADL Statement on the CBS Mini-series 'Hitler: The Rise of Evil'</a>," ADL Press Release, posted 5 May 2003; and Anti-Defamation League, "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," ADL Education Spotlight, see <a href="http://www.adl.org/education">www.adl.org/education</a>, downloaded 13 May 2003. <p> . The framing quote, apparently a paraphrase of Edmund Burke, was expressed in the film by Fritz Gerlach, reiterated in the prologue and epilogue to the film, and even headed most pages on the mini-series's Web site. <p> . These news broadcasts were viewed on the CBS channel in New York. They began with stories of contemporary terrorism and Heimatschutzmassnahmen that implicitly related German history to contemporary politics. The ADL and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center made these links explicit by running advertisements during both programs against racism in its American context, though between whites and blacks. My wife tells me that the Kansas City news did not include this segment.
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Drew Bergerson. Review of , Hitler: The Rise of Evil.
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