Another Hitler-Alert in Britain

This is a first: if anything, EuroSavant is a “foreign press review” weblog, of course, but today’s entry is itself about a “foreign press review” article. There’s a new movie coming out of Germany that you are sure to hear much more of, if only from what has been heard of it already before it even opened in its home-market. It’s called Der Untergang (“The Downfall”), and its depiction of the last days of the Nazi regime in the spring of 1945 is based upon the book of the same name by noted Hitler scholar Joachim Fest, supplemented by the diary of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge.

You can well imagine the consternation in Germany over the making of a film that depicts the Führer in even a remotely-human light. But this is a weblog with an international bent, and the point of the article in today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by London correspondent Gina Thomas (British Fears: Does Germany Forgive Hitler?) is that the British media are already getting upset about the whole thing themselves. This when the rights for showing the film in the UK haven’t even been bought yet!

(By the way, that photo – from dpa/dpaweb – is not of the real historical article, but rather of the movie’s star, Bruno Ganz.)

FAZ correspondent Thomas quotes the assertion of the film’s producers in Munich that no other German film has yet received so much attention in the “anglo-saxon press” as this Der Untergang. But by this they must have meant the English press; I’m not aware of any treatment of the film in American papers, while the article gives the heads-up that such coverage will soon appear in the top-of-the-line British press such as the Financial Times and the Times of London. What’s more, a few of the other mainstream UK papers have gotten their licks in already at the film. One such is the “Daily Telegraph,” whose Berlin correspondent reports that Der Untergang’s producer, one Bernd Eichinger, is hoping to provide through it an “emotional liberation” for his countryman from the Second World War (finally!). But “Telegraph” reporters themselves think instead that it threatens to strengthen the case of the sort of World War II “revisionists” who downplay Germany’s role and even cast doubt on the authenticity of the Holocaust. The newspaper places the film squarely within the recent trend in the German arts and media of devoting rather more attention to the sufferings of the German people themselves during the war than has previously been the case. We’ve covered this theme before in EuroSavant, such as with the issue of the proposed museum and/or memorial for those Germans driven out of their former homes in Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc. at the war’s end, and have seen how it’s easy to take such sentiments rather too far for other nationalities who didn’t actually start the war in the first place yet were among its foremost victims. (The Poles, for example; take a memo: it’s time for EuroSavant to start keeping an eye out for reaction to Der Untergang in the Polish press!) Then there is the “Daily Mail” (a bit more lowbrow British paper, I’m given to understand), whose headline it was that asked “Are the Germans forgiving Hitler?” and which points to other ominous, seeming neo-Nazi traits in recent German behavior: more books coming out there about Hitler, those endless Der Spiegel cover-stories on Nazi-related topics, and of course more neo-nazi websites.


But FAZ correspondent Gina Thomas, at the end of her article, is more than able to turn the Brits’ worries right back in their faces. (Ms. Thomas has a curiously un-German name, by the way.) Interest in Hitler and the Nazis in the UK has also surged recently, with just as many books on the subject appearing in English as from German presses. Indeed, among these recent books have been translations of both Joachim Fest’s Der Untergang and the memoires of Traudl Junge that form the basis for the movie’s script.

But Ms. Thomas’ counter-argument here just might miss the point. Any fascination with Hitler from the Germans is hardly the same as such feelings coming from the British; rather, a closer equivalent would be French nostalgia for Napoleon, and even that justifies less watchfulness because Napoleon’s depredations were not only rather less vicious than those of the Nazi’s (not that the soldiers of La Grande Armée were a bunch of good fellows that the rest of Europe would have been glad to invite over to try out the local alcohol anyway), but they also happened rather longer ago. Thomas would have a better rationale for criticizing this alarmism in the English media on the basis of the sheer inability of the British to let go of, or grow beyond, their anti-Nazi heroics of the early 1940s. Beer brands still exist in Britain with names such as Spitfire (the Spitfire was properly a leading British-made fighter airplane in the Battle of Britain, and beyond, of course); when choosing a historical period to specialize in and be tested on for O- and A-levels, British adolescents still overwhelmingly choose the Second World War (and so not the post-war period, when the Germans reverted to being nice, cooperative fellows again); and, apparently, Germans visiting Albion can still be abused in public for something their grandfathers might have been involved in (or might have involuntary found themselves caught in) decades ago. I think that Der Untergang could very well be as illuminating for people’s attitudes to their past as, say, the TV movie Roots was in the US three decades ago; but it could be illuminating not just for the Germans, but also for other peoples and the ways that they continue to view the Germans fifty-nine years after V-E day.

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