24 July 2013

The Lives of Others

It's a commonplace that Germans don't like being reminded of their all-too-recent history, and like much received wisdom, there's some truth in it. Nobody likes it thrown in their face that they were complicit with deep human evil.  Every once in a while you might bump into some guy in a bierstube (I have) who served in the Wehrmacht, and makes no apologies for his war service, but we're talking about a soldier, not Waffen SS or some functionary who played his small part in the Final Solution. Young people, born after the war, get their back up if you mention Hitler and the Nazis, and demand why they should take any responsibility for the buried past---look at what you white Americans have done to the Negro, is the favored response. And of course there are people of a certain age who blame the Jews, for keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, without feeling any embarrassment or even a twinge of irony. There's a victim psychology at work, resentful that they've been unfairly singled out, and tarred with too broad a brush. (This is second cousin to the enduring fiction that the French didn't collaborate with the Occupation, or that America First wasn't riddled with virulent anti-Semites and Nazi sympathizers.) "That was another country, and besides, the wench is dead."

So it's a fascinating development, to me, that a few German film-makers have begun to explore this willed national memory loss. DOWNFALL (2004), THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006), and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX (2008). It amounts to a public airing of dirty laundry, and predictably, these guys have taken heat for it.

DOWNFALL is about Hitler's last days in the bunker, and the final Russian assault on Berlin. In a sense, it's a war movie, the fighting in the streets a counterweight to the claustrophobic self-delusion of the Nazi leadership, sealed off underground. It's also deeply, viscerally frightening to be trapped with these people, the impossible hope of rescue, Magda Goebbels poisoning her children, Hitler, to the end, consumed by the perfidy of the Jews. It plays like black comedy, this feverish unreality, toxic with evasion and denial, but there isn't any comic relief in sight, only bitter disgrace, and suicide, and lasting shame for the survivors. The movie was attacked by critics in Germany, not for fudging the historical record, but for 'humanizing' Hitler. A curious complaint. Bruno Ganz, a Swiss, as it happens, manages the weird trick of seeming to shrink inside his clothes, wasting away as you watch. He makes Hitler human, all right, and if anything, all too familiar. This is not a monster, or an alien presence, but a mirror of our own weakness for hatred. Hitler, seen in the flesh, and without disguise, isn't a figure in some distant landscape, the diseased nephew safely hidden in the family closet. No wonder it made Germans uncomfortable.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS and THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX navigate a shifting historical landscape as well. Both are about betrayal. Both are about how Germany defines herself. And both are about doubtful orthodoxies. THE LIVES OF OTHERS takes place in East Germany in the 1980's, when Stasi informants were everywhere, and on the large scale, it's a study of life in an oppressive police state, although the major characters are actually people of privilege. In detail, though, small things matter, choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love. The moral punchline comes in a coda, after the Wall is torn down and the East German regime collapses, and old choices, large or small, can be handled like talismans.

BAADER MEINHOF is something of a cautionary tale, a Cold War story from the 1970's, about the zeal of a convert. Politics are radical and undisciplined, and a splinter faction on the Left turns to violence, a terror campaign against the neo-Fascism of the Old Guard. The security services, reading the Devil's handwriting, react with increasingly brutal tactics. The right-wing press, led by the Axel Springer newspaper chain, impatient with civil liberties, egg them on. They give the Baader-Meinhof gang its name, which over-inflates their importance, and actually generates public sympathy. The ringleaders were captured after a nationwide manhunt. Four of them were later to commit suicide in prison, which gave rise to, shall we say, unanswered questions. The legacy of Baader-Meinhof is mixed, at best.

Taken together, these three pictures don't amount to a critical mass, and nobody expects the Germans to rend their garments and beat their breasts over the crimes of their fathers, any more than you'd expect it of Americans---and everybody, let's face it, is guilty of something. The past is never a closed book. But the unexamined life, Plato tells us, isn't worth much. We don't need to be haunted by regret, or brood on the wrongs done us, or weep for the sins of men. We do require of ourselves an accounting. Choices of honor, or compromise, guilty secrets, proofs of love.


  1. Back when I was in graduate school, I had to take a class on German historiography. The teacher's whole obsession was with the East German obsession with the "stab in the back theory" - the idea that, at the end of WWI, the German people were betrayed by their own civilian government (all, supposedly, Jews) at home while their brave boys were winning the war at the front. It was a popular theory - no one ever wants to admit they lost a war (see the South re the Civil War; the US re Vietnam) - and it was easy to spread because in that pre-media age, the news that they'd lost the war came as a complete surprise. Anyway, Hitler, et al, ran with it. But here's the kicker - East German historians, were definitely still selling this theory as late as the 1980s because it "explained" how Hitler could come into power. In other words, they used it to blame the Jews instead of admitting that the German people voted the Nazis into power. I'd be willing to be that some politicians are still selling it.

    Back to the movies - I thought the "The Lives of Others" was a great movie, really showing how easy, and how inevitable, betrayal is when you fly high (and not just in a totalitarian state, I'd add).

  2. History: it serves as a marker of mistakes made, paths traveled. If we don't take a glance back, what have we learned?

    Each of us, both individuals as well as countries, have dark periods, times when we did thing that, in the clear, piercing light of retrospect, make us... uncomfortable.

    But, if you don't ponder the how's and the why's we are doomed to make the same errors.

  3. David: great post. I intend to catch both of these. In a similar vein have you seen the 1990 West German film The Nasty Girl (German title: Das schreckliche M├Ądchen)? It's based on the true story of Anna Rosmus, who, as a young woman began to dig into what actually happened in her "idyllic" little Bavarian home-town during the Third Reich, and how those in power responded. Well worth a look.

    Eve, have you read Fritz Fischer's iconoclastic book Germany's Aims in the First World War (German title: Grift Nacht Der Weltmacht)? It was required reading when I was in grad school in the mid-90s.

    Fischer was a company-grade infantry officer during World War II, and wound up in a prisoner-of-war camp. When he returned to post-graduate work in the late '40s he went back to it convinced that the then-prevalent notion that the Versailles Treaty was responsible for Germany's descent into Fascism and eventual commencement of World War II (A notion that British historian A.J.P. Taylor had been peddling for a couple of years by the time Fischer published his book in 1961. Where do you stand on Taylor? Are you familiar with his work at all?). This included explicitly rejecting the "stab-in-the-back" theory. To Fischer's way of thinking the causes of German aggression in the late '30s pre-dated the Versailles Treaty.

    He makes a compelling case with his book, which also bluntly and convincingly refutes the notion that Germany was somehow dragged by alliance with Austria into a war for which its military leaders had long planned, and from which its civilian leaders (including the kaiser) had long intended to profit.

    A must-read!

    And of course there's Shirer's massive and damning history of the Third Reich, which pretty much gives the lie to this notion as well.

    Wonderful stuff!



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