Netflix has put Hitler: A Career online, which is a bit of a surprise. When this two-and-a-half-hour documentary first hit cinemas in 1977, Germans queued around the block to see it. It purported to be the first objective analysis of how Hitler mesmerised the voters and came to power. Siegfried Lenz, the novelist, called it “a deeply dangerous film”.
The first thing you notice about the movie, which was scripted by historian Joachim Fest, is that it hardly mentions the Holocaust. Just a couple of references to the persecution of “minorities”. This is the story of the German people’s experience of Hitler, the movie implies, not of the suffering of specific groups – as though the Jews were not entirely German.
In a contemporary interview with the journalist Gitta Sereny, Fest said: “I think the most tragic mistake … was to identify Hitler exclusively with the extermination of the Jews – basically effacing the knowledge about all the other millions he killed, and his plans for the future.”
On this point, Fest might find agreement with some in the Trump administration, which recently issued a statement marking the Holocaust that failed to mention the Jews specifically because, the White House said, lots of other people died under the Nazis too. Technically, that assertion is correct. Morally, it’s obscene. Hitler was consumed by a very particular hatred of the Jews. To omit that is to come perilously close to denial of the facts.
So schoolchildren shouldn’t be allowed to watch Fest’s film until they’ve first had its deficiencies explained to them. Thereafter, it’s a fascinating experiment in moral neutrality.
To treat Hitler as a professional politician – a good one at that – is to see how he got away with it. His speeches were electric; the rallies designed to both inspire and terrify. The romantic vision he offered was not new, but contained a promise of a return to greatness. Restoration, not revolution: a conservative movement. I am embarrassed as a Christian to note how often and passionately he invoked God.
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