Warhistorybuffs love anything about Hitler. It’s not that we’re fascists. Far from it. We hate watching the rise of neo-Nazism. All up and coming generations should watch war movies and documentaries like we Warhistorybuffs to learn about the evils of authoritarianism and the destruction and death that follows in its wake.
The recent racial injustice protests, riots, pandemic and economic collapse have caused some Americans to wonder if the world is coming to an end. Not this time. I titled this post “Gotterdammerung” after Richard Wagner’s 1876 opera about the war of the gods and the end of the world. The Germans in 1945, especially on the Eastern Front facing the Russians, knew what Gotterdammerung was — the complete destruction of their way of life.
I recently ran across a compelling film that touches on all these subjects and themes. It’s called Downfall (2004). Many people have seen a snippet of Downfall on YouTube. The movie is in German with English subtitles. There’s nothing quite like listening to one of Hitler’s rants in guttural German to see how an insignificant, even boring little man can turn generals and anybody else into puddles of jelly. (Another good example is a Hitler speech in the 1969 film Battle of Britain. It can certainly be seen how spellbinding Hitler could be). During one of Hitler’s temper tantrums in Downfall, internet jokesters have substituted several versions of the conversation with their own dialogue in the subtitles. My favorite portrays Hitler as a Cardinals fan ranting about the Cubs and rat-infested Wrigley Field.
Back to the “real” movie. I was constantly pausing and looking up people and facts on Wikipedia, and the movie appears to be extremely accurate. The story is supposedly through the eyes of Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s young secretaries. We see the elderly real Frau Junge (she died in 2002 at 81) in the film (her SS husband was killed in France in 1944) justifying her participation in one of the most horrific regimes in history. “I should be mad at that child for not recognizing that monster,” the real Traudl Junge says in talking about herself.
Fortunately, the film allows us to leave Frau Junge and her rationalizations behind and concentrate on the bizarre details of Hitler’s final days living in the “Führerbunker,” the underground maze of rooms and passageways located near the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler lived there from Jan. 16, 1945, until his death by suicide on April 30, 1945. After a brief introduction, the movie picks up life in the Führerbunker on April 20, 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday. On that day, the Russians were only 7.5 miles away and were shelling the center of Berlin with long-range artillery.
No heroes, some cowards
There are no heroes in the story of the dying days of the Third Reich. A couple of the frontline generals are portrayed sympathetically for fighting until the end. Among Hitler’s inner circle, the characters can be divided into wretched cowards, like Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goring, who fled Berlin the first chance they got and then conspired with the Allies hoping to negotiate surrender and save their own skins, and people like Gen. Hans Krebs, who chose suicide in the bunker over surrendering to the Russians.
The inner circle urged Hitler to escape from Berlin, which he could have done, but he refuses “You have to be on the stage when the curtain falls.” As history marches toward inevitable doom, Hitler displays a curious vacillation between fantastic hope for relief from nonexistent or decimated German armies fighting the Russians and resignation of his fate.
In one scene, Hitler is discussing with Albert Speer a scale model of the remade and renamed imperial German capital, Germania. Hitler notes “easier to clean up debris than demolish buildings.” But Speer also mentions Hitler’s order to destroy all infrastructure in Germany, in effect returning the country to an agrarian state. Speer admits to Hitler that he disobeyed and did not execute his orders because the nation needs to recover after the war is over.
Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time girlfriend and wife (they were married on April 29, 40 hours before they committed suicide),gets an interesting portrayal as a vibrant, fun-loving party girl who chain smokes, drinks (both vices Hitler avoided), and organizes get-togethers for the minions stuck inside the Führerbunker. She puts on makeup before her death and tells a teary-eyed Traudl she wants poison versus a bullet because she wants to be “a good-looking corpse.”
Disdain for the people
It seems after reading numerous biographies of despots like Stalin and Napoleon that these people are incredibly egotistical, self-centered individuals with no empathy, and Hitler is no exception. The most poignant parts of “Downfall” concern Hitler’s riffs on why the German people deserve to be destroyed by the invaders. “If my people cannot endure they called this fate upon themselves,” he says in one scene. He also rants, “Compassion is an eternal sin; apes kill all the old ones.” And this gem: “They gave us a mandate and now they’re paying for it.” Finally, “People were weak and should die out. There are no civilians.”