Letter from Berlin: Seeing Nazis Everywhere

By Stan Persky | September 26, 2004

BERLIN–Doug Saunders is the brightest guy o­n The Globe and Mail staff. His photograph in the paper shows a 30-something, casually dressed guy with just the right amount of wary skepticism o­n his mug. He’s a post-Gen Xer with a brain, and you can rely o­n him to dissect the complicated politics of whatever crisis he’s examining, and to have read some relevant book which he actually understands.

But even the best and the brightest can get it all wrong. Case in point: this weekend’s edition of the Globe (Sept. 25, 2004) features Saunders’ non-datelined article—I think he’s currently in London—which is alarmingly headed, “Germany agonizes over neo-Nazis’ resurgence.”

“Neo-Nazi parties took seats in German legislatures this week for the first time in 36 years,” Saunders dramatically announces. “The top-selling film in German movie theatres was a controversial new drama that portrays a sensitive, human Adolf Hitler. And protests from Jewish groups and German activists failed to stop the display of an [art] collection allegedly assembled from the Nazi slave-labour fortunes.”

Whoa, sounds pretty grim. Here comes Hitler all over again. The Nazis, classic, neo-, and lite, are everywhere.

Saunders’ overheated prose doesn’t offer much nuance. He continues: “It was a bizarre and disquieting week, full of dark echoes of the 1920s… The week’s events left many Germans wondering if fascist extremism has made a return to mainstream credibility, after being nearly unmentionable in Germany since Hitler’s suicide nearly 60 years ago.”

What we learn from the above is that the best and brightest can also pile o­n the cliches. So, as o­ne of the famous Canadian newspaper columnists, Allen Fotheringham, used to say (maybe he still does), “Let me defuzzify the muddyfications.”

First, Saunders has some of his facts wrong. Second, Germans aren’t doing much “agonizing.” And third, neither are the neo-Nazis doing much resurging. Fourth, I’ve seen the movie.

Here’s what happened. Two provincial elections were held a week ago in eastern Germany, in the provinces of Brandenburg (which surrounds the city-province of Berlin) and Saxony. And here’s the background information you need to know to make sense of the election results.

1. Eastern Germany has a nearly 20 per cent unemployment rate, about twice that of west Germany. Things are very tough, and have been ever since 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, communism ended, and Germany was “reunited”  (actually, it was more of a commercial buyout by rich West Germany of bankrupt East Germany). For a lot of complicated economic reasons, even though united Germany has spent 1.5 trillion dollars in the last 15 years trying to revive the east German economy, it hasn’t worked.

2. The German federal government is run by a coalition of the left-of-centre Social Democratic Party (SPD), headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (now halfway through his second term), and the Green Party. There are five major parties in Germany: the SPD; the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU); the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which exists primarily in eastern Germany and was built out of the wreckage of the old East German Communist Party; the Greens; and the Free Democrats (FDP), a middle-of-the-road free enterprise party. There are also two fringe, right-wing, nut-bar groups, the National Democratic Party (NP), and the German People’s Union (GPU). To win seats in a federal or provincial legislature under Germany’s proportional representation system, you have to get at least 5 per cent of the votes. Because there are lots of parties, governments are frequently formed from coalitions of two or more parties. Got all that?

3. Before last week’s two provincial elections, here’s how things stood. In Brandenburg there was a coalition government of the dominant SPD and the third-place CDU. Yes, social democrats and conservatives often coalesce in Germany. The second place party, the Party of Democratic Socialism, with over 20 per cent support, was not part of the government, but held lots of seats in the legislature. The extreme right GPU, which got 5 per cent of the vote in the last election in 1999, also had a few seats.

In much more conservative Saxony, there was a CDU government, which won an unusual 57 per cent majority in the 1999 election. Second was the PDS with over 20 per cent of the vote. The Social Democrats ran a dismal third, with 10 per cent of the vote. The extreme right NP o­nly got o­ne per cent of the vote in 1999 and therefore held no seats in the legislature.

4. Finally, and most important of all. For the last several months, the federal Social Democratic-Green government has been implementing a “reform” program which is significantly dismantling the German welfare state, even though social democrats aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing. But Germany is under big pressure from global capitalism and from its own capitalists to get with the program. The dismantling is fully supported by the conservative CDU.

The “reform” involves longer working hours, less benefits, and less job security. The latest phase of the program, known as “Hartz IV” (named for a Volkswagon personnel director who helped devise the scheme), comes into effect o­n Jan. 1. It ends long-term unemployment benefits, and puts the people receiving those benefits o­n much-diminished social welfare rates (about $500 a month). Since 1.7 million out of Germany’s 4.5 million unemployed are affected, lots of people are pissed off. Since this move could reduce the German deficit by 1 billion euros a month, or 12 billion euros a year, lots of politicians and businessmen are enthused. That the state savings might also reduce private consumption by taking money out of circulation is something seldom mentioned.

The o­nly sizeable party to oppose the dismantling of the welfare state has been the PDS, which is currently the authentic social democratic party in eastern Germany. For the last couple of months, they’ve been pretty much at the head of weekly protest demonstrations against Hartz IV, along with various non-governmental left-of-centre organizations (the most prominent NGO is called Attac). This is not to say that the PDS is heroic or has a real solution. After all, it's easy to be virtuous when you aren't in power. But it is to say that the PDS has turned the dismantling of the welfare state in Germany into a heated debate.

As you can see, real analysis is a bit more complicated than the “seeing Nazis everywhere” version of journalism in the recent edition of the Globe.

Okay, now to the allegedly dramatic results of the Brandenburg and Saxony elections:

In Brandenburg, the vote of the Social Democrats and the CDU went down, but they retained enough of the vote to continue their governing coalition. So, nothing changes. The vote of the PDS went up to 28 per cent. The vote of the right-wing GPU went up o­ne per cent, from 5 per cent to 6 per cent, and they will continue to hold seats in the Brandenburg legislature. But a o­ne per cent increase in the neo-Nazi vote is not exactly a “resurgence” that marks “a return of fascist extremism to mainstream credibility,” is it? Most people saw the Brandenburg vote as a protest by out-of-work people pissed off at having their social safety net shredded. Not a result designed to produce “agonizing,” at least not over and above the agonizing of trying to figure out how to make ends meet.

In Saxony, the governing CDU vote plunged about 15-16 points, from 57 per cent to 41 per cent, but the CDU will still form the provincial government. They’ll have to get o­ne or more of the smaller parties, either the SPD (just under 10 per cent) or the Greens or FDP (about 5 per cent each), to join them in a coalition. So, again, nothing much changes. The Democratic Socialist vote went up a few points and they continue to command about 25 per cent of voter hopes. The right wing National Party’s share of the vote went from o­ne per cent to 9 per cent, which means the neo-Nazis will be represented in the Saxony legislature. That’s the source of the half-truth in Saunders’ claim that “neo-Nazi parties took seats in German legislatures for the first time in 36 years.” That’s true for Saxony, but in Brandenburg they were already in the legislature, and various right wing parties have previously won seats in other legislative bodies, from local councils to the German contingent of the European Union parliament. What happened in Saxony is that when a big chunk of conservative CDU votes peeled off, they went to the minor parties, including the neo-Nazis, but also to the Greens and Free Democrats. Worrisome? Yeah, I suppose so. But a really big deal? No. Compared to votes for neo-fascist parties in France, Italy, Belgium, Austria and elsewhere in Europe, the German neo-Nazis have not made a remarkable breakthrough.

So, now that we’ve calmed down about the agonizing over the neo-Nazi resurgence, let’s go to the movies. I went yesterday.

What’s playing at the shiny new Sony Centre cineplex in shiny new Potsdamer Platz, the recently restored centre of Berlin? Well, along with the usual American blockbuster junk, there’s director Oliver Hirschbiegel’s and producer-writer Bernd Eichinger’s two-and-a-half-hour bio-epic, Downfall, the story of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker as the Russians bloodily conquered the city to end World War II.

Oh no, more Nazis! This time, fictional portraits of real o­nes.The Globe’s Saunders is right that the film is “controversial.” It’s the first major non-documentary, taboo-breaking, fictional portrayal of Hitler in German cinema. And it’s true that o­ne of the German daily picture tabloids ran a front page headline asking, “Should a monster be portrayed as a human being?” And of course, all of the more serious German papers and magazines felt obligated to do a considerable amount of characteristic hand-wringing about the film. I suppose you could even say they came close to “agonizing.”

I was prepared to be bored by this $16 million spectacle about the last days of the Third Reich. Certainly, it’s a fairly conventional film in terms of technique, complete with touching sub-plot stories, and clearly intended for popular, mass audiences, including schoolkids. And it’s long.

The weekend it opened in Germany, renowned Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw wrote a piece in The Guardian, because producer Eichinger sent a copy of the film to London and asked o­ne of the world’s leading experts o­n the Third Reich to take a look. Kershaw had heard about the fuss. “It seemed like a typical case of German angst—understandable but exaggerated—about the Nazi past and its relationship to the present,” he said.

Then Kershaw saw the movie. So did I. We both had pretty much the same reaction. I’ll defer to somebody who knows the facts: “Watching Eichinger’s superb reconstruction, I could not imagine how a film of Hitler’s last days could possibly be better done.” Says Kershaw, “The macabre, eerie atmosphere in the bunker is brilliantly captured. The weird world of its inmates—drunken revelry alongside talk of the best method of suicide—is marvellously evoked. But what was happening outside is not forgotten. The grim scenes of death and destruction above ground… provide a stark reminder.”

As for the possible mind-poisoning effects of accurately portraying Hitler, Kershaw says, “I found it hard to imagine that anyone (other than the usual neo-Nazi fringe) could possibly find Hitler a sympathetic figure during his bizarre last days.” Wrong to make Hitler “human”? As Kershaw remarks, “Hitler was, after all, a human being, even if an especially obnoxious, detestable specimen. We well know he could be kind and considerate to his secretaries, and with the next breath show cold ruthlessness… in determining the deaths of millions.”

I was surprised, as was Kershaw, by the emotional power of a story already familiar to most of us who know a little history, a story whose end is obvious. The secret of The Downfall is 56-year-old Swiss-born actor, Bruno Ganz. It’s the Oscar-winning performance of the year. (Does Hollywood give Best Actor Oscars to someone appearing in a “foreign” film?) As Kershaw says, “The decrepit individual shuffling through the bunker rooms… is brilliantly played. The towering outbursts of white-hot rage, subsiding into pathetic self-pity… his cold indifference to the fate of the German people, his last wishes to continue the fight against the Jews—this portrayal by Ganz is Hitler much as I envisaged him when writing the final chapter of my biography. Of all the screen depictions of the Fuerher, even by famous actors such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the o­nly o­ne which to me is compelling.”

Much the same thing can be said about the performances of Juliene Koehler (as Eva Braun), Ulrich Matthes (Goebbels) and Heino Ferch (Albert Speer). Director Hirschbiegel gets exactly right the continuously tinged-with-madness mixture of fanaticism and human, all-too-humaness. There may be a controversy about the film in the journals of the chattering classes, but there’s no need for o­ne. It’s simply a powerful film that helps o­ne remember and imagine history.

Like seeing ghosts, seeing Nazis everywhere is not helpful, either in terms of remembering, imagining or even anticipating.

Berlin, Sept. 26, 2004


  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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