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Reich and Wrong 

Published August 28, 2002 at 1:00 a.m.

I was surprised and moved by the enthusiastic response to my last column about the Reichstag fire, Hitler’s finances and the role of big business in keeping the Third Reich afloat for 12 years. It’s not often that I get stopped in a supermarket and thanked for something I’ve written. Normally, when people see me coming, they duck behind the bananas. I’m doubly glad it was the Führer who brought them out of the woodwork. Hitler and the people who created him must never be forgotten.

But before I continue, I need to confess: I was badly mistaken in saying that Hitler was filmed “dancing a jig” when he heard that Stalingrad had fallen. Stalingrad, of course, never fell to the Germans. If it had, we’d be living in a very different world. As best I can tell, Hitler’s jig and the great grin on his face were inspired in 1940 by the fall of Paris, world capital of art and a city Hitler had long despised for its indifference to his talent as a painter. He was an artist before he was a dictator, a student in Vienna who struggled for years to make a living with his palette, only to find himself selling knock-off watercolors and portraits to tourists in public squares.

According to plentiful but completely useless psychological diagnoses, this professional humiliation fed into Hitler’s working-class resentment of the rich, twisting quickly into a deadly obsession with Communists and Jews — more specifically, “Jewish bankers,” even “Communist bankers,” since Jews and Communists, at the start, were the same thing in Hitler’s mind. Later, all Nazis discovered that the Jews would be harder to liquidate than the Reds.

It’s also the case that the corporations who put Hitler in power weren’t by any means exclusively German. Foreign industries with investments and factories in the Reich — General Motors, for instance — actually increased their German production “for war purposes,” after Hitler broke the Treaty of Versailles and began to rearm the Vaterland. True, GM faced the expropriation of all its German property and profits if it didn’t comply, but there you have it: When the moral choice is clear, money always wins the day.

I mention these unsavory matters for two reasons. First, it ought to be plain to any thinking person that thousands of failed artists, like everyone else, have gone through life more or less satisfactorily, without becoming dictators, Nazis or fascists. This should put to rest any lingering notion that the Hitler phenomenon can be “explained” by looking only at the man himself. It can’t. Only a nation waiting for Hitler will allow a Hitler to destroy it.

Second, last week’s news was big on Nazis, primarily owing to the 100th birthday celebration — if that’s the right word — of Leni Riefenstahl. She was Hitler’s filmmaker and the genius behind the Nazis’ two most important propaganda films: Triumph of the Will (1934), which depicted a staged Hitler rally in Nuremberg; and Olympia, filmed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, with a strong emphasis on “Aryan” superiority.

Riefenstahl, who’s spent the last 60 years affirming her innocence in all matters concerning Adolf, is now described as “the last surviving high-profile figure who had been intimately associated with the Third Reich.” Even at 100, her wits are quick — she remembers well the first time she saw Hitler, at a rally in Berlin in 1932:

“I was amazed to see what a tremendous power he held over his listeners,” Riefenstahl says. “Just like a hypnotist… Like everybody else, my emotions were touched in a very strange way — so strange that I didn’t give a thought about what he was really talking about.”

Exactly — Riefenstahl and about 80 million others “didn’t give a thought” to what Hitler was “talking about.” When the war came, it made sense that enemies of the state would be purged. Ordinary Germans were “caught in history,” as Riefenstahl says, in the service of an evil only proportionally greater than the ones we now contemplate every day.

For example: Should the United States invade Iraq and rid the planet of Saddam Hussein? If so, should it make restitution to the families of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who’ve died in the 10 years since the imposition of sanctions? Is death by gassing better or worse than death by disease and starvation? Who is responsible for this sort of slaughter?

Or this: Should the United States, as enunciated on August 12 by the fascists now in power, take upon itself the sole right to ignore international law and send its “Special Forces” into countries with whom we are not at war, and where the local government isn’t even told of our presence? Shall we go ahead and murder anyone we want to while we’re there, then insist that we alone be exempted from the justice and even the censure of international courts?

And will we find some fundamental difference in the end, some moral breathing room, between Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and the Bushmen’s latest directive, proclaimed over the weekend, to “escalate the war of words against Iraq” by teaching exiled Iraqis “how to become shapers of public opinion” on television talk shows?

For that matter, what’s the difference be-tween Triumph of the Will and a McDonald’s commercial that shows a lot of firemen, policemen and Bush’s “real Americans” swooning at parades and genuflecting to the flag before wolfing down their burgers?

Please understand that I only ask these questions. That’s the glory of punditry. It’s up to you to answer them.

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Peter Kurth


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