essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
I recently wrote an essay on Leni Riefenstahl, notorious as the director of Triumph of the Will, a film made to celebrate the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. What horrified me was that virtually all references to the film maker I found were full of hatred and contempt. Riefenstahl, along with Hitler, still stirs incredibly strong feelings.
I realise that people will feel what they need to feel. Mere facts will not influence anyone. But it seems incredible to me that there has been such a strong reaction. And I think that in the process there has been falsification of the historical record, at least as far as popular opinion is concerned. I don’t care what people think of Hitler, but I think Riefenstahl has been wronged. I want to write now about public perceptions of Hitler, and how they’ve changed over the years.
I’m starting from the premise that Hitler was a human being. Surprisingly, many people think of him as a monster, a madman, even as antichrist (a potent figure of hate invented by a mad second century ecclesiastical writer called John who has been responsible for a lot of subsequent pogroms). But no, Hitler was a human being. We have reliable information about his ambitions, insecurities, obsessions and abilities. And as a human being he changed over the years, in his case developing neuroses and instabilities that led to his destruction, and Germany’s. Once you start thinking of Hitler as a changing human being, and not in terms of unchanging stereotypes, you are in a position to appreciate other people’s reactions to him.
(In digression, I think it’s remarkable that so many people today think of Hitler, and are appalled by the holocaust. Japan, Nicaragua, San Salvadore, Argentina, Chile and Iraq have all suffered atrocities, seldom mentioned, although these have been committed by America in its war to defend democracy and eliminate terror. Tiananmen Square seems to be forgotten now that China is a friendly power. The genocide practised against native Americans by the US Government, and the bureaucratic blundering and indifference of the British Government that led to the decimation of the Irish population in the 1840s seem to be overlooked. Idi Amin and Pol Pot have faded from memory. But the Nazi Party has not been either forgiven or forgotten. Although both sides of the conflict of world war 2 were about equally responsible for the 60-80 million deaths the war brought about, it’s the 6 million deaths of Jews in concentration camps between 1940-45 that still surprisingly fascinates the world. It’s not that the holocaust wasn’t horrifying, but that so many other atrocities were equally horrifying but are ignored. Perhaps the extensive coverage the holocaust has had on television and cinema explain this odd focus.)
Many attempts have been made to discover the machinations of Hitler and his party as they manoeuvred to take control of Germany. The study of the intentions and plans of the people concerned calls for a critical sifting of the evidence which I’m not capable of. On the other hand there is a lot of material about what people thought about Hitler and the Party or at least were prepared to say they thought, and by looking at this one can see that public opinion of the Nazis changed over the years. One can also see how almost every writer who has mentioned the events of these years has let later views colour their treatment of earlier events, and so falsified history.
Every school child has learnt that the roots of the second world war go back to the first, to a rivalry between Germany and France for predominance in Europe. After Germany’s defeat in 1918 France believed it was necessary to keep it weak, but what was weakened was the German democratic movement. What was strengthened was a nationalist movement pledged to wipe out the humiliation of Versailles. When Hitler came to power in 1932 he made an alliance with the military establishment and had himself made Fuhrer. The voters knew nothing of this, just as today they know nothing of the deals the current political administration makes. What Germans did know was that Hitler had repudiated the humiliating Treaty of Versailles, curbed inflation and bought back full employment. Suddenly, ordinary Germans had money and jobs and a decent lifestyle again. All because of Hitler. They didn’t need to know any more. The Fuhrer was the most popular man in the country.
Overseas the rise of a stable Germany not in need of loans was welcomed by Britain and America. Hitler pursued a pro English policy that reassured many British politicians. It seemed, briefly, that a strong Germany, though disquieting to France, would benefit the European economy as a whole.
On a personal level, there are plentiful accounts of the effect Hitler had on those he met. His charisma was enormous, he had hypnotic eyes and voice and a commanding presence. Politicians and diplomats, usually hardened cynics, were swept off their feet when they met him.
What Hitler and the Nazi Party meant by 1934 was a strong, proud Germany, free from its shackles. The Nazi Party and patriotism became synonymous. And to help marshall the German people behind him Hitler called in the assistance of two of the most influential people of the 20th century, Joseph Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl.
(Propaganda is a dirty word to most people but it has innocuous origins. It means the art of persuasion, an extension of the oratorical skill of rhetoric. It was a method used firstly by the Catholic church to persuade non-Catholics of the truth of their doctrine. Used in this general sense of persuasion, one could say that much of what we say and certainly every work of art and entertainment is propaganda. What Goebbels and Riefenstahl did was to harness modern communication methods for the service of the state. It really needs to be emphasised at this point that this had not been done before. Like those who dropped the atomic bombs on Japan, the inventors of state propaganda had no idea of the effects or repercussions of what they were doing, because they had no precedents. Pyramids and inscriptions, pamphlets and newspapers were one thing: radio and film, it turned out, were something else again. It took another 20 years for Marshall MacLuhan to realise that ‘the medium is the message’. Debates as to whether Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will is documentary or propaganda needs to be viewed from a structualist perspective. There are those who assert that the 1934 Party Congress was stage managed by Riefenstahl, that Hitler and Party leaders jumped though hoops so that Riefenstahl could make mind controlling propaganda. There is no arguing with this. This is fear, and facts will not ease it. But the facts still exist. Framing a shot is an act of propaganda, and documentary alters the subject it portrays. Susan Sontag’s hysterical reaction alluded to above simply emphasises that Riefenstahl succeeded in what she set out to do. She persuades. Just as Hitler, with his hypnotic voice and commanding eyes, persuaded.)
But what the Nazi Party were persuading people about, through the Triumph of the Will and other means, was not subjection to a demonic leader who was torturing and murdering an entire race of people. They were persuading people to stand behind a leader who wanted to make Germany great again, who had been successful and who needed the people’s strength to continue.
It worked for almost four years. Although it never had a chance to develop into anything more constructive, Hitler’s strategy turned out to depend on full armament and continuous and successful warfare, which is not feasible. In other words it was a short term, knee jerk policy that took advantage of the moment but that contained within itself the germs of its own disintegration.
By 1937 the army was disillusioned with Hitler. By 1938 the European powers were becoming alarmed by Hitler’s foreign policies. By 1939 rumours about concentration camps (Himmler’s invention apparently, not Hitler’s) were becoming hard to ignore. For a while Hitler had a brief flare of popularity as he directed success after military success. He always did the unexpected and so out manoeuvred more experienced generals. Yet Hitler’s military policy was as short sighted and improvised as his economic one. He began to crack, ordering the suicidal invasion of Russia, then the declaration of war against America. His days were numbered.
Before 1934 Hitler was too obscure for most people to care about. After 1938 many had grave doubts of the stability of his policies. But between 1934 and 1938 Adolf Hitler was a hero throughout not just Germany but most of Europe and parts of America. He had solved insoluble problems and looked set to continue to do so. He had made his people prosperous. This is the forgotten Hitler. As it happens his achievement was illusory, but it was real for many people of those times, and influenced their actions.
One of these people was Leni Riefenstahl, a multi-faceted genius who turned out to be perhaps the greatest film maker of all time. It was sadly ironic that it took Adolf Hitler to make her so. Like millions of others at the time Riefenstahl was impressed with Hitler. She made Triumph of the Will for him. And now we’ve erased that Hitler, who was champion of Germany, from our memories and got a film maker of genius confused with Ilsa the She Wolf of the SS. Well, perhaps Henry Ford was right, maybe history is bunk.
If we must remember Hitler, the Holocaust is a too easy target. The glamorous, successful Hitler of the period 1934-8 is the one to focus on. This is the one to compare with contemporary leaders, the one who led his country to destruction.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.