Mar 28, 2017
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Holocaust Films/Books III
by Doniphan Blair
The 1937 'Degenerate Art Show' was the most attended show in German history, despite the intention of authorities to show modern art as evil. photo courtesy City of Munich
Frank’s openness about her sexuality proves especially poignant if you consider that she was under the thumb of Hitler, who once said something like, I don’t care what my boys do as long as they are as strong as panthers, in response to complaints about the sexual proclivities of one of his oldest friends, Ernst Rohm, leader of the Brownshirts, and the only inner circle Nazi to address Hitler in the familiar conjugation of "you." The Brownshirts, AKA Stormtroopers, were Hitler’s praetorian guard as well as Nazi shock troops and spent the ‘20s and early ‘30s in the streets, fighting the communists and the police, was well as walking arm-in-arm and frequenting seedy bars. In point of fact, Hitler’s remark was not that unusual given Berlin had become for gays what Paris was for straights, a freewheeling, artistic haven, as described in Christopher Isherwood’s fascinating “The Berlin Stories” (1945). Those tales, in turn, became the bitingly sarcastic and fantastically popular 1966 musical and 1972 film, “Cabaret”, the latter directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli. Although historians argue whether Hitler was hetero-, homo- or a-sexual—not to mention a scatological fetishist, which has also been speculated, the record amply indicates he felt comfortable with gays.
In 1933, however, when the Nationalist Socialist Party took an eerie 33 districts and 33% of the national vote and the elderly, desperate WWI hero President von Hindenburg decided to take a chance and install the ex-corporal Hitler as Reich Chancellor, Rohm felt he was entitled, in turn, to take command of the entire German Army (Wehrmacht). Established two centuries earlier by Frederick the Great, a friend of Voltaire and a so-called philosopher king, as well as an adept and aggressive militarist, the Wehrmacht included many gays, as do almost all all-male groups. Indeed, the Prussian officer corps was famous for it, starting with Frederick himself, who was outed in his day by satirical paintings and writings, although he and his officers were hardly ostentatious like the Brownshirts. The latter liked to walk hand-in-hand around Berlin, gather at its well-known gay bars, beat the crap out of anyone who objected, and can be likened to an early gay liberation movement, though the liberation part was not to be. Secretly switching allegiances to Germany’s ruling class, Hitler ordered Rohm and his lieutenants butchered, the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” (1934), which should have been a loud wake-up call worldwide. (“If this is what he does to his old friends…”). Alas, the vast majority of German-Jewish elite, contacted by Hungarian-American rabbi Stephan Wise (1874-1949), who was an enthusiastic Zionist (meaning someone who believes in the right to exist of a Jewish state around the ancient and ongoing Jewish community of Jerusalem), were in denial. They replied to Wise's offer of assistance emigrating with fanciful hopes of weathering the tempest, much as Eastern European-Jewish communities had for centuries, and following the incremental appeasement strategy being entertained by many worldwide, Jews as well as gentiles. Others, however, recognized the danger. US Ambassador William Dodd went ballistic trying to get his red-flag warnings to President Roosevelt but was stymied by the State Department’s good ol’ boys, who viewed the Nazi's upper-echelon massacre as garden-variety, dictatorial house-cleaning, a story Erik Larson explores and elucidates in his excellent “In the Garden of the Beasts” (2012). Larson also reveals salacious escapades among Germany’s heterosexual bohemia, notably Ambassador Dodd’s beautiful and outspoken daughter, Martha, who dated, among many others, the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. Considered too moderate—he eventually refused to arrest Jews in 1940, Diels was replaced by Himmler and only survived execution during the "Long Knives" and then in the 1944 "July 20th Plot" to assassinate Hitler through a close relationship with Goring (cemented by marrying his cousin). Like so many others, Ms Dodd was enjoying herself in the twilight of the Weimar—or Cabaret—Era (1919-33), a veritable orgy of women's rights, romance and even free love as well as great art and film, cabarets with music and dancing girls (borrowed from the French) and gallows humor, driven by the decadence, political violence and atmospherics of impending doom.
Cabaret dancer Clara Muller (circa 1933), first wife of Bruno Loewenberg, Berliner, bookman and friend of this author, who recalled Germany's little-known 'hippie' side. photo courtesy Rachel Meller
In addition to Ambassador Dodd, there were a number of high profile protests, notably the Anti-Nazi Boycott, which called for an end to purchasing German products and kicked off in 1933 with an overflowing, celebrity-filled rally at New York's Madison Square Garden, followed by rallies nationwide, in England and elsewhere. In the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, British Fascists tried to march through the Jewish East End neighborhood but were confronted and stopped by socialist, communist and Irish as well as Jewish demonstrators. Some prudently advised against boycotting Germany, fearing reprisals against German Jews—indeed, an English newspaper proclaimed “Judea Has Declared War on Germany” and German Brownshirts began smearing "Jude" and Stars of David on shops owned by Jews—but Rabbi Wise declared: “The time for prudence and caution is past. We must speak up like men. How can we ask our Christian friends to lift their voices in protest against the wrongs suffered by Jews if we keep silent?"
Not shown in “Cabaret,” nor almost any other work on that period, is that some of Berlin's demimonde denizens used to inject morphine under, or inhale cocaine off of, the tables in the city's many cafés, as I was told by Bruno Loewenberg. A short Berliner-Jewish-American book dealer and painter with a slight humpback but nevertheless married to a gorgeous gentile cabaret singer, whom he often accompanied to, or picked up from, performances, Loewenberg was a colorful witness. “We wore funny clothes,” he recalled in our 1985 interview (which won a North-West Journalism Association award, partially due to the subject's novelty at that time and place). “We ‘hippies’ used to go out all the time… to the theater or to hear music. It was a very beautiful time. People were coming from all over Europe.” As late as 1937, “The Degenerate Art Show”, a enormous exposition intended for academics to research the “evils” of modern art, and hung helter-skelter in an average Munich building, attracted one million viewers, which makes it the most popular art show in German history to date! Meanwhile, across town at an opulent showcase of Nazi-approved art, there were few viewers other than party members, proving that some Germans remained open-minded or deeply nostalgic for their about-to-be eviscerated culture. Book-burnings, arbitrary arrests and the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws (1935) were already enforce but the cabaret habitues, including Loewenberg, “were very naïve,” he admitted. “This one woman wanted to introduce me to Goebbels, whom she knew, as if talking with me, a beloved friend of hers, a human being, would make a difference.” He declined. Arrested nonetheless shortly thereafter, he weathered a year in Dachau, although it was still early days for concentration camp atrocities ("only" about ten percent died annually) and he was caught up on his Kafka and Surrealism, helping him make sense of insane situations. Freed by his sister, who obtained passage for him out of the country but was unable to save herself, Loewenberg sailed from Marseilles, France, through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean to the city-state of Shanghai—the only place on earth Jews could obtain refuge without a visa, given the assumption of its Japanese overlords, who conquered Shanghai in a brutal battle in 1937, that Jewish immigration would benefit their banking sector.
Liza Minnelli, as Isherwood's Sally Bowles, and Joel Grey, as the MC, get down in Bob Fosse's 1972 'Cabaret'. photo courtesy B. Fosse
Indeed, drug use is an entirely overlooked aspect of Germany’s civilizational collapse, despite the fact that it is so hard to miss, what with the Germans' advanced achievements in chemistry, their views of the body as a machine and their understandable desire to escape repressive social scenes. Despite England's long involvement in Asia and Spain's in South America, the Germans were the first to extract morphine from opium in 1804 and cocaine from coca in 1859, jump-starting their recreational drug use as well as massive pharmaceutical industry (Bayer, Merck, Roche). No less a personage than Freud swore by the latter’s palliative properties, writing his wife: "My princess… you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle girl who doesn't eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body,” until addiction destroyed his friend and colleague Fliess. Amphetamines, also invented in Germany (albeit by a Hungarian, 1887), were put to extensive use during WWII by the German military, especially pilots, or infantry during the blitzkrieg invasions of Poland and France, while Hitler himself was frequently flying on all the above, before a speech or on a need-be basis. Some observers even attributed his erratic behavior almost entirely to drugs or his "shakes," at the end of the war, to withdrawals precipitated by Allied bombings of pharma factories. A hypochondriac, Hitler received dozens of vitamins, proteins, steroids and other concoctions, including testosterone, ground-up animal livers or cures for his notorious flatulence, on top of the hard pharmaceuticals, orally or injected up to 20 TIMES a day by Theodor Morell, his partially-Jewish but fully unconventional, celebrity physician, although at the end of the war he was afflicted with throat polyps, palsy and other degenerative diseases. Morell was among the Nazi elite's handful of "special" Jews awarded honorary Aryan status, notably some of Goring’s theater buddies, who were also known for their prodigious coking. Another habitual user was Italian dictator Mussolini, according to his longterm lover Margherita Sarfatti in her memoir, “My Fault: Mussolini As I Knew Him” (2014, the English translation). A noted art critic, society doyen and art salon director (she held court across the avenue from Fascist Party headquarters in Rome, facilitating Mussolini's frequent attendance) as well as Jewess, Sarfatti helped "El Duce" ("the leader") seize power back when Fascism was an offshoot of Filippo Marinetti's Futurist art movement and considered by many Italian Jews to be a beneficial, modernizing party. (Mussolini's sister also married a Jew.) Although a groundbreaking book on the subject is due out next year, "Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany", by Norman Ohler, whose grandfathers were both Nazis, when the documentary about German narcotic proclivities is finally made, it could do no better than take the title “Junky Germany”, given the double-entendring of "junker," German for knight and, later, Prussian nobility. One of the few wellknown references to drug use is in the brilliant German film “Downfall” (2004), by Oliver Hirschbiegel, which opens with a documentary interview with one of Hitler's secretaries before fictionally following her down into Hitler's bunker for the last week of the war—what Berliners called "The Subway War," since soldiers could commute by metro between the eastern and western fronts—with Hitler conjured to a "T" by one of Germany’s greatest actors, Bruno Ganz.
Although peace and love were not among them, Hitler had other commonalities with the hippies, given he had been a painter, after WWI in Vienna, and a romantic—if blind to the humanist side of that innovative philosophy. He also became a pseudo-mystic and vegetarian, Morell's liver concoctions aside, which was the source of his flatulence, evidently, and reputedly burst into tears upon being told of the passing of his pet canary. Subordinates competed to have the Fuhrer over for dinner, to sample their health food recipes, although reports that one of his cooks was Jewish are spurious—she was only 1/8th, making her certifiably Aryan (in the Nazis' book you needed at least one Hebraic grandparent to be Jewish). Another hippie-esque element of German culture was the male-only Wandervogel movement, which was started in 1896 by a nationalist Berlin schoolteacher and soon became quite popular among middleclassers. Also deriving from German Romanticism, Wandervogel (meaning "migratory bird") involved getting back to nature, camping, singing around the fire and nude bathing, not to forget queer coupling, but it was completely co-opted by Nazis, who introduced their version, Hitler Youth, in 1922 and opened it to women, while retaining the gay aspect. One of Hitler’s favorite paintings, which hung in his home, was a coolly-colored, stiffly-rendered group of bathers by a river—very Wandervogel-esque! Ironically, the mixed-sex nude bathing, which became a standard Hitler Youth activity, to help uptight and macho Teutons accustom to straight coupling, was introduced to Berliners by Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a sexologist and author who was not only Jewish but gay AND a fearless activist. Indeed, Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the first organization EVER to advocate for gay and trans rights, and, later, the Institute for Sexual Research. He also produced the first openly gay film, “Different from the Others” (1919), starring none other than Conrad Viedt—soon to form a studio with Murnau and play the somnambulist in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”. After his books and the institute’s archives were burned by the Nazis, Hirschfeld fled to France.
Reich being arrested with his cloud seeder in the background, from 'The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich' (2012) by Austrian Antonin Svoboda. photo courtesy A. Svoboda
Hirschfeld’s ideas were expanded upon, if in a more hetero mien, by yet another brilliant Austrian psychiatrist, gentile this time as well as actual hippie forefather, who became one of the Nazis’ fiercest and most penetrating intellectual critics. Indeed, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) greeted the Nazi takeover holding aloft his freshly-published as well as withering “The Mass Psychology of Fascism” (1933), which doubled down on Freud to attribute the problems plaguing Germany (and the Soviet Union, which he also visited and studied) almost entirely to the “sex-economy of fascism.” “The struggle to resist the temptation to masturbate,” he noted, “is experienced by every adolescent and child, WITHOUT EXCEPTION. The reactionary man’s structure is developed in this struggle,” (my emphasis). If not allowed healthy expression, lascivious urges cause anxiety, fear of patriarchal punishment and sublimation into political or religious fanaticism, according to Reich. While the authoritarian family is the dictatorship’s fundamental building block, “natural biological work democracy [read free love]… is to be considered the answer to fascism.” He also deftly detailed bourgeois mating rituals, the Nazis' anti-life mysticism and their seduction of workers through song, subconscious manipulation and ersatz-radicalism. Reich was forced to flee for his life, of course, first to Norway, then America, where his ideas influenced numerous trends in psychology and culture, notably the sexual revolution, but were eventually overshadowed by newer projects, like his rain-making machines and Orgone “energy accumulator” Box, which he demo-ed for an incredulous Einstein, who exclaimed something like: If this is correct, ALL my theories are out the goddamn window! Scientists dismissed Reich, the US government feared him, burning his archives—as the Nazis had with Hirschfeld's, and jailed him, where he died unexpectedly, age 60. For an immensely entertaining review of Reich’s work and influence on the '60s, see the narrative, documentary AND art film “WR: Mysteries of the Organism”, by Serbian master Dusan Makavajev (1971), which was supposed to be titled “WR: Mysteries of the Orgasm” but that was nixed by the producers, which even radical indepedent features have.
After the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, the Nazis about-faced on gay tolerance and initiated an aggressive advocacy of straight sex and babymaking, even providing family subsidies and multi-children mother awards to grow the cannon fodder needed for the upcoming war they fully intended to start. On top of which, they commenced incarcerating gays, along with trade unionists, communists and other opponents, in Dachau, near Munich, the first of many concentration camps or “Konzentrationslagers” (KL). While that term typified the Nazi use of mundane language to conceal complex horror, another aspect of Adorno’s Death of Poetry ("The murder of meaning itself..."), it would eventually add linguistic insult to the immense injury inflicted by the Nazis on their children and grandchildren. German for "storage," lager references beer, basements, warehouses and other things that are stored or enclosed, making signage with that word an ubiquitous and sad reminder across the nation to this day ("Every time I drink a lager...").
About 10,000 gays died in the interminable and interlocking lager system, which came to include six extermination facilities—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzek and Majdanek (all in Poland), 23 major camps and around 900 “regular” camps (maps marking these are speckled solid from the French border to Russia) as well as 20-40,000 sub or satellite camps. Nevertheless, Goring, the Nazi second-in-command, who had been an ace pilot in WWI, headed the air force (Luftwaffe) and founded the secret police (Gestapo), continued to cross-dress openly, while a few other upper echelon Nazis and many female KL guards remained out.
Roma children in the Holocaust. photo courtesy Romedia Foundation
In addition to the Jews, the 27 million Russian soldiers AND civilians, and the three million Polish-Catholics killed by the Nazis, the other major object of their genocidal attention was the Gypsies, properly called Romani or Roma. While the lagers often demoralized and destroyed, as well as gassed, captured Roma, they “only” lost about a quarter to a half of their approximately one million European members for several reasons: a few Roma bands were rated ethnically pure and exempted by Himmler; others were good at predicting the future (indeed, some did that for a living); and still others were expert at escaping authorities (an aspect of another traditional Gypsy occupation: petty thievery). A San Francisco friend of mine and Gypsy (his term) told me that his German-Gypsy father, when he realized the storm that was coming, sent his family to America but stayed on himself, passing as an Aryan, doing business, licit and illicit (notably burglarizing the many empty houses), and acquiring significant wealth. Sadly, their holocaust, what they call the “Porajmos,” has been only sparsely covered, except for a few documentaries, like the historically-spotty but well-intentioned “A People Uncounted” (2011) by two Jewish-Canadians, or books, like the bizarre anecdotes in Kielar's "Anus Mundi". In fact, Gypsies are known for writing songs, not books or scholarly studies, and they traditionally regarded Egypt (from whence derives "gypsy") as their place of origin, in lieu of the historically-proven India, which has many Gypsies today and from where a sizable tribe departed for greener pastures around 1000 CE. By the 1930s, a notable number of great German musicians were Roma—indeed, Django Reinhardt, although he became famous in France, where he supposedly invented "Gypsy jazz," was from a German family already surfeit in stellar jazz musicians. Some also served in the army and others provided essential services, like car repair or their famous fortune telling, but they rarely assimilated, preferring to live in their often matriarch-led groups on society’s fringes, lifestyles many continue to abide today.
The Holocaust is capitalized not just because Jews lost 5.9 million, or 69% of their 8.6 million European citizens (according to recent estimates, go
), but because the Jewish experience was closer to the word’s definition, "sacrificial burnt offering," given they were no longer outsiders in Germany and sacrifices are things of high value. (Sacrificial Burnt Offering is why Nuclear Holocaust can also be capitalized.) By the late 1800s, after living side-by-side since the 3rd century AD, Germany and its Jews had finally and fully fallen in love, at least a significant number of intellectuals and upper-middleclassers, partnering romantically as well as aesthetically and commercially. Indeed, the Iron Chancellor himself, Bismarck, was reported to have remarked something akin to, Every German stallion deserves a Jewish mare, while exclusion from such romantic access, according to Reich, would have been yet another injury aggrieving the anti-Semitic lower-classes ("What? Too good for us?"). In addition to being cherished spouses and friends, quite a few Jews were respected members of their towns and cities, where they worked as doctors, bankers, lawyers, artists, small and large shop keepers (they developed the first department stores) and even politicians. The much-admired German-Jewish businessman Walther Rathenau served as foreign minister for six months in 1922 before being machine-gunned down by members of the Freikorps, German paramilitary units in operation since the 18th century and composed of deserters, criminals and, by that time, many disgruntled WWI vets. Running roughshod around Germany, threatening and killing opponents, Freikorpers mounted periodic “putsches,” or overthrows, against the Wiemar Republic, notably the 1920 Kapp Putsch and the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The latter killed 20 people and precipitated the arrest and imprisonment of one of its leaders, the as-yet-unknown Hitler, for a mere nine months but just enough for him to pen his magnum opus, the malarky-mountain “Mein Kampf” (1925). At the time of Rathenau’s assassination, however, the newly-democratized German people were duly outraged; there were massive demonstrations protesting Freikorper violence and other domestic terrorism; and one murderer even repented, publicly and touchingly, after receiving a letter in prison from Rathenau’s mother.
Auschwitz, the day it was liberated by the Russians, 1/27/1945 (now Holocaust Remembrance Day). photo courtesy Auschwitz Museum
Of course, we all have that one friend who is a “good Jew,” acknowledged Himmler, head of the black-shirted SS (from Schutzstaffel, meaning "protection squadron"), an elite guard Hitler formed to divide-and-conquer Rohm's Brownshirts, at an SS meeting, where they often addressed each other as "Herr Doktor" (the German honorific for anyone with a post-graduate degree, which, in fact, many had). Slaughtering those Good Jews will not be all that easy, Himmler admitted, but it was necessary, he insisted, while conceding that that “glorious history” could NEVER be told. In point of fact, it was told, in detail and elevated eloquence, four decades later by German cineastes in “The Wannsee Conference” (1984), remade in English with much less success as "Conspiracy" (2001). A German movie for television (released in theaters here), "Wannsee Conference” stands head and shoulders above much of the Holocaust/Nazi material flooding the 1980s due to its superior acting and script, its dialogue so startlingly real simply because it was reconstructed from the minutes of the notorious meeting held in Wannsee, outside of Berlin, in January, 1942, where the SS debated and decided the protocols for their previously ad hoc “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”
Similarly, the Austrian-Israeli-German documentary, ”The Decent One” (2014), uses stunning archival footage and recreated sound, notably actors reading from Himmler’s diaries and letters, which were discovered by the parents of the film's Austrian director, Vanessa Lapa. The documents trace Himmler's "growth" from seemingly normal boy to disliked young man and, finally, devoted Nazi, dutifully organizing the SS and its transnational KL killing fields. Proving to a “T” the “banality of evil," another brilliant piece-of-the-puzzle analysis from historian Hannah Arendt, the film’s middle is mostly Himmler and his wife's epistolary flirtations or discussions of their first daughter, Gudrun, with only hints of darkness (“You naughty SS man...”), a fiction they maintained right to the war's cataclysmic last month, often called the “Gotterdammerung,” or “Twilight of the Gods”, which was the title of the fourth part of "The Ring Cycle" by Richard Wagner (1813-83). A seemingly interminable, intricate, incestuous and double-dealing love story, Wagner's 1876 "Ring" opera only finally finishes when the Gothic god-in-chief, Wotan (also known as Odin, the Scandinavian version of the name), destroys Valhalla, the gods' residence as well as the refuge for Goth heroes fallen in battle. Suggesting tough times ahead for hubristic Germans, "The Ring Cycle" is yet another cultural heads-up referencing possible problems with the Nazi program, this time from the Ur-nationalist, anti-Semite Wagner himself. In "The Decent One"'s detailings of Himmler's own Gotterdammerung, Director Lapa unveils new-found camp footage and what sounds like an actual recording of Himmler telling his masters of the master race: “Most of you know when a 100 corpses lie side by side, whether there is 500 or a 1000." ("Now those are professional genocidaires...") "And to endure that, apart from a few exceptions, and to remain decent has made us tough but it… will never appear in the glorious annals of history.” ("Wrong about that one, too, eh, Himmie?...") Although critics complained that the ironically-titled ”The Decent One” leaves its moral censure to the end, it closes strongly with Himmler’s wife claiming that he never told her what it was, precisely, that he did all day at work and that she knew nothing—nichts, nada, zilch! Their daughter, Gudrun, remains a neo-Nazi to this day.
Hitler's favorite composer was Wagner, both for his music AND his pioneering anti-Semitic activism, notably his "Judaism in Music" (1850), which claimed that the emerging Jewish musical talent, like composer Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of respected philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, "the first Jewish genius to escape the ghetto," did imitative work for personal aggrandizement not self-expression or civilizational development. Wagner gave the incipient hate movement respectability far beyond the more lunatic fringe embroidered by his son-in-law, the English-German pseudo-scientist Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-27), or the French aristocrat, diplomat and cheesy poet, Joseph Gobineau (1816-82), who penned the 1400 page "Essay on the Inequality of Human Races" (1855),which was slogged through by Wagner and "intellectuals" from the American South alike. Despite Wagner's proclivities for martial rhythms and bombastic tones (he figures famously in war movies like "Apocalypse Now", 1979), he was a talented iconoclast who reshaped the operatic form into a "total work of art," replete with poetry, sophisticated stagecraft and high-minded drama, as well as complex, even jarring, music, harmonies and orchestration. In fact, his "Tristan und Isolde" (1865) is considered by many to be the start of modern music and drove Mark Twain to famously quip, "Wagner's music is better than it sounds." Actually Wagner had Jewish fans, patrons, even friends, including the poet Heine, who inspired his opera "The Flying Dutchman" (1843), although how he squared Heine's insightful artistry and his Jewish heritage is not known. He also had Jewish-seeming characters, albeit not identified by name or outright stereotypical trait, which, like Celine, he was too much of an artist to indulge. Ironically, Wagner's innovations inspired much of the 20th century music the Nazis eventually outlawed; Hitler attended operas with Jewish singers, even after their prohibition in 1933, perhaps to avoid offending his dear friend Winifred Wagner, the maestro's English-born daughter-in-law and queen of all things Wagner (until she was declared a Nazi after the war and succeeded by her sons); AND the operas were not popular! Although the Nazis mounted endless Wagner propaganda as well as performances, and re-fashioned and -built the annual festival he started at Bayreuth (near Munich), Germans were soon skipping comped tickets to those lugubrious, depressing affairs to buy admittance to lighter, more romantic Italian fare.
A half-million Nazis rally at Nuremberg in Riefenstahl's controversial 'Triumph of the Will'. photo courtesy Auschwitz Museum
Paradoxically, the best documentary on the Nazis is also a vile piece of propaganda: “Triumph of the Will” (1935). Directed to a fare-thee-well by Leni Riefenstahl, an ambitious actress who came to star in Germany’s popular nature film genre but then hustled her way to becoming “Hitler’s Director,” the film still screens at film schools world-wide, despite ongoing revulsion and complaint. Ostensibly a documentary, it begins with two minutes (very long in screen time) of classical music and arty soaring-through-clouds shots, with the spires of Nuremberg and columns of marching German soldiers finally appearing below through the mist, followed by Hitler deplaning to adulating crowds. He's come to attend and star in the first Reich Party Congress, which is the entirety of the script, such as it is. Hence, there’s lots of speeches, including a justification for the Night of the Long Knives, but mostly just the Fuhrer working himself into paroxysms of self-intoxication, rehearsed gesticulation and patented barking oration. The film also marries modern cinema and ancient aesthetics, a classical high art trick, in this case: dawn over Nuremberg with Wagner blaring, rows of swastika banners rippling in the wind, endless close-up tracking shots of Germans sieg-heiling, 150,000 Nazis marching in rigid formation by day or bearing torches by night. Although much of the pageantry was designed by Speer, "Hitler’s Architect" and eventual Minister of Armaments, Riefenstahl insisted on the dozens of cameras filming simultaneously, the tracking devices she invented and many other innovations. She also edited and included an odd concluding shot, which could be construed as a Caligari-esque clue: after Hitler exits, a nervous junior officer looks around repeatedly, apparently confused, before yelling, “Hitler is Germany, Germany IS Hitler!” Many observers have understandably excoriated “Triumph”—starting with the German generals themselves for insufficiently venerating the Wehrmacht—and Riefenstahl, although she did go on to enjoy a long career and life, if endlessly Nazi-besmirched, despite the failure of four trials to convict her of the slightest infraction. Indeed, her “Olympia” (1938) was a similar triumph, as it were. About the '36 Summer Olympics in Berlin, it provided the same hero photo-treatment for the black American track champion Jesse Owens (who won four gold medals), revealing a surprisingly non-racist respect for master racers, so to speak, a perspective she continued in two lush, coffee table photography books on African tribes (The Sudan's Nuba and Kenya’s Masai). Although Riefenstahl didn't catch the shot, the Olympic competition featured an poignant interaction between Owens and Luz Long, the German track and field star, whom Hitler hoped would prove Aryan superiority, but who only took the silver and even befriended Owens, actually embracing him on the field in front of the Fuhrer and proving, for all the world to see, the true decency of some Germans. Alas, Owens's famous story of being coached by Long on where to start his long jump, a competition the latter later won, is disputed as a tall-tale (evidently Owens subscribed to the John Ford dictum: "When legend becomes the truth, print the legend!"). Riefenstahl's "Olympia" also pioneered many sports photography techniques, some of which are still in use at today's Olympics, others of which she appliebd to the scuba diving she enjoyed into her 90s, all the while denying any knowledge not only of the Holocaust but, it would seem, Nazism itself! Indeed,
bald-facedly paints her as a dedicated artist whose seminal work just happened to be about a Nazi super-rally and its star, one of the top four murderers of all time, alongside Stalin, Mao and Genghis.
Also claiming Holocaust ignorance, despite going on to author a 370-page book on Himmler and his death camp empire, was Hitler's Architect. Nevertheless, as the only upper-echelon Nazi to present as a human being at the Nuremberg Trials (1945-6), Speer was believed, spared the noose and sentenced to 20 years. Although Speer hardly came clean and arguments over the extent his prevarication persist, he did take responsibility for some atrocities—one of the few Nazis to do so—and he provided invaluable insights in notes taken surreptitiously in jail, in post-prison interviews, in his memoir, “Inside the Third Reich” (1969), and in his Himmler book, “The Slave State” (1981). Justifying arguments against capital punishment, Speer's observations were often revelatory, as when he explained how the 1943 bombing of Hamburg, which produced a firestorm (the fire’s thirst for oxygen induces hyper-hurricane-like conditions), ALMOST ended military manufacturing there ("If only they had carried on a tad longer...). Speer also shattered commonly-held beliefs that dictatorships were easily bested democracies in building industrial and military might. Not only was Hitler a bohemian dilettante incapable of normal work—or even normal work hours (although Churchill was also a late-riser), the Third Reich engendered pathological secrecy, competition and conspiracy, within and between agencies, according to Speer, fostering double work, waste, espionage and even sabotage. Sure, such crippling effects were offset by the celebrated German work ethic and the “Fascist efficiency accelerator,” which is how they got the trains running on time (“If the 1:09 doesn’t leave this second, I will shoot you…”), but it did leave one wondering how powerful the Third Reich might have become under a more reasonable and logical administration. Fortunately, that’s a contradiction in terms.
Hitler Youth with the nation's father-figure, whose authority supersedes one's own father, allowing denunciation if he dissed the Fuhrer. photo courtesy germaniainternational.com
Like Riefenstahl, some 99.9 percent of WWII-era Germans insisted they didn’t have the faintest idea about the Holocaust (“Wha? The Greenbergs? We thought they'd moved…" or "They must have done something wrong...”). In the lumpen proletariat's case, however, it was vaguely true, given average folk weren't in a position to that see much. Moreover, they didn’t just deny the many horrors they inevitably glimpsed but fully self-lobotomized, as Speer admits about himself. Regardless, there's no doubt that ALL Germans were TOTALLY aware of the vast KL system—how else could the Nazis fuel their vaunted terror machine, the Fascist Efficiency Accelerator writ large, let alone conceal SO many facilities? As everyone under the Nazi jackboot wellknew, one could be denounced for anything, by ANYONE—a disgruntled worker, a neighbor, one’s own kids even, given the deep penetration and indoctrination of the Hitler Youth. Oddly, however, that stick of terror came with a side of carrot. Indeed, the Third Reich's "Pyramid of Abuse"—Wilhelm Reich’s dictatorial state, which starts in the patriarchal home and ends with a brutal political father-figure—provided a comfort of sorts. As much as all subjects of dictatorships are abused, starting with Hitler’s subordinates—see “Downfall”'s famous scene of Hitler haranguing his generals (although endlessly parodied on
, where the subtitles have him screaming for his FedEx package, and the like, those take-offs can't diminish the underlying original's raw power), the injured Germans are thereby entitled to mistreat anyone underneath. This engenders a psychological Ponzi scheme, which only works when everyone, even those at the bottom, is fully cognizant that underpinning society is one last subhuman level: Anus Mundi. Before the closing of the Jewish ghettos across Nazi Europe, in fact, it was not uncommon for housewives to have their neighborhood Nazi kidnap a Jew or two, not just for housework but torture, as happened to my mother in Lodz, Poland, in 1940. Beaten by their husbands and low on the Abuse Pyramid, they were simply obtaining their state-sanctioned and -provided psychological relief.
As incredible as “Triumph” was for selling Nazism, it was the exception that proved the rule, one of the handful of true or functional things to emerge from the Nazi universe of lies, deceit and double-cross, which automatically accompanies murder, mayhem and destruction. There were a few others: the Autobahn, Germany’s slave-built highway system; the temperature where flesh freezes in water, Auschwitz’s only Forbidden Experiment to have any value WHATSOEVER (if only for pilots dogfighting over the North Sea); AND the rocket program. Indeed, our modern world of international jet travel, space programs and intercontinental missiles started with the German jet fighters and V-1 and V-2 rockets (“V” for vengeance), also called “buzz bombs” for the sickening sound they made approaching London, which they bombed from around D-Day (June 6, 1944) into March, 1945. Most of the rocket scientists were card-carrying Nazis, and their labs and factories used slave labor, according to Jean Michel, author of the revealing “Dora” (1975), the nicely-named bestiary burrowed deep in the Harz Mountains, where much of the rocket testing and building was done. Regardless, the science was sound and about 1500 of Hitler's rocketeers were gobbled up and awarded American citizenship, as well as clemency and split-level homes, mostly around Huntsville "Rocket City" Alabama, where the Redstone and Apollo rocket programs were led by Werner von Braun (1912-77). Von Braun toured Buchenwald to select slaves and had prisoners flogged for minor infractions while running Dora but after the war he somehow shifted to present as a pacifist. When I met him at the Smithsonian Museum (in 1970, crewing on a film about the history of flight), he was vaguely jocular, affably explaining to the assembled crew how it would be cheaper to build every Vietnamese family a split-level home than to continue fighting that terrible war.
One of the Reich's few functional inventions, the Volkswagen, designed by SS man and car genius, Porsche, with input from Hitler, the '37 looking a lot like its '67 iteration. photo courtesy Volkswagen
Another valid Nazi invention—as well as hippie crossover—was the air-cooled and affordable (very gas-efficient—it was tiny) Volkswagen ("people’s wagon") automobile, developed from Hitler’s directives by car designer-supreme AND SS man, Porsche, who also helped design the V-1 rocket and various tanks. Other than this handful of creations, however, nichts, nada, zilch of civilizational quality came from the Nazis, which is kind of curious considering innate German talent and the regime's scientific and artistic aspirations. Goring liked to sneer, "When I hear the word ‘culture' [kultur in German], I reach for my gun" but he was simply parroting a line from a popular play—“When I hear ‘kultur’...I unlock my Browning [pistol],” ("Schlageter", 1933)—and lying through his teeth, given theater is obviously culture and he was one of the Nazis' most voracious theater-goers and art enthusiasts as well as thieves. In fact, in addition to Hitler's painterly pretensions and architectural ambitions, many Nazis were art devotees, if in a parasitical, not visionary, vein (much as Wagner saw Jews). See the regime's snooze-show across town from their very popular "Decadent Art Show"; their sweeping urban redesign (few plans enacted, thankfully, given the stiff, Monumentalism of the styling); the battlefield painters in many military units; and the high command's scouring of Europe for art to steal (some never recovered). Good work was done in private or hiding but not a single poem, book, building, movie, opera, symphony or painting of quality rose above the overwhelming kitsch of the thousand-year Reich—except for Riefenstahl's films, Carl Orff's “Carmina Burana” (1935) and a handful of other pieces. Orff's symphony was hugely popular in Nazi Germany; he was soon de-Nazified post-war and returned to normalcy, partially due to claims he was friends with a leader of the White Rose group (though true, Orff did nothing to help him); and "Carmina Burana" has become part of the classical repertoire. Another internationally recognized artist and Nazi was the German-Danish Expressionist painter Emil Nolde, although, as with Celine, they rejected his work as too primitive (he developed it on an expedition to New Guinea). Indeed, his last show was the notorious “Decadent Art Show” although he too was fully rehabilitated post-war and even awarded Germany's highest civilian honor, the Order of Merit.
Of all the above, however, the truest work of art was “Triumph” in that it revealed the essence of its subject, like any great documentary, not what it dictated to hypnotized acolytes but what it showed to anyone who bothered to look. “We carry the BEST blood and we KNOW this,” Hitler nearly shrieks in close-up at the end. “We have resolved to keep the leadership of the nation and will NEVER give it up… The party will ALWAYS be the political leadership of the German people. It will remain unchangeable in its doctrine, HARD as steel in its organization, SUBTLE and changeable in its tactics. In its entity, however, it will be like a religious order.”
The Jewish orphan Alex Kurzem, after he was turned into the 'mascot' of a brutal Latvian SS brigade. photo M. Kurzem
Be that as it may, in a Nazi needle dream, the vast majority of SS men, in addition to their wanton disregard for human life, were completely corrupt, conspiring constantly, embezzling wherever possible and profiting wholesale from the large industrial “parks,” which arose around Auschwitz and other camps where their slaves were available for rent, buy or lease. Moreover, many SS were fiendishly promiscuous, evidently trying to make up for the sexual repression beaten into them as kids. In “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, Dr. Kogon recounts the adventures of Buchenwald’s queen, the commandant’s wife, noting that the threat of incarceration to her lovers must have spiced things up a bit. In addition to the brothels in many camps and the Wehrmacht-run brothels in France, Germany and Poland, to prevent "sexual excesses" like homosexuality, rape, venereal disease and orgies (which transpired with Jewish and Polish women, despite the Nuremberg Laws against "miscegenation"), there were SS stud farms and orphanages. Among the Nazis' many, deeply perverse “innovations” is the little-reported practice of placing the infant offspring of SS men and brothel women in pens to see which ones "struggled to survive," a bizarre application of Darwin’s theory to childrearing, which had heretofore always been, even among the most martial tribes (like Goths or Vikings), governed by love and nurture. Another devastating, related activity was the kidnapping of thousands of children deemed Aryan, almost always fair-haired—even though, out of the entire Nazi high command, only Heydrich was blonde. Doubly tragically, some of those victims included blond Jewish children living as gentiles under false papers—then raised as Nazis!
The most surreal iteration of that sick practice was endured by Alex Kurzem, a Latvian-Australian who first claimed he was separated from his peasant family when he was five and endured eight months living feral in the forest before being rescued by a loving Latvian family. In point of fact, Kurzem (originally Ilya Galperin) was Jewish; when his village was attacked by the Latvian police—and his mother warned him, he fled at night into the nearby woods from which he witnessed the slaughter of his entire community, including his mother, whom they shot, and his baby brother and sister, whom they bayoneted, to save bullets. Surviving by scavenging, including from the dead, he was finally caught and remanded to the Latvian police. But when they lined him up with other Jews to be shot, he begged for food on bended knee, amusing the cops and melting at least one heart. Sargent Kulis saved Kurzem and made him the squad "mascot," fashioning a bizarre facsimile of a family, despite the fact that, when washing the filthy, blond urchin, Kulis must have noticed that Alex/Ilya was circumcised and, therefore, Jewish. Nevertheless, when the unit was "upgraded" to Latvian SS, "it had a miniature uniform made for Kurzem, replete with SS insignia, full-length black leather coat and pistol," according to his son, Mark Kurzem, in "The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father's Nazi Boyhood" (2008). In that getup, he was introduced to Hitler as "the Reich's youngest Nazi," paraded for newspapers and newsreels and filmed commanding German child brigades—we can only imagine what his chaperone Kulis was thinking ("Uncle Adolf, if you only knew, if you only knew...). Kurzem remained with that SS unit as it deployed to the Russian front and committed a near-endless string of atrocities, including burning 1,600 Jews in a synagogue. Six years-old by that time, Kurzem was forced to participate, firing his pistol at a captured Jewish teen, handing out chocolates to beguile Jews on their way to the deportation trains, and as bait to lure young women to the SS camp, where they were repeatedly raped and sometimes murdered. Triply- or quadruply-tragic, in addition to having to hide his identity and revulsion to atrocity, while living with the genoicideers, after the war, at age ten, Kurzem was coerced into testifying on behalf of the unit's commander, Lobe, a butcher of grotesque proportions, who murdered tens of thousands, probably including Alex/Ilya's own family, but who was also his protector amidst the horror. As if that were not enough, when overwhelmed by horrible memories in 1997 and compelled to tell his story, first to his son and then the Holocaust Commission of Australia, where they lived, Kurzem was accused of inventing the entire convoluted farrago to cover his own Nazi atrocities, leading to the initiation of proceedings against him. Fortunately, his son's ten years of research compelled the commission to reverse their ruling while assisting immensely in his father's healing. They returned numerous times to his village, where they found family photos in his old home and marked and put flowers on their family's mass grave. "'Finally, after all this time, I have been able to lay a rose on the grave of my mother,' he says, smiling at the memory," according to Olga Craig, who covered the book's publication and interviewed the Kurzems for London's The Telegraph (6/10/2007). "'But when I stood at that spot, as a grown man, where I saw her die so bravely, I still had to cram my fist in my mouth to stop screaming.'" Craig concludes her article with: "Mr. Kurzem is silent, his eyes moist. 'Should I have been standing there with her, holding her hand? Holding the little ones? I have tortured myself with this. But one thing I know: my mother would have died desperately hoping I had survived.'"
Bruno Gantz's Hitler is about to go hysterical—big time—in the famous, much-parodied, scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel's brilliant 'Downfall', 2005. photo courtesy O. Hirschbiegel
Lastly, and quite cowardly to their brothers-in-arms, “[t]he SS heroes never tire of thinking up new strategems to keep them from shouldering the rifle,” according to Dr. Kogon. While SS officers paraded themselves as modern knights in hyperbolic propaganda, like “Triumph”, to rally everyday Germans to do the heavy lifting, like fighting and dying like flies on the Russian front, they often shirked such patriotic duty themselves through phony inspection and management units, the camp apparatus itself and the tactically absurd death marches, which kept just enough Jews alive to justify the SS' continued work managing Germany's slaves through the final Gotterdammerung ("You never know—we might need the labor force...").
Similarly, “Hitler seemed to have a split personality,” observed the grossly obese Dr. Morell, who was not adjudicated as a Nazi, perhaps out of consideration for his half-Jewishness (at any rate, he expired from poor health three years after V-Day), “one half iron will, determination, forcefulness and cruelty, the other uncertainty, fits of depression, and shyness, particularly with women,” contributing to ongoing arguments about Hitler’s mentation, such as it was. “In rereading the chronicles of Nazism… I cannot avoid the impression of a general atmosphere of uncontrolled madness,” wrote Primo Levi (New Republic, 1986). “Thus I prefer the humility with which some of the most serious historians confess to not understanding the furious anti-Semitism of Hitler and of Germany in back of him,” essentially agreeing with Speer, who speculated Hitler was a sociopath. Corroborating Levi, the German people seemed to snap awake on V-Day, as if from an out-of-body experience, even more than a nightmare, although unconditional surrender, after a total war, replete with the carpet bombing to rubble of ENTIRE cities, is nothing if not a loud wake-up call. Indeed, little came of the Nazis’ arrogant “Werwolf” plan to standup resistance forces and inflict endless guerrilla attacks after V-Day, except for the “rat lines” of sympathizers—one even through the Vatican—which helped Nazis run for their lives to the Middle East or South America.
While the original 'Mein Kampf' (lft) didn't sell at first, it hit five million in 1939 and ten million in 1945; (rt) Germany's first modern edition, Munich's Institute for Contemporary History, 2016. photo: courtesy ICH
With all due respect, few serious historians, sociologists or psychiatrists have diagnosed Hitler, or Germans in general, as stark raving “carpet-chewers”—the notorious description of Hitler used by the Germans themselves and noted by William Shirer in his monumental “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (1960), although they might have been referring to wearing out carpets by pacing rooms, not literal rug-munching. In point of fact, the insanity defense lets Nazis off the hook, while ignoring Hitler's occasionally astute politics and military micromanagement, or the Germans' hard work. Offering an alternative analysis was the pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who watched Hitler give a speech from up close (exactly what Riefenstahl's "Triumph" allows any viewer to do). Jung found him more of an actor or witchdoctor, beguiling, seducing or hypnotizing his audience, á la Caligari, than a macho thug bullying them, like Mussolini or Stalin. “Hitler seemed like the 'double' of a real person, as if Hitler the man might be hiding inside,” Jung said, adding, “you could never talk to this man; because there is nobody there... It is not an individual; it is an entire nation.” Admittedly, that sounds a lot like a sociopath who has switched relations, or lack thereof, from local to national entities, but, as Henry Miller once noted of a character: "It was often said of him that he was anti-Semitic, but then this is a prejudice and not a disease," ("Moloch", 1927). Regardless of arm-chair analysis, Hitler did will himself past vast policy and personality shortcomings—including some mental illness, no doubt—to play the hard but fair surrogate father so many Germans were evidently missing as well as "the great man of history," supposedly "indispensable" and able to change its course. Hitler's performances obviously brought a measure of meaning to millions stuck between the Middle Ages and modernity, the hyperinflation of the Cabaret Era, when a loaf of bread was 200 BILLION marks(!), and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when prices collapsed to nearly nothing; and, underneath it all, the universal crisis of adolescence: how to become an adult, fully conscious and functional. As a German-speaking Swiss, Jung was in a good position to observe and found the seemingly efficient and practical Germans inherently immature, prone to romantic fits and consumed by resentment of their neighbors, both where they lived and nationally. While Napoleon installed the Rights of Man across Europe in 1806, liberating the Jews and peasants and kickstarting civilizational rule-of-law, the German statelets repealed it immediately after the French defeat, and German speakers came to regard democracy as something imported, foreign, alien. Indeed, they only adopted enough democratic cooperation to unify as a nation in 1871, tying Italy, ironically, as the last major European state to finally take a seat at the table where France and England had been dining for over a millennia and Russia about half that. In sum, although their fathers may have commanded respect around town and in the home, the German patriarchy had failed miserably the German people: politically, in their inability to form a functional state, and personally, in their absence of love and profusion of neglect, beatings or outright abandonment. Doubling down on such massive emotional injury is the inherent tragedy of the failed patriarchy: when young men dare not express their objections and anger with their fathers, they sublimate it and transfer blame to others, generally the weakest available party, either their own wives and children or slightly different nearby groups, for example the Jews, who had been their neighbors in the Rhineland from the 3rd century.
Holocaust Films/Books Chapter 4
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Mar 03, 2016 - 01:33 AM