The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, May 18, 2003

bad man
I'm about to settle in to watch Hitler: The Rise of Evil on CBS. I was so sure that it was going to be broadcast last Sunday, that I kept turning the TV onto CBS that night, only to find the Survivor finale. I guess the network execs figured Hitler and Mother's Day didn't quite mix...

Anyway, this miniseries has been preceded by a great deal of hype and controversy (actually the same thing, in terms of raising awareness for the show; don't think for a minute that CBS' PR machine didn't fuel a lot of that). So much so, in fact, that I took notice of it--me, who never even thinks to switch on one of the network channels (except for latenight). I have only a little hope that it'll be good--it is television, after all.

There's more than enough written about who Hitler was, what he meant and what his ultimate legacy is. I could write on the subject all night and into morning, and repeat points brought up by numerous other writers over the years. Rather than do that, let me focus, briefly, on the key critique over this subject matter seeing network air: The "humanization" of Adolf Hitler.

Ever since this project was announced in mid-2002, well-meaning scholars and other authorities have fretted over whether a biopic of Hitler would serve mainly to create sympathy for him. To stem this concern, CBS put the script through several rewrites, with these thoughts in mind, to the point where the final product was heavily influenced by these ideas.

With all due respect to Elie Wiesel and other accomplished experts in this field, I cannot help but think how wrongheaded it is to be frightened away from the concept of Hitler as a human being.

Hannah Arendt highlighted the banality of evil that was at the heart of the Nazi regime and the atrocities that Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler et al committed. This is a message that, in my opinion, has been lost, in favor of viewing Hitler and his cohorts as some sort of inhuman monsters. This concept survives today: Notice how every bad-guy dictator that runs afoul of the West, and specifically the United States, is characterized as an evil, insane madman. Manuel Noreiga, Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were all propagandized as deranged lunatics--never mind that their actions were hardly different from dozens of other Third World strongmen.

This approach, in fact, only serves to lessen the impact of the crimes perpetrated by people like Hitler. By labeling him an inhuman monster, the implication is that only a being apart from humanity could ever be capable of such acts as the Holocaust, or of killing fellow countrymen. Therefore, by extension, the mass of humankind doesn't have to worry about another Hitler coming along, nor do they have to take a particularly severe look at themselves and their role in fostering the development of such demagogues.

To me, taking into account the fact that Hitler (and Stalin, and Pol Pot, and every other dictator great or small) was a living, breathing human being, who grew up in conditions not much different than their contemporaries, is the truly scary thing. That is the true horror. Remembering that it was a man, or group of men, who ordered the death of millions of people in the last century is a difficult thing, but it's necessary. If you forget that, you forget the core lessons that came from history.

So yes: Hitler was a man. He grew up, was exposed to the same prejudices, the same influences, the same stimuli as others in the late 19th-early 20th century. He certainly exploited a rich tradition of anti-semetic feeling in European civilization (one that I don't think Europeans have every really come to terms with); he certainly didn't create it. He didn't suddenly, in the 1920s, morph into an unrecognizable monster; if he was a monster, he was a decidedly human one.