Hey, Leader Dude!

| 6 Comments

Not only willing but happy, as ever, to be months if not years behind the times in terms of my entertainment consumption, I recently watched Downfall, the 2004 movie about HItler's last days in his bunker. I found it really compelling and can understand perfectly why I was anxious to see it when it was released in US theaters three or four years ago, though I also don't feel it hurt me to watch a bunch of other things first.

One thing that made it so outstanding was the performance by Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler--it was scary and horrifying and convincing, and compelling for precisely those reasons. (IMDb's bio for Ganz, by the way, states that he is the first German actor ever to portray Hitler, which seemed unlikely to me, so I googled the question, "What actors have portrayed Hitler?" and got a slew of hits, including a page listing someone's idea of the top ten onscreen Hitlers and a list of all actors who have played Hitler--turns out a number are German. But I'm still sort of marveling that I could find an answer to that question so quickly. Isn't the internet amazing?)

Anyway, one of the things that struck me was the way everyone called Hitler "Mein Fuehrer" (which, I learned also via the internet, means "My Leader"). Not once did anyone call him "Herr Hitler" or "Herr Fuerher," analogous after all to "Mr. President," a way of addressing a leader that makes more sense in German than in English: in German you actually say things like "Herr Doktor" or "Herr Professor" or whatever; but in English we don't say "Mr. Doctor" or "Mr. Professor" or any such thing except "Mr. President." No; it was always "Mein Fuehrer," except for a few times when kids or women called him "Uncle Hitler." Even his mistress called him "Mein Fuehrer."

Can you imagine? Can you imagine calling your political leader "My leader"? I mean, it's one thing to say, "I'm going to write to my senator," or "I'm so glad Rick Santorum is no longer my senator!" But that's different; I referred to Rick Santorum as "my senator" not because I embraced his occupation of that position, but to differentiate him from the 98 senators from other states, and to remind myself that I had to do my part to make sure Rick Santorum STOPPED being my senator.

I think recent events show that the United States is capable of electing and following really shitty leaders who then dupe us, quite easily, into embracing (at least aspect of) totalitarian government, betraying human rights, waging ill-conceived wars of aggression and sacrificing some of our most cherished freedoms. But I can't imagine us ever revering those leaders enough to call them, to their faces, as a sign of veneration and loyalty, "My President" or "My Vice-President." (god forbid!) Why, even in that horrible nightmare I had about dating W, I don't think I ever called him anything--not George, not Mr. President, not Mr. Bush, not Darling, and not even more appropriate titles like "You Fucking Asshole" and "Mr. Evil Incarnate."

And then there's the whole salute thing, the whole "Heil, Mein Fuehrer," the way Hitler liked to be greeted. Can you imagine? The movie is based partly on a memoir by Traudl Junge, who was Hitler's youngest secretary at the time he committed suicide. Can you imagine greeting your boss by raising your arm in a stiff salute and saying, "Hail, My Leader"?

I don't think Americans are capable of that. Having recently watched No End in Sight, and being able to remember the way my family and most of my Mormon friends supported Bush and the Iraq war in 2003, I know we can be responsible, through our leaders, for a lot of short-sighted, ill-conceived, selfish and evil things. But I think one of our saving graces--perhaps our only saving grace--is that we have a certain skepticism, not only of our leaders, but of veneration of leaders, that makes us unable to treat them with that much unquestioning loyalty, and eventually we do what we can to get rid of the bastards--even if we let them cause a hell of a lot of damage during their tenure in office.

I try to imagine some American saying, "Hail, My Leader" to the president and I can envision only two scenarios. The first is something like a scene from The West Wing where some White Staffer says, "Good Morning, Mr. President," but there's no salute. The other thing I come up with is some skateboarder waving at Barack Obama and saying, "Hey, Leader Dude!"

And frankly, that gives me hope.

6 Comments

We watched "Downfall" a few weeks ago. Despite the German filmmakers' protestations that they were horrified and what a terrible time it was that they were portraying and how hard it was for them to play these characters, I found the movie overall to be a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Hitler and Nazis.

A more interesting and radically revealing documentary, still needing to be made, would be an examination of Hitler and Nazi-ism in twenty-first century German memory. Interview the average German-on-the-strasse and ask them what they think of it all and how they feel about the war. I think the world would be surprised by their answers.

I hope that skepticism that you laud, Holly, stays alive and well, because you're right, it's our saving grace. German society can have and use (and still use) terms like "mein Fuehrer" because historically, they've been a hierarchical society marked by class and deference. For instance, when you get on a Lufthansa plane, the pilot and flight attendants address the passengers as "meine Damen und Herren," positioning themselves linguistically as deferential to the passengers, although in function they're authority figures. We don't have those linguistic conventions in American English because we don't have that history of deference. We eschewed that whole business over two hundred years ago.

I know this is a sweeping generalization but I don't want to further hijack your blog.

Hi Juti--

first of all, there's no need to apologize for "hijacking" my blog. I love getting and leaving long comments, provided they're intelligent and relevant, and yours always are. So comment away.

I think I can see why you found Downfall sympathetic, in that it portrays people like Hitler and Eva Braun and the Goebbels from their own point of view. But I felt that their points of view were so twisted and warped that even seeing them as they saw themselves condemned them. When Hitler would fly into those insane rages, spewing saliva and ranting about how he wouldn't surrender and didn't care about the cost of the invasion of Berlin on civilians because, after all, the German people deserved to die because they'd failed him, or about how the strong never showed compassion, I thought it was pretty clear that this man was monstrous.

Or Magda Goebbels.... one of the scenes that set me to thinking about this whole "mein fuerher" thing was a scene where she knelt at Hitler's feet and begged him not to abandon her and Germany. Then, when she starts saying that her children are too good for a world without National Socialism.... Or when she makes them drink that potion so they'll be unconscious when she administers the cyanide.... It was clear that from her perspective, she thought she was doing the right thing, but her perspective was completely SICK, and I don't think the movie made any attempt to persuade me otherwise--in fact, I'd argue that it strove to underscore how sick her perspective was, by showing that little boy wandering around and abandoned by everyone, so that at one point he regains consciousness in a bomb crater where one of the first things he sees is a face that has been blown off someone's head. This is the world National Socialism has created; and Magda Goebbel's children are too good for a world where that kind of thing doesn't happen? Or the scene where the MPs shoot as deserters a couple of old men who want to get back to their families, because, as they say, "there are no civilians...."

By the way, if you haven't seen it, there's a great movie about someone who asks the average German what s/he did during the war: The Nasty Girl. Based on a true story, it's about a young German woman who enters an essay contest on the question, "What did my town do under the Third Reich?" People want the answers to that question buried, and are very angry when someone tries to uncover them.

If one has even a rudimentary knowledge of German history and culture, one easily understands why the Germans referred to Hitler as 'Mein Fuhrer'(My leader.) Especially after 1933.

Sam:

I have no problem believing that

if one has even a rudimentary knowledge of German history and culture, one easily understands why the Germans referred to Hitler as 'Mein Fuhrer'(My leader.) Especially after 1933.

But that doesn't change the fact that to American ears, calling one's boss (in the case of Traudl Junge) or the head of one's country's government (in the case of everyone else) "my leader" at the same time you're making a silly salute, sounds deferential to the point of being a blind, fawning embrace of authority and a servile renunciation of personal responsibility and autonomy.

In other words, however illuminating an explanation of the cultural and historical reasons why Germans collectively addressed Hitler as "Mein Fuhrer" (especially after 1933, when Germany adopted a one-party system, which you hint at but fail to state outright), the national attitudes towards authority revealed by the widespread use of Hitler's title are morally, emotionally and intellectually REPUGNANT.

There are reasons why, for several centuries, white people felt themselves morally, physically and intellectually superior to black people and thus entitled to kidnap, torture, murder, rape and enslave them. But it is not as important to understand the reasons behind the attitudes as it is to understand A) the basic problems inherent in those attitudes and B) the crappy results those attitudes produced.

Similarly, the truly important thing to understand is not so much WHY Germans held those gross, servile attitudes towards their leaders, but the results of those attitudes when they were taken to the extreme Hitler posed: the rape of most of continental Europe, the unimaginable slaughter and brutality of the holocaust, the millions killed on all sides because of Hitler's wars of aggression, and all the other costs--environmental, sociological, psychological, etc--of war.

And the ultimate point of my post was not about German history or German culture, but about American history and culture--specifically, this:

I think one of [Americans'] saving graces--perhaps our only saving grace--is that we have a certain skepticism, not only of our leaders, but of veneration of leaders, that makes us unable to treat them with that much unquestioning loyalty, and eventually we do what we can to get rid of the bastards--even if we let them cause a hell of a lot of damage during their tenure in office.

In other words, if American attitudes towards political leaders were as servile, blind and fawning as German attitudes towards political leaders, we might very well have united behind George Bush in 2001, adopted a single-party system, and begun calling him "my leader." And that would have wrought even greater destruction and suffering than we subjected ourselves and the world to during his eight years in office. So we--and the rest of the world--can only thank the powers that be that the creators of the US Constitution purposely built into our government a skepticism of leaders that makes attitudes like the Germans had for their leaders impossible for Americans.

The world would be much a better place if Germans had possessed some of that skepticism in the 1930s, whatever the reasons they didn't.

Got it?

I forgot that the United States was the center of the world. You stated how funny it sounded for Germans to say 'Mein Fuhrer', I was merely suggesting a knowledge of German culture and history would help. They had always had a Kaiser, or Holy Roman Emperor, or tribal chieftains. We, the U.S., have been blessed with two vast oceans on either side of us. The Germans never had that luxury.
While we're on the subject, perhaps you can help me. I've been searching without success for a vintage drama film about Hitler that portrays him sympathetically and from the German point of view. PBS aired it once, years ago, on their local station on the UHF here in Atlanta at least once.
I think it was made in either 1939 or '40, or perhaps even right after the war. I'm fairly certain that it was a foreign film. The setting was mostly in the Berghoff and the film was in b&w.
I can't find it anywhere on the web, even at pbs.org. It was a fascinating film because it portrayed Hitler as a passionate visionary. Although it's difficult for us to see Hitler this way, intellectually it was a refreshing portrayal since all we ever really see of Hitler the man is really Hitler the monster. Whether we like it or not, Adolf Hitler was a human being, with all the complex personality foibles, idiosynracies, and contradictions that that implies.
I think that's one reason he is almost always portrayed as a foaming-at-the-mouth rabid monster. It's because we haven't come to terms with the fact that he was one of us, a human being.

I forgot that the United States was the center of the world. You stated how funny it sounded for Germans to say 'Mein Fuhrer', I was merely suggesting a knowledge of German culture and history would help. They had always had a Kaiser, or Holy Roman Emperor, or tribal chieftains. We, the U.S., have been blessed with two vast oceans on either side of us. The Germans never had that luxury.

o jesus h christ.

First of all, what the hell does proximity to an ocean have to do with a nation's attitude towards authority? England, after all, is an island, and it still had a monarch, plus that entire class system that is JUST SO WACKY. A number of nations with shorelines have managed to have centuries of despotic rule. Consider China. Or Japan until the end of WWII.

Second, I did more than say "how funny it sounded for Germans to say 'Mein Fuhrer'," and you failed to take that into account, which is one reason your comment was ultimately irrelevant. You are correct that you did nothing more than "merely suggesting a knowledge of German culture and history would help."

But help what? Help make the practice morally or intellectually defensible? That's what's really at stake here.

It was a fascinating film because it portrayed Hitler as a passionate visionary. Although it's difficult for us to see Hitler this way, intellectually it was a refreshing portrayal since all we ever really see of Hitler the man is really Hitler the monster.

Hitler's "passionate vision" included the enslavement or murder of everyone who was not racially pure by his definition. The fact that he was a "passionate visionary" in no way exonerates or dilutes his vast moral hideousness. Duh.

While we're on the subject, perhaps you can help me find said "refreshing" movie.

Given that you seem to think my knowledge of German culture and history is so inadequate, it's remarkable that you would ask for my help in doing your research.

One movie I would suggest you watch, however, is "Judgment at Nuremberg," in which the character played by Spencer Tracy points out that the crimes on trial at Nuremberg were committed by ordinary and indeed extraordinary men, not by monsters.

So if you believe that that one reason Hitler "is almost always portrayed as a foaming-at-the-mouth rabid monster" is "because we haven't come to terms with the fact that he was one of us, a human being," you can speak for yourself. Some of us have. Some of us are aware of humanity's collective ability to embrace evil, which is why we value so highly safeguards that help us refrain from becoming monsters ourselves.

Leave a comment

Pages

OpenID accepted here Learn more about OpenID
Powered by Movable Type 5.12

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Holly published on February 26, 2008 2:57 PM.

Fourth Album, Seventh Tree was the previous entry in this blog.

Apparently Fake Drugs Work Just As Well, Unless You're REALLY Depressed is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.