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.