Thursday, September 01, 2011

Thoughts About "Third Reich: The Rise & Fall"

This was the name of a recent 4-hour documentary on the History Channel in two parts - split between the rise of the Nazi Party, and it's fall.

I watched the first part today and was totally blown away.  Let me just say at the outset that if you have any interest in history in general, and the World War II era in particular, or if you are one of the many people who have ever wondered how the Germans could have let Hitler come to power, this is an absolute must-see.

The entire two-hour episode, from the first minute to the last minute, consists of historical video footage.  Unlike typical documentaries, which consist of still images and diagrams shown with narration, interviews with experts and eye-witnesses, and re-enactments of historical events, this documentary consists entirely of real video footage of Nazi Germany.  The producers use everything from news reel footage and Nazi propaganda movies, to amateur films and private home videos.  Some of the video footage has never before been shown on American television, and several of the pieces are still banned to this day in Germany (such as the propaganda film "Triumph of the Will," which was released in 1935).

In addition to narration, the episode includes dozens of relevant quotes from journalists, writers, diarists, and letter writers from the era, both pro- and anti-Nazi.

Because of these personal quotations, and especially because of the non-stop, period video footage, you feel - as the viewer - as though you are right there inside it, experiencing it first hand, rather than sitting back and having the story told to you second hand.  The narration aids in this, because the narrator frequently starts new sections with phrases like: "If you had been a German in Berlin, in February of 1934, you would have...," and so on.  It really draws you in, makes you see things through the perspective of the time.  It's a highly effective documentary technique.    

In short, the episode looks not at the political machinations behind Hitler's rise to power, but instead attempts to address the questions of why and how the German people allowed this to happen.  In that sense, it's not a political or military documentary per se, but instead provides a much more personal, sociological, and psychological view of the situation than what you typically find in documentaries and books discussing the rise of Nazism.

I think this documentary struck home so much with me because this very question - how could this have happened - is the primary question I was left with earlier in the year when I finished reading Herman Wouk's epic novels on World War II, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance."  I think when most Americans consider things like the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the genocide in Somalia in the 1990's, they just assume that things like that are prone to happen in backwater, third-world nations.  Much more difficult to understand is how Hitler and the Nazis - and all the terrible things they perpetrated - could have happened in a modern, industrialized, well-educated, Christian, western European nation.  And if it happened there, could it happen here?

That question has been raised practically since the Nazis first came to power.  I'm reminded of a Sinclair Lewis novel from about 1937 called "It Can't Happen Here," which fictionalized the rise of Fascism in America.  I don't think it was Lewis's best book from a fiction standpoint, but the question he addressed was definitely a relevant one.

Some may argue that it's not relevant today.  Sure, it's disturbing that this could happen in a western European country populated by well-educated Christians who were basically decent people.  But then again, this was 80 years ago, so it's not exactly a pressing concern, or necessarily analogous to the world today.

I would agree, of course, that we probably aren't in any danger from neo-Nazis or neo-Fascists.  They have been effectively stamped out and sent underground, much like the Ku Klux Klan and other racist organizations.  But on a much broader level, we have to ask whether or not we, too, like the Germans of the 1930's, could ever let extremism - in whatever form - take control where we live.

This, I think, is the important question, and I think Germany of the 1930's is terribly relevant and analogous in this regard.  In a general sense, it certainly seems to me that extremism is on the rise, both in this country and around the world.  The Tea Party movement is an example of this.  Of course I'm not saying that Tea Party activists are Nazis who want to commit genocide or take over the world.  In fact, the Tea Party, from a political standpoint, couldn't be more unlike National Socialism under the Nazis.  Nevertheless, the Tea Party is an extreme, nationalistic response to a perceived crisis in government and culture, just as Nazism was an extreme, nationalistic response to a perceived crisis in government and culture.

What is even more disturbing to me than political activists who want to virtually eliminate the powers of the federal government, are the individuals loosely associated with the Tea Party movement who have much more insidious opinions and views.  I can't tell you how often I've heard people lament at all the Spanish they hear spoken around them all the time, and how they have to choose which language they want on an automated phone menu or ATM machine.   I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about how we need to shore up immigration and stop the flow of people across the border, whether illegal or otherwise.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about the loss of American values, corruption of the Constitution and the principles of the Founding Fathers, and the secularization of society.

All of these things stink of extremism, and have parallels in the Nazi movement as well as many other extremist movements throughout history.  Among the so-called "25 Points" of Hitler's National Socialist movement were clauses about shoring up immigration, returning to the principles of German law and customs, and advocating Christianity as a uniting religious principle to undermine secularism.

I tend not to be an alarmist.  I tend not to assume that events in the world spell looming and imminent disaster.  I think people who have "survival kits" at home are ridiculous (I heard a show about this the other day on a public radio call-in show, and I swear to God the people calling in sounded like they actually can't wait for some horrible disaster to befall the country so they can play Survivorman).  But I have been feeling increasingly concerned in recent weeks and months about the general undercurrent in America these days.  There is something decidedly insidious about many of the attitudes and opinions I encounter in daily life and how widespread they seem to be.

Mistrust of scientists in general, and scientific principles in particular, is especially disconcerting.  In a 2009 Gallup Poll, only 39% of Americans affirmed that they believe in evolution (of course, using the phrase "believe in" regarding a scientific principle is ridiculous and just shows how totally distorted by religion the issue has become, but that's beside the point).  Among regular church goers, the number dropped to 24%.  Granted, a significant number of people - nearly 1 in 3 - answered "no opinion."  But the very fact that 1 in 3 Americans could claim "no opinion" on something as basic as evolution is disturbing in its own right, and I suspect that anyone who would claim "no opinion" is basically saying they aren't sure - in other words, they have doubts.  It's a little like claiming "no opinion" on whether you "believe in" the theory of gravity.

In June of this year, a New York Times poll found that 64% of Americans agree that global warming is happening.  However, only 47% agree that human activity is the leading cause.  Perplexingly, 76% said they trusted the scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Of course, the NOAA strongly asserts that global warming is real and is primarily caused by human activity, so one has to wonder why people claim to trust them, but don't actually trust their conclusions.  This, of course, simply shows that many people simply don't know what they are talking about.  

Even more than this mistrust and misinformation regarding basic scientific principles, is the rise in recent years of extremist religious views in America.  America has always had a lot of crazy-ass fundamentalist Christians.  No one is disputing that.  But they are becoming more and more vocal and are beginning to infiltrate some of the highest offices in the country.  This is not so surprising, considering that religion, as a whole, is on the decline.  In 2010, for instance, 20% of respondents in a Gallup poll said that religion was "not important" in their lives.  That's the highest ever since the question was first asked in 1992 (that year, it was 12%).  Similar polls show that in 2010, 61% of Americans were member of a church or synagogue.  However, only about 40% of them attended regularly.  In 1992, 70% were members, with nearly 45% attending regularly.  

Despite this, the same Gallup polls show that Christians who consider themselves "evangelical" or "born again" Christians (which, of course, is a nice way of saying "fundamentalist Christians") are actually increasing in number.  In 1992, 36% of Christians claimed to be evangelical, with nearly 60% of Christians saying they were not evangelical Christians.  By 2010, evangelicals had risen to 42%, with non-evangelicals dropping to 53%.

I would argue that this illustrates my argument - religion as a whole may be on the decline, but extremist forms of religion are actually on the rise.

Well, I've managed to take this post in an unexpected direction.  I hadn't originally intended to go off on this tangent about modern American perspectives on science and religion.  But I think it's a good exercise in understanding why I am feeling increasingly alarmed at the mood in modern America, and the general undercurrent of extremism.  And this whirlpool has been stirred by watching this incredibly well-made documentary on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in 1930's Germany.  Look for it on the History Channel and DVR it or something.  It's worth watching.

Also, thanks to the Rev for suggesting, via Joseph Campbell, that I cut off my head.  It seems to have worked :)  


Anonymous said...

I have always been interested / appalled at the way the church went along with the Nazi party. Bonhoffer especially was critical not so much on how the church openly endorsed the German leadership but how they didn't openly oppose it. The question you raised about the evangelical connection, which I agree seems more open to adopt a particular, and usually right-leaning political platform, had me thinking as to what the percentage would've been in Germany. The political agenda support of religious groups certainly does seem to be particularly from the evangelical side, though our denomination tends to balance that we tend to support (for better, for worse) agendas on both sides of the aisle ... ah, can't comment all day, but let me say you stir up a lot of food for thought in this one. I think we had the program on a couple of weeks back, but we were kinda looking for something to escape to, not to bum us out, so I think we ended up with a Law and Order marathon.

My needle and thread said...

Funny that you should post this, I am reading a book about the new American ambassador to Germany in 1933. It is extremely interesting to see the description of the attitude of Americans to the happenings in Germany. Everyone was so afraid to say what was really happening and people didn't want to believe even what they saw with their own eyes. Makes me very afraid. (But I do love me a Hitler!!)

Scott said...

Herman Wouk discusses this at length in Winds of War. Around the world, people tended to see Hitler as a ridiculous caricature, but they also thought it was good that Germany was getting back on its feet. They weren't comfortable with the Jewish thing, but they also didn't care that much. Most Americans were, after all, anti-Semitic on one level or another. Most importantly, they didn't really think it could be as bad as some people were saying. This was a Christian, western European nation after all! It can't happen here!

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