The Fall of the House of Hitler: Nazi Cinema and the Third Reich 1939-45
The fall of the Third Reich possesses certain quintessential features of a gothic tale: a haunted house (state), dreary landscape (total war), sickness (anti-Semitism), a duel personality (Nazism & European Jewry), and madness (Holocaust). For all its identifiable historic events, part of the terror in the Reich’s final years (1939-45) is in its vagueness. We can say for certain is that the majority did, on some level, eaten from the völk laced cake of Hitler’s ideology. What we cannot say for certain is when the German populace started to doubt their Führer. Nazi ideology had worked to bring Germany together through propaganda and popular fascist motifs. But in the end, we begin to see through cinematographic evidence that the people of the Third Reich had witnessed the true intentions behind the mask of their Führer. The spring months of communal spirituality (gemülichkeit) had passed; the cold bitter months of disillusionment and discontent were blooming. Attempts in maintaining national cohesion is what drove Nazi propaganda, through films, such as: Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and Kolberg (1945); however, the blur between ideology and actuality was beginning to become more clear. If we can say anything with some certainty, it is that a majority of the German people had revered Hitler and ate his völk laced cake of Nazi ideology, but when did the façade diminish? When did the German people begin to regurgitate the poisonous consummation of belief? Through the course of this discussion, we will walk the dreary landscape of Hitler’s crumbling house, depicted in the above mentioned films and their history, with the hope of revealing the cataclysmic cliff between a charismatic leader and a disillusioned people.
The deliberate genocide of countless human lives is something that cannot be discussed dispassionately (Spielvogel, pg. 255). However, in the pursuit of accountable history, we can, at least, discuss among the various aspects concerning the Holocaust, albeit we must do so with empathy, sincerity, and the upmost respect for each individual life. The burden we are left with in studying and writing about these dark days in history is answering the question of what. What moved Hitler to enforce his “final solution?” What or how did the Germany people react to such a thing? Was the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe planned from the beginning, or was it simply an (de)evolution of popular thought? According to historian Jackson Spielvogel, author of Hitler and Nazi Germany, “Hitler’s ideological stance [in his manifesto, Mein Kampf, clearly] called for the elimination of the ‘evil’ Jews if the Aryan race were to survive” (pg. 256). To begin with, we can say from what we know regarding historiography, that Hitler manipulated an emotional response, an already predisposed suspension for the causes of Germany’s failure in WWI, among a post Treaty of Versailles population. That somehow, the fall of Germany was the fault of the Jew. What we cannot say is if he actually believed that Jews needed to be eliminated. However, in the end, Hitler did use “popular sentiment in Germany” (pg. 256), in essence, to eventually carry himself to power, because to some extent, the people agreed with the rhetoric that spued from the Führer’s sermonized rants. Had the people not agreed, perhaps Hitler would have never had the support to infiltrate the Weimar Republic.
This begs the question of how widespread anti-Semitism was among the German people. It could be said that there was, at least, two traditions of anti-Semitism in Germany: the religious and the political. Consider the medieval Christian opinion that the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ. Though attempts were made to convert Jews to Christianity, gradually the two became even more divided, festering a sense of fear and hatred for Jewry among thirteenth century Germany. Consider the final works of Martin Luther, who had advocated peace and love and patience, because Luther had believed that after “Christianity had been corrected by the Reformation” (Spielvogel, pg. 258), the Jews would naturally move toward conversion. When Luther became aware that the Jewish community simply did not wish to convert, regardless of Christian creed, he became indignant, increasingly impatient, angry, advocating violence and malcontent towards Jews in Germany. According to Spielvogel, “in 1543, [Luther] published a bitter tract against [the Jews] entitled The Jews and Their Lies, in which he characterized the Jews as criminals desiring world rule…and a plague to Germany” (Spielvogel, pg. 258). During the rise and continuation of the Third Reich, Luther’s poisonous words against the Jews were constantly publicized during Nazi party rallies as an “historic account” from a legendary national hero.
Secondly, consider anti-Semitism as a political beast. The power of anti-Semitism can be found in an historic account of German nationalism. From the old empirical state of 1871, Germany, even then, had a sense of misfortune to have Jews within their nation, implying that even when a Jew was to be born in Germany that does not make them a German; she is still a Jew (Spielvogel, pg. 258). According to Spielvogel, prior to WWI, political anti-Semitism did begin to decline, losing its appeal among the German people; however, during and after WWI, anti-Semitism found new soil in the hearts and minds of the German people through discontent with of the Weimar Republic, the depression, and especially among of the angry right-winged voices of the conservative German Nationals Peoples Party (Nazis). In the two areas of human rational thought, the political and the religious, anti-Semitism was equally strong and fervent; however, history also teaches us that this was not a symptom unique to Germany. So we are left to postulate the nagging question of how widespread and embedded hatred and fear of “the Jew” really was in Germany. Anti-Semitism seems to have been enough to get Hitler in power, but was it enough to follow the Führer’s “final solution,” and total war, to the very end?
Regardless of the debate between developed or naturalistic racism, the fact of the matter is, it exists in all forms and classes of society. There seems to be on some baser level a natural instinct of suspension for “the other,” those that look or act or talk different then ourselves. Here in America, we have had our own sordid tales of fear of “the other.” Consider our long history with slavery, Civil Rights, the Red Scare and McCarthyism, to name a few examples of our own brands of intolerance. However, it seems rather absurd to compare America with Nazi Germany, for obvious reasons. So, what really makes the difference between the expected levels of racism in society and the extreme, such as the case with Germany’s Third Reich, Hitler’s “final solution,” the Holocaust, and total war? Enduring a major war whilst maintaining control of the hearts and minds on the home front was the challenge, according to historian Jeremy Noakes, author of Nazism: 1919-1945 Volume 4, German Home Front in World War II, “for which [the Nazi regime] had been preparing [for] since its takeover of power in 1933” (pg.465), namely, against what Hitler and the Nazi party declared as “Jewish-Marxist agitators.” The responsibility of ensuring the people that Germany would “never again [be stabbed in the back],” fell upon the shoulders of Hitler’s minister of Propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels.
Speaking to a group of radio officials soon after his appointment as Minster of Propaganda, Goebbels related that “the mobilization of the mind is as necessary, perhaps even more necessary than the material mobilization of the nation…We did not lose [WWI] because our artillery gave out but because the weapons of our minds did not fire” (Noakes, pg. 465). Here, Goebbels is insinuating that Germany did not lose the first war because of German military efforts, but because the hearts and minds of the people had been compromised. In the early years of the Third Reich, Goebbels’ propaganda machine remained rather vague and focused primarily on instilling “military spirit” and a nationalistic pride in films such as: Triumph of the Will and Hitler Youth Quex; however, as the Second World War progressed, the function of propaganda shifted to “mobilize[ing] the energy [of] commitment of the population for the war effort and to sustain [German] moral” (Noakes, pg.466). At first, propaganda was generated to convince the population that the German aggressions carried out from 1939-41 were actually a measure of pre-emptive defense. However, even as early as 1940, and continuing through 1945, Goebbels’ propaganda effort “turned up the heat,” becoming less vague, and began to focus on, what Hitler deemed, the internal threat. In the face of probable defeat, propaganda emphasized, through literally works and cinematography, a “conspiracy orchestrated by the Jews who dominated both [war fronts]” (Noakes, pg.466). In works such as, Sozialparasitismus im Völkerleben (Social Parasitism in the Life of the Nations) and Jew Süss, the “naturalistic application of the word parasite to the Jews [blended] with the mythical images of a vampire…[as a] purely ‘scientific’ argument” (The Jewish Parasite, pg. 20-21). For Nazi instigators and propagandist, such as Alfred Rosenberg and Goebbels, the issue with the Jew was not a moral judgment, but a “biological reality” (pg. 22). For Goebbels, the goal was to convince through media, in characters such as Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, that the Jew was no more than a tentacled parasite that would gradually invade society “through the open wounds of the people, consuming their creative forces and hastening the doom of [the German population]” (pg. 22).
Jud Süss, also known as Jew Süss, was more than a racist film. According to historian Susan Tegel, the notoriety of Jud Süss derived “solely from being an antisemitic film which was [also] a box-office success” (Holocaust and the Moving Image, pg.76). The Third Reich produced nearly 1,100 featured films, of those, only 229 were credited as being propaganda. Of these, according to Tegel, “only 96 were Staatsauftragsfilme (state-commissioned films), and of them Jew Süss was one of the most important” (pg.76). Why? The early periods of Third Reich cinema, as far back as 1933, featured few Jewish tropes; in retrospect, they were the thundering backdrop to a growing storm. It wasn’t until 1940 when Germany was introduced to provocative characters, such as: Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, in his work, The Elective Other, Jew Süss was, “Nazi cinema’s most controversial and contested film, just as its director, Veit Harlan, is (next to Leni Riefenstahl) the Third Reich’s most controversial and contended filmmaker [that held the ability to] ignite fierce passions [among the people, insomuch as] it [also] became the central exhibit in [the directors] postwar trial for crimes against humanity” (pg.149-150). Jew Süss performs as Hitler’s existential partner. On one hand, the focus is forced at one target, a target that doesn’t, according to Hitler, belong in Germany, and preparing “the German populace for the ‘final solution,’ the deportation and mass murder of European Jewry” (pg.149); while on the other hand, this fabrication of “the enemy” becomes a necessity in creating a complete gemeinschaft (or gemülichkeit) reality, in other words, the Nazi could not exist without the Jew (pg. 154).
Till the very end, Jew Süss remained Joseph Goebbels’ most effect piece of propaganda manifested in the guise of provocative “historic” entertainment; suggestive in research as it was in the portrayal of, so-called, “accurate” caricatures of the other, “latterday [Dracula’s] who…infect the German corpus” (pg. 156). According the Rentschler, Jew Süss is a monstrous entity in the history of cinematography (pg.150), but for the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss was something much more sinister. The film claims historic accuracy, though generic at best, for Germany. The tale of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer was something familiar, though perhaps not easily recognizable. Jew Süss played off pre-established notions of anti-Semitism, which gave historic evidence “that penetrated surface appearances and promised to show the Jew’s ‘real face’” (pg.155), and the fate of a country who allowed Jewry to exist among its population. According to Rentschler, if we can “read this film as a Nazi fantasy, it can tell us how Germans in the Third Reich saw the other and how they defined themselves in relation to that other” (pg.154). It’s interesting to note that there are few German heroes or sympathetic characters in Nazi cinematography; however, apparently the characture Süss (Ferdinand Marian) “received fan mail from [smitten] female spectators” (pg.158).
The fantasy of Jewish “machinations [sucking] the Swabian state dry” (pg.156) can be clearly seen in the dialogue between characters Karl Alexander, Duke of Württemberg, and Süss Oppenheimer, the shifty nomad “whose preferred countenance is the masquerade” (pg.155). Towards the end of the film, during an evening of fireworks and entertainment prepared by Oppenheimer, the Duke, in a cathartic moment, asks for Süss to reveal his inner face, pleading, “Ha, what does he really look like, what does he really look like?” (154). Süss replies sarcastically, “How am I really supposed to look?” According to Rentschler, film maker Viet Harlan, in his Nazi propaganda film Jew Süss invites the audience to beg the question: who or what is the Jew? And the above scene illustrates a provoked response: according to Harlan, Jews are sadistic and cruel creatures, masters of disguise and manipulators of image, beastly and equally cunning (pg.155) who offer the German corpus an alternative self, a conjured attractiveness derived from a long “tradition of anti-Semitic projections that accompanied the rise of the German bourgeoisie” (pg.164). Upon the film’s release to the public, subsequent responses echoed “sentiment [that] Jew Süss was horrible and authentic, fantastic yet…frighteningly real” (pg.155). For the German people of the Third Reich, Jew Süss presented for them a real and lasting image of the “Jewish problem,” a problem that would need to be resolved through action set in reality, the deportation and extermination of European Jewry. According to Spielvogel, Hitler was determined to carry his Nazi ideology across Europe, establishing his own brand of New Order. For Germans on the home front, “Nazi domestic policies…were influenced by war conditions, [and] also by Hitler’s perception that Germany had collapsed in World War I because of the home front” (pg. 220). The once revered savior of Germany was becoming more and more tyrannical in his determination in not repeating the past mistakes of 1918. In September of 1939, there was a notable contrast in how the German people identified with, once again, going to war. According to Spielvogel, “in August 1914, there had been crowds cheering in the streets, a profusion of waving flags, processions, and flowers to accompany German troops marching off to war” (pg.230). But as Hitler reignited the machines of war, the people remained silent. The only sign of enthusiasm was from “devout Nazis who believed the Führer was always right and who were eager” (pg.230) for vengeance. In the face of lacking total enthusiasm and support, Hitler was even more determined to maintain morale on the home front, than, one could say, winning the war itself.
During the first years of the war (1939-41), the Nazi Blitzkrieg (rapid conquests) won many victories for Germany, and from these conquered enemies came a mass procurement of materials for war. On the home front, armament product was unnecessary, and so, the maintained production of consumer products, and the importation of grain, silk, champagne, lace, chocolate, and “other goods from occupied Europe kept the German people relatively content” (Spielvogel, pg.231). However, near the end of 1941, in the face of fighting a two front war, a change in priorities could no longer be avoidable. The cost of ultimate victory began to weigh heavily on the minds of the German people. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, was keenly aware of the growing problem. But each message of Hitler’s genius was becoming increasingly rejected in the face of continued defeat in battle. According to Spielvogel, by 1942, “Goebbels had come to believe it was time to be brutally frank with the German people about the real military situation Germany faced” (Hitler and Nazi Germany, pg.239); however, Hitler, still fearing losing control on the home front, refused Goebbles’ suggestion. The mood and morale of the German people deteriorated as rapidly as British bombs had begun to fall on German cities; war had come home to rouse discontent and disillusionment against the fracturing ideology of the Nazi regime.
In the face of Hitler’s crumbling house, Goebbels sought to transform military defeat into spiritual renewal. According to film historian Eric Rentschler, the Minster of Propaganda “painstakingly choreographed and [in] electrifying performance, he let out all the stops, rousing his listeners with a call for ‘total war,’ a comprehensive remobilization” (The Ministry of Illusion, pg.193) of both mind and spirit. The film Münchhausen premiered on Ufa’s twenty-fifth anniversary as an form of psychological escape from the 900 tons of bombs, thousands of destroyed buildings, 600 fires, 711 civilian casualties, and more than 35,000 homeless, for a shell-shocked Berlin still living in the Third Reich (Rentschler, pgs. 193-194). Münchhausen acted as a placebo, a German fantasy of sensuality, decadence, and eroticism, all the things Germany had been denied in Nazi containment and control polices, because the realities of life in the Third Reich were beginning to become unbearable; discontentment was becoming more difficult to muzzle, and the bark of the German voice desired escape.
Baron von Münchhausen, another historic transfiguration of late eighteenth and ninetieth centuries, was an “improbable first-person [narrative, sustaining] …a bizarre humor and an immodest staccato, commingling hyperbole and tongue-in-cheek” (pg.194). The Baron is always “a background player in history [parading] in the age of memorable monarchs. He becomes the lover of Catherine the Great and he is a captive at the court of the Ottoman Emperor Abdul Hamid I. Reference is [also] made to Maria Theresa of Austria and to Stanislaus II of Poland” (Peter Christensen, Baron Münchhausen and the Third Reich, pg.14). Pursued by the Inquisition, the baron commandeers a balloon, traveling upward, to the moon in what could only be described as a “Nazi Wizard of Oz, [constituting] undoubtedly…the grand exception [of traditional propaganda], so it would seem, among the feature films of the Third Reich” (Rentschler, pg.201).
According to Rentschler, “for its original audience, [Münchhausen] offered therapeutic relief, a tale about a man who masters his own destiny and marshals the march of time” (pg.195); a story about Germany eternal, a Germany in which, as the film states, “Everybody knows about…but no one really knows” (Münchhausen, 1943). With state-of-the-art wizardry, Goebbels “sought to reanimate a paralyzed nation” (pg.196) and heroize absentee fathers in the face of Baron von Münchhausen as the state, and his faithful companion, Christian Kuchenreutter, as the German fighting man.
The iconic central image of Münchhausen straddling a cannonball as it zooms through the air, turning toward the audience and tipping his hat, will forever immortalize the baron as a human projectile; Germany as a human projectile in the efforts of total war. Despite its wide and celebrated reception, Münchhausen is still a fabricated world with a “sham hero [inviting] its audiences to share the fantasy;” a desperate attempt at resuscitating the hearts and minds of the German people. According to Rentschler, the baron could be interpreted as the Third Reich’s last action hero, a ditch effort in transforming the mythic image of the Aryan race into a living reality; however, dissolving before the viewer, Münchhausen reveals the machinations of Nazi propaganda and the “hollowness of special effects…whose ultimate extension could be but one thing: the end” (pg.213).
In The Shadow of Death in Germany at the End of the Second World War, author Richard Bessel notes that “during the last year of the Second World War, more Germans died than in any other year before or since. [Essentially, by] …1945, Germany became a land of the dead” (pg.51). The most significant contributor of death for Germans was in military action, “which claimed the lives of [a] astronomical numbers of soldiers in the final stages of the war.” To say the least, death was at the very center of daily life in Germany. However, this loss of life came not in the first years of the war, but in the waning and bitter months between January, and lasting till Germany’s eventual surrender in May, of 1945. During these months, the Soviet offensive crushed the Wehrmacht from East Prussia and into southern Poland. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany was at its highest peak, cities across Germany were bombed day and night, and a few were even utterly destroyed. Of the Germans that did not die, 12 million were homeless. According to Spielvogel, out of the 21,000 antiaircraft guns and German fighter planes located throughout western Germany, none “were sufficient to stop the Allied planes. [The majority of] antiaircraft guns were manned by teenage boys and girls as more men were drained off into the army” (pg.242). In contrast to the end of WWI, when German troops still stood well beyond the borders of the Reich as they surrendered, in the last battles of WWII, both solider and civilian were still fighting and dying within Germany; according to Bessel, “the dead fell not in France or Russia, but in Berlin and Breslau” (pg.52). In a radio message from a Heinrich Himmler, the acting Supreme Commander of the Replacement Army, to the Governor of Lower Bavaria, the following orders were given:
“The Reichsführer SS issues the following instructions… [you are to] maintain a stubborn, uncompromising determination to carry on [and] where there is a white flag…all the male persons of the house concerned are to be shot. There must be no hesitation in carrying our these measures” (Noakes, Vol. 4, pg.658).
And, according to Bessel, in the final months, “the Nazi regime made a point of displaying the corpses of ‘cowards’ so that all could see” (pg.53). Günter Grass, recalling some sixty years after the fall of the house of Hitler, as a seventeen year old boy in the Waffen-SS, that “The first dead that I saw were not Russians, but Germans. They were hanging from the trees; many of them were my age” (Bessel, pg.53). Such public death was not the only method the Third Reich used to manipulate the German population. An entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary articulates the spawn of total war, in a confession of sorts, just a few weeks before his own suicide, that “we must always lead the German people back to the basic thesis of how we wage war and make it clear to them that they have no other choice but to fight or to die” (Bessel, pg.54).
As German civilians began becoming accustomed to living in bombed out building and air-raid shelters, propaganda films, such as Jew Süss and Münchhausen, effectively lost their appeal, especially as more and more theaters were being destroyed by Allied bombs, and as the Allied forces, on both fronts, began to become closer and closer to Berlin. Goebbles’ propaganda films in 1945, including Kolberg, were only effective insomuch as in their actual predictions of the coming horrors that awaited Germany, especially German women. According to author Atina Grossmann, in her article, A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Occupation Soldiers, “Goebbels’ propaganda – for once – turned out to be correct… [In later accounts] many women reported feeling that they were reenacting a scene in a film they had already seen when the drama they were expecting actually unfolded: soldiers with heavy boots, unfamiliar faces, and shining flashlights entered a darkened cellar, searched for weapons and watches, and then revolver in hand, commanded the proverbial, ‘Frau, Komm’” (pg.52). By 1945, in the wake of the encroaching Red Army, such depictions as above, and other sordid accounts of rape, were becoming widely publicized; a shared collective experience during an event of general crisis, both horrific in nature and frightful in execution (pg. 53).
Released on the anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power, January 30, 1945, Kolberg came at a time when all of Germany knew “the war was long-since lost” (Culbert, pg.449). Kolberg was one of the last propaganda films to come from the desperate mind of Joseph Goebbels: a cinematic justification for complete and utter total war. Goebbels spared no expense, pulling out all the stops, in what would obviously be one of the last propaganda films in his ministry. The actors’ performance was as superbly as if it were their last, as was the case for Heinrich George, who performed in such films as: Metropolis (1927), Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex), and Jew Süss, who would later die in a Soviet concentration camp in September of 1946. Thousands of soldiers were pulled from the front lines as extras to give aid to Veit Harlan’s vision of exaggeration, an artistic depiction of the courage and strength and unity of the German population in the face of such desperate situations (Culbert, pg.451), carrying the message to never surrender. In a speech made by the passionate character Nettelbeck to a despondent Gneisenau, he pleads, “We know every stone, every corner, every house. We won’t surrender even if we have to claw the ground with our nails. In Kolberg we don’t give up. They’ll have to cut off our hands or slay us one by one” (Kolberg, 1945). Yet even Kolberg could not turn the tide. Hitler’s house had fallen. The once revered leader of the Third Reich, on January 16, 1945, hid in what would be known as simply, the Bunker: his final wartime headquarters, which would later become his tomb. In his last testament, Hitler continued with the same arguments, that “international Jewry would eventually be seen as the culprit” (Spielvogel, pg.217). And on April 30, he and Eva Brown, his recently wed wife, committed suicide, their bodies were quickly burned, per Hitler’s request, and one week later, on May 7, the remaining forces of Germany surrendered unconditionally.
We know how the story ends. Through such films as: Triumph of the Will (1934), Hitler Youth Quex (1933), La Habanera (1937), Jew Süss (1940), Münchhausen (1943), and finally, Kolberg (1945), (to name a few) we are given a sneak peek behind the curtain of how effective Nazi propaganda played in the hearts and minds of the German people. Arguably, we can assume that there was indeed widespread support and acceptance of Hitler’s Nazi ideology and anti-Semitism among the lives of the common Völk. The first three films mentioned above illustrate the acceptance of aesthetic fascism, the indoctrination of youth, and the importance of obedient mothers within the development of the Third Reich, in the guise of “genuine” entertainment. However, beginning with Jew Süss, Hitler’s Iron Gate had begun to close ever so tightly. Jew Süss gave the German people a collective and singular enemy to focus their discontent and anger. Münchhausen was the first of many attempts in distracting the Germany population to the realities of war.
However, as we reach the dawning months of 1945, films like Kolberg depicted Goebbles’ last attempt to provoke mass suicide in fighting to the last man, woman, and child; all the horrors of total war. It was during these moments during the war in which the German people, the once exalted and mighty Völk, regurgitate the poisonous conception of belief in their Führer’s ideology nightmare. As Allied forces marched through the streets of Berlin, most Germans welcomed them with a sigh of relief, but as they began to look around them, I’d imagine they probably recalled the promises the Führer had made: that he would win the heart of the world, but to do so, he would need Germany to play their part. Mass death was no doubt traumatic for Germany. However, in a way, it was also opportune excuse; creating on one hand deep imprints of brutality and death that lingered in a postwar culture, and on the other hand, the trauma was, one could say, an easy space goat in avoiding the memories of their overall involvement in the criminality of the Third Reich. Either way, Germany paid the high price of Hitler’s Third Reich in the coming years of the Cold War. The German people had given Hitler everything, and they likewise enjoyed, for a time, the sweet depravity of the völk laced cake, for if anything, Hitler’s ideology did create a seemingly unified gemeinschaft, but at what cost? Upon the ashes of Hitler’s fallen house, and the stink of millions lost, within the second half of the twentieth century, somehow the German people were able to rebuild themselves from the wreckage, something resembling a “normal” peaceful society.