Thursday, 21 January 2010

Oliver Stone's Hitler - Too Far or Not Far Enough?

Oliver Stone is sick of the good/bad narrative that has been taught in schools when it comes to Hitler and wants to redress the balance. The western world’s most famous evil dictator will be placed "in context" which means a history lesson on what was happening around him at the time - at least I gather this to be what’s happening seeing as the TV series is called Oliver Stone’s Secret History of America. The premise seems to be Stone inferring that history, environment and Politics all played a significant part in creating Hitler - that it's "cause and effect" - and it is neither true nor helpful to paint Hitler as a one off baddie.

He is, of course, in a hot water already which is precisely where he wanted to be in the first place. To be fair to Stone, he doesn’t seem to be saying that there are excuses for the atrocities Hitler committed (and others of his type as this is a series) but that there are reasons and they are not discussed often enough. He is right on that point but there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new about it either. We have long acknowledged that there is a dark side in all of us and that human beings are capable of doing terrible things when pushed to our limits. Not all of us are capable of committing genocide but to separate Hitler as if he were from another species is to cast off blame.

Maybe it’s hyperbole but much has been made in the media about how Hitler is apparently to be presented as someone who was perfectly charming in person and who took tea with his secretaries. Possibly this brings a whole new meaning to the phrase charm offensive. Some people have objected to this gentler side being shown but if this is what he did, then this is what he did. Facts are facts and shouldn’t be hidden. And neither are they likely to sway many people into thinking he was an alright chap. This is just the other end of the spectrum to those who want to eulogise Princess Diana and doesn't reflect how the majority think.

To argue that Hitler should not be related to as a fellow human being who drank tea in a civilised manner is also to deny that he is human for being violent, egotistical, power hungry and for revelling in delusions of his own, and his people’s, supremacy. If he was capable of being all of those things, we should surely be capable of understanding it. We need to be clever enough to understand this for our own survival. Personally speaking, some of the biggest shits I’ve ever met in my life have been utterly charming and I wish I’d found out earlier that this is more often than not the case.

But this aside, I suspect it will not be the programme I’d like to see made. Hitler did not operate alone but with accomplices, allies and, most worryingly of all, a seemingly complicit nation. Milgrim’s experiment perfectly illustrates how good people can do bad things and so there is nothing to say that the German people all shared Hitler’s beliefs and world view, let alone his methods of making them a reality. Individual’s consciences would have remained intact even if their actions, or lack of them, told a different story.

But the fact that they even so much as tolerated it is so far removed from most of our understanding that I would genuinely like to see it further explored whatever the terrifying possible conclusions. Where does our desire for safety in numbers, our herd mentality, and our tendancy to try to avoid cognitive dissonance, end and a moral sense of duty kick in? After all, our survival instincts should equally be roused by the proximity of violent retribution from those we wrong as they are by a fear of disobeying our immediate leader.

If Hitler was ‘of his time’ as Stone seems to suggest then his people were too and so maybe I’m doing him a disservice to suggest he is not going to open up the debate far enough. But I have a feeling that if many prospective viewers are not prepared to believe that by allowing Hitler flawed human status you do not diminish his crimes, then there is little hope of it being truly educational.

From such tragedy, what can be learned? Well, maybe that the human race is not all bad. For all the Jewish people will have endured in Nazi Germany, no Jewish equivalent to Hitler came out of this time with quite the same zeal for blame or a steely determination to eliminate further strife for his people. No-one was ‘of his time’ to quite the same level as Hitler was. Maybe that can give us all hope.

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