Historians would agree that in Adolf Hitler’s last days, as he cowered in his bunker and the Red Army advanced, the fuhrer lost his head — commanding movements of troops that did not exist, raging at perceived betrayal schemes, drugged out and tripping out.
On Saturday, Hitler literally lost his head when only the second customer at the new Madame Tussauds museum in Berlin tussled with security, then ripped waxy Hitler’s head off.
The pouty-faced, dour, rumpled-hair likeness of Hitler was unveiled in a press tour on Thursday, stoking controversy about the appropriateness of having pre-suicide, bunker-refugee Hitler sit hunched over his desk among wax figures of politicians and sports heroes. The media caught the “before” pictures of the wax likeness; I, and many others, would have loved to see the “after” pictures of the headless Hitler.
In response to the debate over Hitler’s inclusion in the display, Tussauds decided to relegate Hitler to his pathetic bunker display to try to allay concerns. Among those concerns is German law, which prohibits the display of Nazi symbols or regalia. In other words, Prince Harry the fancy-dress-party Nazi would have been in trouble had he costumed up for a Berlin bash.
Tussauds has decided to tack Hitler’s head back rather than say “auf wiedersehen” to the exhibit, but the fact of the matter remains: We can in no way, shape, or form allow this monster to be glorified. Yet in no way, shape, or form can we forget what he was and what he did. Learning from this hideous past is, after all, so crucial to spotting and stopping the tyrants of our present and future.
The headless Hitler story reminded me of the controversy over the movie Downfall, which was nominated in 2005 for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The movie has an intense focus on Hitler’s last days in the bunker, with Bruno Ganz delivering an astounding performance as the dictator in the depths of not just the earth, but his paranoia as well. In a particularly disturbing scene, Magda Goebbels calmly kills off the family’s six children one by one rather than live in a country without National Socialism.
Yet the film was criticized in many circles for showing Hitler as too human: He was nice to his dog (until Blondi got force-fed a cyanide caplet as a test subject) and kind to his secretaries (until something set him off — something he would invariably peg on traitors, Jews, Russians, etc.)
David Denby of the New Yorker wrote, “We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did?” Roger Ebert directly responded to Denby in his own four-star review of Downfall, writing, “I do not feel the film provides ‘a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did,’ because I feel no film can, and no response would be sufficient. All we can learn from a film like this is that millions of people can be led, and millions more killed, by madness leashed to racism and the barbaric instincts of tribalism.”
“There is still a powerful taboo against making him seem too much like one of us,” A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote. “We want to get close, but not too close.”
It’s crucial to remember, though, that evil people display human characteristics that make it possible to hoodwink the masses, draw in admirers, or get a slap on the wrist from the world’s powers that be. After all, Idi Amin threw cool parties. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sends out “Merry Christmas” messages. Pol Pot had a friendly smile — a killer smile, really, because a summary execution would likely follow the grin.
Undoubtedly, the film came under heavier scrutiny because it was made by Germans, and critics the world round would be watching to see if the filmmakers did their country’s own dark past justice. War wounds still run deep, as evidenced by the handful of Knesset members who boycotted the recent address of German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a committed foe of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel hysteria.
Those who suffered under the Nazi regime would understandably have little interest in seeing such a film, as was the controversy when it was released in Israel. But the people who really needed to see a movie such as Downfall are those who never suffered under the hands of Hitler.
By not only remembering the past but striving to learn from it, we can hopefully have our eyes open enough to recognize and stop those who would continue along Hitler’s destructive route. We need to not only see how evil Hitler was; we need to recognize that human beings are capable of such evil, and Hitler wasn’t the last one. We need to see how a country bought into the Nazi philosophy and followed their charismatic leader without question.
We need to remember how easy it is for the global community — and its often hapless leaders — to lose its head and turn the other way when forced to confront utter evil.
Case in point: The man who ripped off Hitler’s head was an anti-war activist. How did he feel about the war to oust genocidal Saddam Hussein?