Tuesday, April 19, 2005

What would Hitler do?

I saw the Hitler bunker bio-pic "Der Untergang" (Downfall) the other day. Not surprisingly to myself, I got deeply engaged and left the theater heavy of both heart and mind. Not long afterward I wondered why I care so much about Hitler and the Nazis, feeling I could be making much better use of my reflective time. I do believe the Germans were people just like you and me, and that perhaps on every other paper route there's somebody with a mind that ticks a lot like Hitler's. So I am a sucker for the idea that "next time" it could be us, and so we must study the past, remember it and remain vigilant for echoes--not just in our politicians and neighbors but ourselves--which I suppose is what prompts my heavy self-reflection upon encounter with books, recordings, news reels, exhibits and historical movies with Nazis in them.

And yet do I really consider myself in jeopardy of facing the moral choices of the folks in Hitler's bunker? No. I don't think the United States could be even within a decade of banning opposition parties and protest, not to mention comprehensively exterminating, exiling or denying rights to citizens classified by who their parents were (immigrant prenatals aren't citizens). I also don't expect myself to be young enough or to be of the right leanings to be eligible for Gestapo or a high office position. So why do I dwell even for a moment about the possible lessons of that bunker...if that's what I'm doing in my heavy post-movie mind. I suppose my engagement with the world of the movie might spring from the same place as other people's urge to stand on historical spots or watch reenactments...or soap operas...or limb amputations. I don't think it's just spectacle gazing or vicariousness, though. I suspect I was indulging an urge to orient against the Nazi's as a moral standard--the standard for bad. I wonder if everyone's moral compass points south. That might explain the invention of taboos, sins, the Devil and the excess of "thou shalt nots" over "thou shalts." A major flaw with using "What would Hitler do?" as my ethical guide, though, is I don't actually believe in evil--or I try not to. So to me the lessons of that bunker are contextual and all but uninterpretable. Optimism, collectivism, self-sacrifice, orientation to a distant vision of a united, happy and virtuous world, discipline, attention to detail--these Nazi bunker qualities presumably foster goodness under other circumstances. From this movie, I do think I learned finally not to blame an entire race for my personal problems, to give more credence to my generals and to give more thought to surrender over suicide. But is there really anything else to learn here?

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