Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Here Is Germany (U.S., 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I ran Here Is Germany, a U.S. propaganda film that I recently downloaded from, along with quite a lot of material on Hitler, the Nazis and World War II — some of it posted from a Holocaust denier who argued that Hitler was really a Zionist (which is not quite as crazy as it sounds: Adolf Eichmann said that within the Nazi circles he originally argued for deporting the Jews as an alternative to killing them — though he wanted to settle them in Madagascar, not Palestine — but when Hitler and Eichmann’s direct superiors, Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, ordered extermination as a policy Eichmann enthusiastically went along and implemented it) and even posted the infamous propaganda film The Führer Gives the Jews a City — about the so-called “model” concentration camp at Theresienstadt, virtually all of whose inmates were sent to Auschwitz as soon as the filming was finished — and presented it at face value! Of course, Here Is Germany was produced by the U.S. to prepare its soldiers for the postwar occupation of Germany (though, according to whoever posted it to, it was never actually used for that purpose), and it was directed by Frank Capra and written by him and Anthony Veiller (who also narrated) with quite a different perspective and propagandistic intent.

It begins with a series of bucolic images of Germany’s beauty, both natural and architectural, and footage of ordinary Germans in the streets and on the farm (there’s a marvelous Millet-like image of a German farmer sowing seeds by hand) — and then the narrator’s tone turns a lot nastier (indeed, the voice sounds so different I’m not sure whether it was Veiller or someone else) as the film cuts to images of the death camps, the victims who were killed and the incredibly emaciated but barely alive ones who were found when the camps were opened, along with footage of the war itself and other clips documenting Germany’s evil. What’s most fascinating about this movie is that it treats the Nazis not as an aberration in German history but as merely the latest in a series of German leaders who have pushed the idea that Germans are the world’s “master race,” that they have the right to rule the world, and they have the right to start wars and grab anyone else’s land that they can in order to extend German rule as far as possible no matter how much “collateral damage” that does to anyone else. The Capra-Veiller narration traces this strain in German history from Frederick the Great through Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm II and finally Hitler, whom it describes not as a natural leader or organizer but as a mere stooge of the German Junkers, the Prussian nobility and military class, who had preached German superiority and world domination for generations but needed a front to hide behind when they sought power again after Germany’s defeat of World War I and the resulting Treaty of Versailles.

This was actually quite a common, indeed mainstream, position in American ideology as World War II wound down and was clearly going to result in an Allied victory — on one of Kino on Video’s DVD’s of Erich von Stroheim’s films there was a bonus track, a 1944 U.S. government-sponsored radio broadcast called “The High Command” in which Stroheim played a leader in the Prussian High Command which was plotting ways to stay in power even after the defeat of the Nazi regime. It was reflected most powerfully in the so-called Morgenthau Plan — after Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury under Franklin Roosevelt — which called for returning Germany to a pre-industrial state of civilization and allowing it to be only an agricultural and “pastoral” country. The narration for this film argues that the Weimar Republic had failed because Germans simply weren’t capable of democracy; it also states that one of the big mistakes the winners of World War I had made was allowing the German army to march back into Berlin and Germany’s other major cities in triumph, as if it had won the war instead of losing it, and argues that this was the basis of the “stab in the back” myth that German arms could have won the war if corrupt “democratic” politicians hadn’t sold it and the country out. It contrasts the footage of the German army marching through German cities at the end of World War I with the footage of Allied occupiers marching through German cities at the end of World War II. Here Is Germany sometimes engages in the unwitting hypocrisy many propagandists fall into — when it depicts the Nazi takeover it shows the Nazis burning books (footage Joseph Goebbels, in one of his rare propaganda miscalculations, made sure was distributed worldwide in hopes the world would be impressed by the Nazis’ resolution — instead people outside Germany were horrified) and we’re clearly meant to disapprove, while at the end it shows the occupation forces burning Nazi flags and regalia and we’re meant to approve.

What’s interesting about this is how quickly the line changed, especially as the Soviet Union emerged as the principal threat to the U.S. in the postwar world and America’s rulers decided that a strong, non-Nazi, non-Communist conservative German state would be a necessary buffer between the U.S.S.R. and the rest of Western Europe — so the Allies, especially the Americans, pulled back on the harsh anti-German measures this film was advocating. They cancelled the war-crimes trials after 1952, they let ex-Nazis back into the (West) German government and they gave up on trying to hold the Germans accountable for punishing their war criminals. (I recently read Neal Bascomb’s Hunting Eichmann, which included the explanation that the reason Eichmann wasn’t prosecuted by West Germany was that, though there was at least one aggressive state’s attorney who wanted to, he couldn’t trust the justice system in general not to let Eichmann off and even to sympathize with him on some level.) On one hand the new line worked — West Germany became a functioning and long-lasting representative democracy, and when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 it absorbed the former East Germany with some economic dislocations but a smooth transition politically — and on the other hand, West Germany (the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, the formal name of the West German state pre-1990 and of all Germany now) built its economy so successfully that its current chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been successful to do with purely economic means what Bismarck, Wilhelm II and Hitler failed to do by force of arms: namely, subject all Europe (at least that part of it that uses the Euro currency) to German control.