Snow on Hitler's Parade

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Dec 23, 2010 9:25 AM
Snow on Hitler's Parade
BERLIN -- Berlin, Paris and London lie becalmed beneath a blanket of winter white. People come and go, talking only of snow, snow, snow. They're obsessed with the weather, as if their winters are usually balmy seasons of sunshine and warmth. They've forgotten, if only for a fortnight or so, fears of terrorism and anger over intimate pat-downs. Tourists are furious over cancelled airline flights.

Museums are the winners. People are eager to stay inside. An especially sensitive and painful exhibit is drawing crowds in Berlin, breaking taboos and reviving a lively subject that no one could have expected to be a crowd pleaser. The German Historical Museum looks at Hitler and the ways the German people embraced him. For a nation where selling "Mein Kampf" or displaying Nazi memorabilia is forbidden, there's lots about how Germans of all ranks in society participated in the rise of Adolf Hitler.

A curator emphasizes that the show is not about Hitler as a personality, but the way the Germans themselves created him. That's why it's called "Hitler and the Germans: Nation and Crime." There are photographs of adoring mothers and children writing letters of admiration and affection, fondly stitching swastikas into embroidered presents for der fuehrer.

The focus is on ordinary, everyday items, such as playing cards with pictures of the leaders of the Third Reich. Quite chilling is a portrait of an ordinary German woman painted on a canvas with words on the reverse side in Hebrew from the Torah, suggesting that the sacred book of the Jews was cruelly recycled for someone's creative destruction. A rabbi's wife tells how her daughter sat in a classroom where the teacher talked about the inferior genetic makeup of the Jews, and the child was forced to endure the taunts of her classmates.

This exhibition follows mainstream books by contemporary historians documenting the way ordinary Germans not only benefited from the confiscation of property of the Jews, but actively contributed to their isolation, exile and death. One scholar describes those ordinary Germans as "enablers, colluders, co-criminals in the Holocaust."

Last year, a holiday season exhibition in Cologne showed how the Nazis manipulated Christmas, encouraging Christmas tree ornaments and cookies fashioned of swastikas. The Nazis tried to eliminate the symbol of the star, either the six-pointed symbol of Judaism or the bright starshine on the manger of the baby Jesus.

For the most part, the churches in Germany of the Third Reich were either co-opted or silenced. The Rev. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Lutheran pastor who was a major exception, loudly defending Jews and urging Christian resistance to Hitler, was cut off in mid-sentence during a radio address two days after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. He was forbidden to write for print or to speak on the radio. He was hanged three weeks before the Nazi surrender in 1945. The Thousand-Year Reich thus lasted 12 years.

Hitler retains our fascination as much for his evil as for his ordinariness. This exhibition emphasizes that by displaying the 46 der Speigel cover stories published since 1964 (sure bets to revive dips in circulation). The exhibition often reduces Hitler to comic-book dimension, with footage from Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," which held up Hitler as an evil absurdity as early as 1940. (We were still formally at peace with Nazi Germany when it was released.)

The Germans -- unlike the Japanese and the Austrians -- have amply documented their past, assuming moral responsibility for their guilt. Chancellor Angela Merkel is able to strike a debate over immigration without acquiring the tarnish of history. When she says that "multiculturalism has failed," no one suspects that she's recalling a narrow dogmatic German "culturalism." She wants immigrants to be educated to adapt to their new country.

But German "culture" isn't what it used to be. It's been a long time since Germany was heralded as first in the arts, science or engineering. Before 1933, it had won more Nobel Prizes than any other country. By 1939, Germany had sent many of its finest minds fleeing into exile, or to the death camps -- by one estimate, 60,000 writers, artists and scientists.

Peter Watson, a British journalist, argues in his new book, "The German Genius," that it's time for the British in particular and the rest of the world in general to stop thinking of "Nazis" as the single touchstone for understanding Germany. The Germans cannot return to innocence, but they have regained dignity in taking responsibility for their past.

"There will never be a definitive and unequivocal answer to the question of how such a monstrous regime could gain ascendancy in a country as civilized as Germany," observes the newspaper Die Welt. Nevertheless, such explanations as there are can help understand dictators, past, present and, alas, the future.