Director Petra Epperlein’s latest documentary, The Meaning of Hitler, wrestles with some thorny dilemmas. The first of these dilemmas involves the use of images. The written word moves slowly. Words require time to be composed by an author and contemplated by a reader. Images seduce the masses much faster. The Nazis were well aware of the power behind images—uniforms, rallies, swastikas, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Therein lies the problem confronted by Epperlein: How to make a documentary about Hitler without expanding the Nazi visual universe, without adding to Hitler’s mythology. The second dilemma—the one dealt with by the source material used by Epperlein, Sebastian Haffner’s book, The Meaning of Hitler—is contained in the title; it involves Hitler’s meaning as a human to other humans. Was Hitler a success, a failure, a bit of both?
Hitler was a failure for most of his life—art school reject, quasi-Incel characteristics, and political obscurity. Sure, there would be eventual political success and many Germans even attributed Germany’s economic revival to Hitler. But this “success” was quickly erased after his murder of millions and his reckless foreign policy—a foreign policy resulting in the destruction of Germany and its eventual division. On a balance, one can say that Hitler was a loser. That, however, leads Epperlein to a third dilemma: Correctly labelling Hitler as a loser runs the risk of minimizing the atrocities he committed.
The next dilemma is perhaps the one most familiar to any who have thought about Hitler even in passing: Was he suffering from some type of psychopathology or was he within the spectrum of what can be labelled “normal?” This may be the toughest dilemma to solve. It is impossible to diagnose the dead. Sure, there were many documented instances of Hitler displaying suicidal ideation, but this is far from being a psychopathology. Was he a narcissist in the clinical sense? Perhaps. Historical records indicate that even Mussolini found Hitler insufferably full of himself. The problem is that we can assign a degree of narcissism to any public or political figure. Epperlein does not aim to definitively solve these dilemmas. What The Meaning of Hitler does very effectively is ask questions in a clear and direct manner. By asking the right questions, and admitting that ultimate answers may never be had, Epperlein at least clears a path for us inside the forest.
One could hypothesize that Hitler’s failures were projected onto others—Jews, communists, women—in the form of hatred and violence. What we do know for certain, and what Epperlein does a great job of reminding us, is that Hitler came onto the scene precisely when certain technologies were becoming widespread. Microphones and radios allowed his words to project at rallies and come into homes. Films and cinemas allowed for the dissemination of Nazi propaganda. Hitler hit upon the right messaging for segments of the German population desperate for their identity to be reaffirmed. Nationalism was a resonant message for a country humiliated by its WWI defeat. Also, conservatives, the elite, the professional class, and even segments of the working class found comfort in his promise to eradicate communists. The Meaning of Hitler certainly reminds us of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s insights into the banality of evil. Germans did not suffer from mass psychopathology.
They were just everyday people seduced by someone promising order and a return to greatness for Germany—an unfortunate and too common phenomenon that seems to recycle itself, as in the case of Make America Great Again. The Meaning of Hitler also reminds us of psychologist and theorist Erich Fromm’s diagnosis of twentieth-century society. Pre-Industrial societies certainly lacked freedom, but at the same time, found identity anchored within religion, guild, and profession. Post-Industrial-Revolution societies gained freedom, but with that freedom, felt anxiety over their loss of meaning and identity. Nationalism and race offered perverted identity anchors and eased anxiety. By stigmatizing others, Hitler provided a sense of identity for an in-group.
The Meaning of Hitler is absolutely not in the same category as shows on The History Channel that deal with WWII. Those stale shows present history as compartmentalized segments that occurred long ago in faraway places. Epperlein’s documentary continually brings us to our present; it examines the contemporary revival of far-right extremism. Holocaust deniers, Holocaust denial tours, pilgrimages to Nazi sights, new far-right parties, Charlottesville, and the role of Twitter and Facebook in the dissemination of hate are all considered by Epperlein. Perhaps thinking about the meaning of Hitler is a crucial first step in identifying future authoritarians and warding off their seductions.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.