Humanizing Hitler

This is a thought which has needled me long enough, I believe it’s worth attempting to phrase coherently, and publicly.

A month or two ago, I watched Downfall. This film is about Hitler, and about the end of the Nazi regime as the Soviets invaded Berlin. As usual, before I chose to watch this movie I scrolled down to skim viewer comments and reviews—this was on Amazon, rather than the unfortunately review-less Netflix or similar services—and was struck that the discussion seemed to revolve around one question. Does Downfall humanize Hitler? No consensus emerged.

What has bothered me about this—bothered me enough to sit down and write—is that these commentators are debating the wrong question. The discussion I skimmed converged on two basic positions: “It doesn’t, and that’s good,” and “It does, and that’s bad.” I saw no one challenge the foundational premise of these arguments: “Humanizing Hitler is wrong.”

That premise is a moral error.

Downfall humanizes one of the most evil men of the Twentieth Century. And that’s good. The very first scene he’s in, Hitler is kind. Throughout the film, he’s intensely emotional. Sorrow, anger, hatred, fear, the lot of it. That’s good. But, importantly, Downfall does not shy away from his evil. The picture painted of Adolf Hitler in this film is not painted by an apologist. The film’s final scene—a clip interviewing the protagonist, the real woman the film centers on—emphasizes this. “How could I not have known?” she says. “We were willfully blind.”

There was real, true evil in Nazi Germany. But it was human evil. Adolf Hitler was not a demon. He was not “something else.” He was a man, born and raised by a mother and a father. He was a human. To deny this, to dehumanize the actors of the Holocaust, is to deny their moral agency. In a serious sense, it removes their responsibility. We must not deny their humanity.

Presenting villains in a human manner creates an important reminder of where that evil comes from. It also emphasizes that those around us who participate in evil are also, ultimately, human. They are the same as us. They deserve our pity.

2 thoughts on “Humanizing Hitler

  1. I agree almost completely, Austin. Humanizing people like Hitler and Stalin, and, more importantly, the people who chose to follow them adoringly helps us all recognize how easy it is to step across the line into evil. It’s as simple as saying, “Well, I don’t really agree with his beliefs on racial superiority, but I think he’d do wonders for the economy and keep the communists at bay.”

    My only nit with your piece is the last line. I’m not sure if people who willfully turn a blind eye to evil or are so morally corrupt that they can’t recognize it deserver our pity. Understanding, yes. Pity, that’s hard for me to dredge up. That’s probably my taint of evil, though. We all have one.

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    1. I considered for several minutes whether or not to delete the last sentence, after I wrote it. I wasn’t sure if I agreed with it. I’m still not sure I am, but ultimately I thought that sense of conflict was both useful and interesting.

      I know where it comes from, though – my Platonism. One of the standard arguments found in the dialogues is the impossibility of choosing what’s worse for one’s self, one’s soul, in the sense of choosing the easy route. This is, of course, patently false – look at anyone who fails to do something simple which would make their life better, like my own non-relationship with exercise.

      My relationship with Plato varies, which is why he’s interesting. But his tendency to look at morality as moral *knowledge* is intensely appealing to me, even if I find his consequent psychological critique hard to endorse. (And I think he finds it hard to endorse, too, and that that’s the point.)

      When I unconsciously said that evil men deserve our pity, I believe that rose from a spring in the sense of Luke 23: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Even if I’m not sure my rational mind believes in their ignorance…

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