Hitler. A name that for much of the world connotes absolute evil. But that name is burnt into history in such a way that we continue to struggle with the legacy that left millions dead. Petra Epperline and Michael Tucker bring us The Meaning of Hitler, a film framed by the 1987 book by Sebastian Haffner. The film is not so much an attempt to discover the meaning of Hitler in history as it is trying to understand why that worldview, something we see as so evil, continues in many ways in today’s world.
The filmmakers began the project during the time of the UK voting on Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and rising nationalist and anti-immigrant movements in many places. There was a very clear shift going on in the world that reached something of an apex at Charlottesville, and the rally of the extreme right that featured Nazis prominently. Since that time comparisons to fascism and Nazis have flown in accusations (going towards both the right and the left). Trump was often compared to Hitler. Was that a fair comparison?
The film begins with an interview with writer Martin Amis, who talks about the similarities (and the dissimilarities) of the two. It follows Hitler’s life and career through comments by a series of historians (including both the Hitler apologist David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt, whom Irving sued for libel [cf. the film Denial]) who shed light on the history and the present from different perspectives.
The film looks at Holocaust denial, the return of anti-Semitism in various forms, and the ways history is being rewritten so that the very concept of truth is being questioned. The film even questions whether a film such as itself can really find the truth amidst so much conflicting opinions and the rhetoric that fills everything around Hitler and his legacy.
Until a few years ago, I might have thought that the world had moved past that ugly period in our history. But like the filmmakers, I too have been shocked, deeply saddened, and at times angered by the growing sentiments (that I especially notice in my own country) that parallel the kind of authoritarian nationalism that was such a key part of Nazism. And while the filmmakers point out, Trump is not Hitler, they also point out the many ways Trump has used very similar techniques.
The fact that we do makes those comparisons, justly or not, between Hitler and modern situations (that are not limited to the US), is the reason that this film is needed. It allows us a chance to question the rhetoric of both sides. More important, it allows us to see ourselves in an evolving historical moment that may well lead either away or closer to the kinds of abuses of the past. If we associate Hitler with absolute evil, will these comparisons change the way we see that evolving world?
The Meaning of Hitler is in select theaters and available on VOD.
Photos courtesy of IFC Films.