A new drama that presents an alternative account of Adolf Hitler’s formative years is raising fresh concerns about television’s fascination with the Nazi dictator.
The television mini-series being made by the German producers behind Downfall promises to present Hitler in a new way. The series is based on a book by the historian Dr Thomas Weber, who also acts as a consultant on the series.
What made Weber’s book, Hitler’s First War, groundbreaking was the way it shattered long accepted myths about Hitler’s experiences during the First World War.
“Previously, people had thought that the story of how Hitler became Hitler, that Hitler himself had told, was, at its core, true,” Weber says. “People said that obviously Hitler exaggerated, lied and embellished, but that the core of what he said was correct. The point of my book was to say ‘No, the core is actually wrong’.”
Hitler portrayed himself as a conscientious and heroic soldier. In keeping with Weber’s book, the new television drama – simply entitled Hitler – will reveal this wasn’t the case at all.
When he returned from the war, Weber suggests, the future Führer was still an awkward loner. His political views weren’t formed. He wasn’t particularly anti-Semitic. The drama will reveal how the lies he told about his wartime experiences became a political tool that he used for the rest of his life.
Jan Mojto, the boss of Beta Film, the German company behind Downfall which is producing the new series with UFA Fiction, argues that enough time has passed for Hitler to be presented on screen in a way that isn’t exploitative.
“Hitler is something which one can’t avoid when thinking about German history in the 20th century,” he said. “I really believe that Germany today is a very democratic country and that it also is mature enough to confront a subject like Hitler from its own point of view.”
Weber himself acknowledges the question being asked by critics: “Why yet another series on Hitler?” As an historical figure, he’s hardly underexposed. Aren’t the producers just cashing in on their subject’s toxic notoriety?
“On one level, there is far too much Hitler. He is absolutely omnipresent,” the historian agrees. But he adds that there are relatively few dramas in which Hitler is the main character. Those that have been made tend to be snapshots, showing him at a very particular moment in his life.
The drama starts in 1918. It follows not just Hitler but three of his comrades: Fritz Wiedemann, Hugo Gutmann, and Karl Mayr, all of whom were at times, very close to the future Führer. One of them, Hitler’s early patron and friend Mayr, ends up in Buchenwald concentration camp.
Mayr introduced Hitler to politics and initially seemed to share Hitler’s views. “When people have spoken about Mayr before, they’ve described him as this one-dimensional figure – this super-Nazi in the making who lets the genie out of the bottle and then has second thoughts and... becomes a democrat – and later dies in a concentration camp.” In fact – Weber discovered – Mayr in 1919 was as mixed-up and forlorn a figure as Hitler.
In Cambridge on 4 March there was a symposium at which issues raised by the series were discussed. The drama won’t present the familiar picture of Hitler as the shrieking demagogue. However, by dealing with his formative years in depth, it risks doing something more pernicious – making him sympathetic. The producers claim to be fully aware of this risk. They talk about tackling the story with “empathy” but “avoiding sympathy”.
“If you only saw through Hitler’s eyes, there would certainly be the danger that someone would start to identify with Hitler,” Weber states. “That is why the filmmakers are going to such lengths to show the consequences of his actions.
Hitler is one of a number of recent German-made dramas featuring Hitler – but the others have come at their subject in very different ways. One of the most popular in Germany last year was Look Who’s Back, a satirical comedy that imagined Hitler waking up in modern-day Berlin and getting his own reality television series.
Meanwhile, the veteran German actor Udo Kier is playing Hitler as a dinosaur-riding madman in the new sci-fi comedy Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Kier’s version of Hitler as a grotesque über-villain is typical of how Hitler tends to be presented on screen.
“It is the monster and the other. Fine if you want to do that but it doesn’t really explain anything,” says Weber. “If Hitler is just this person who has always been a monster and who wakes up every morning thinking about how he can be mean to the rest of the world, then it is easy to lean back and say ‘thank God this can’t happen again’.
“If you actually show the mechanism of how someone who is unremarkable, not that unusual a character, and see how that person – and by extension an entire people – turn into what we may see as monsters, then I think it is something worthwhile.”Reuse content