E Jane Dickson: Endearing foibles do not excuse mass murder

Cuddly Uncle Joe Stalin used to burst into tears at a folk song from his native Georgia

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Say what you like about Adolf Hitler: he was kind to his secretaries and he loved his dog. These, incredibly, are the revelations that have propelled a new film about Hitler's last days to the head of the political agenda in Germany.

Say what you like about Adolf Hitler: he was kind to his secretaries and he loved his dog. These, incredibly, are the revelations that have propelled a new film about Hitler's last days to the head of the political agenda in Germany.

Released today, after months of prime time pre-publicity across German TV networks, Der Untergang ( The Downfall) claims to show "the human side of Hitler". Its producer and co-writer, Bernd Eichinger, believes it offers important "emotional release" to the generation of Germans who grew up not mentioning the war. Starring the Swiss actor Bruno Ganz as a softly spoken, sometimes tearful, dictator, the $9m film received a standing ovation at its premiere in Munich, and has been hailed as an attempt to "demythologise the monster", with humanising details such as the Führer's fondness for chocolate cake.

In response to critics fearful of soft-focus revisionism, Eichinger, 55, whose father fought with the Wehrmacht on the Russian front, explained that "the war threw the whole German people into a trauma. A nation has to be capable of making a film about such a trauma". At a time when a sizeable minority of Germans is sufficiently untraumatised to sport Frei! Sozial! National! tee-shirts at political rallies, the release of Der Untergang was always going to be contentious.

Politicians and academics have been wheeled on from all sides to offer their perspective on "Hitler's human side". Critic Frank Schirrmacher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said the film ushered Germany into "a new phase" of historical evaluation, and Professor Hans Bohrmann, an expert in Third Reich history at the University of Dortmund, said: "Twenty years ago, this film would have been unthinkable."

Damn right. Twenty years ago, people did not, on the whole, confuse cake preferences with character. Assessing public figures on absurd, touchy-feely criteria is a thoroughly modern mania. Who cares if Hitler loved his dog? I understand Caligula was particularly fond of his horse, but it doesn't make me want to re-evaluate his policies. History, arguably, is biography. But it's also about taking the long view. No amount of human interest details about Hitler begins to tip the awful balance of his deeds.

Biographical revisionism is one thing. Increasingly, however, we accept the dangerous notion that all of politics is biography. Any politician within a sniff of high office must now prove not only ability and integrity but empathy, the capacity to "feel as wretches feel". And we, the wretches in question, wait, maws agape, to be drip-fed the kind of soupy, lifestyle tidbits Hello! magazine might consider inconsequential.

Last month, the twin daughters of George and Laura Bush stood on an election platform and dropped the delicious information that Mom and Dad called each other "Bushy" at tender moments. Nobody vomited. And while the personality cult of George Dubya may sound like an oxymoron, it's fooling enough of the people enough of the time. Sure, he's a little bit shaky on facts and policy, but anybody can see that his heart's in the right place.

It would be nice to think that here in Britain, the stiff upper lip might militate against this sort of nonsense. Not a bit of it. Almost every discussion, in the pubs or in the papers, of the Labour Party leadership ends in the teeth-sucking observation that the eminently able Gordon Brown "just doesn't have the personality" to be Prime Minister. Brown, to his credit, shows no sign of emoting to order (some call it dourness, I call it dignity). Not so Michael Howard, whom I confidently expect to turn up blubbing on the Tricia show any day now (My Sick Kitten Made Me a Compassionate Tory!), so desperate is he to show his human side.

I'm perfectly happy for politicians to be human in their own time. But I expect them to be judged on facts rather than their foibles. The cuddliest politician of them all, Uncle Joe Stalin, used to burst into sentimental tears at the first strains of a folk song from his native Georgia.

Sentiment and sensitivity are easy to confuse. Even more so since "sensitivity" in our let-it-all-hang-out society has become the highest virtue. If anyone can think of a more chilling - or more obviously untrue - statement than "Of course, I'm a very sensitive person", I'll be pleased to hear it.

It worries me that reports of the appalling events in Beslan were invariably delivered with the reminder that "no parent can fail to be moved ...", as if human sympathy can only be extended on the basis of direct empathy, as if the childless could have no understanding of the situation.

This is not empathy, nor even sympathy. This is one ungenerous step away from self pity. We squander our fellow feeling on dead dictators, and are left so emotionally etiolated that we have to be told how to identify with real, present suffering. In the fullness of time, we will hear about how the Beslan murderers had their human side. Unfortunately, that is no recommendation.

e_jane.dickson@virgin.net

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