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The German conscience 

The other wall finally crumbles

It's almost exactly 60 years since the Germans finally surrendered unconditionally after their marches through Europe. And it's 50 years since they regained sovereignty over their own affairs.

It took that long for the gritty, uncomfortable German movie, "Downfall," to be made and to make its way into our consciousness. Okay, a few years less for conception, writing, shooting, etc., but a long time for a society to come out from under the shadow of collective shame and guilt; to be able to stare, unblinking, into the agonized inner soul of its national self with honesty, even objectivity, and finally to expose the agony of decent Germans for all to observe.

Those considerations, apart from its grueling reality, make up the significance of the movie about Hitler's last days in the Berlin bunker: it's an artful yet surgical, unsympathetic but illuminating examination of the national conscience, seen most often through the eyes of a young secretary who volunteered, out of adoration for the Führer, to be present at the cataclysm, then escaped the inferno on a rickety bicycle into the uncertain forest of Germany's future.

She actually survived, the movie notes, to see Germany regain its national identity in 1955, and to be reunited with its Communist-wrecked Eastern provinces in 1989.

 

Accepting guilt

Before "Downfall" there were, of course, many murmurings, even mutterings, in Germany that the Hitler time was an aberration, and that the whole nation should not be condemned for the awful activities of warped imperialists.

But the burden of guilt has been heavy and unmoving, as all Germans, even the young, are well aware. So much so that the question has often been asked, sotto voce, in parlors and Bierstuben, over several generations, "Ach, when will we finally be forgiven?" And the dour answer has hung there in the murky atmosphere, "Never!" or, at least, "Not yet!"

But now, at last, Germans and we can look at a brilliantly scripted, conscientiously produced and extraordinarily acted examination of the aberrant, awful mind of Adolf Hitler and the servile, mad sycophants who surrounded him to the devastating end.

That's why "Downfall" is a landmark, as well as an absorbing, brilliantly acted and staged docu-dramatization.

 

Berlin, 1951

I came to Berlin on a snowy day in 1951, just past my 21st birthday, a cocky young CIA case officer. Nothing had prepared me for what I was to see and hear in the next few months.

I had to learn the layout of the city fast, so I drove around in a clapped-out 1947-vintage VW Beetle, one of 5,000 the U.S. Army ordered to get the Wolfsburg factory back into operation. It had what we called "suicide sticks," which flew out at the sides of the car, instead of blinkers, and if your opponent in the streets didn't see them when you turned, someone lost. But there was very little traffic except for Allied occupation vehicles.

I recall writing my mother, after a couple of months memorizing the Western sectors' layout, that I couldn't think of a single city block in which there wasn't at least one severely damaged building. Almost every wall still standing had white paint with the letters LSK and a rudimentary arrow pointing down to the air raid shelter in the basement. Often, that was all that was recognizable.

The Tiergarten, the Reichstag, the area around Brandenburg Gate, and many of the main government offices were vast rubble fields. By 1951, the ruins were stacked into jagged, rectangular piles of building blocks, or cleared enough for the streets to be passable.

I lived in a requisitioned house in the posh residential section of Dahlem. Probably once a week the doorbell would ring, and our maid would shoo away someone from East Germany, over to sell the family silver or porcelain for a carton of Camels or a pound of unground bean coffee.

I asked and I listened: in 1952 it was hard to find a Nazi in the streets. Parenthetically, we had grabbed those we could find whom we needed, mostly rocket scientists (think Wernher von Braun) and intelligence people, just as the Soviets had, although what we did was not kidnapping. And we quickly de-Nazified bureaucrats to help get government machinery moving after the downfall in May 1945.

In other words, both sides used, without much compunction, their housebroken former Nazis. Indeed I worked with some on a different Agency assignment during my next tour of duty, in the mid 1950s.

By the time of German sovereignty and the emergence of the Federal Republic in 1955, a few dared to admit they had been members of the Nazi Party, NSDAP. By the 1960s, Party membership was no longer considered the sin it once had been, but it wasn't a badge of honor.

And now, 50-plus years after I got off that military train at Berlin-Lichterfelde station, a movie dares to examine the workings of the minds of Hitler and Goebbels and the men who were present at the end - hopelessly, fanatically.

The big, black stain on Germany's past has been out there for all to see for decades. Graphically. Terribly. Now, the movie makes it more of a comprehensible human catastrophe.

Part of the greatness of "Downfall" as cinema is that I found myself, despite my pretty extensive knowledge of mid-century Germany, actually almost sympathizing with the convulsive human wreck that was Hitler at the end.

What a difference to the huge, unwavering hatred with which Der Fuhrer has been regarded over the decades by non-Germans! What a difference, too, from the uncomfortable shove-it-in-the-closet-and-just-forget-it German mentality of the past six decades.

It's not just the difference of acknowledging the stain; it is, finally, the maturity with which the makers of "Downfall" deal with the humanity that brought that awful time on their country.

Sure, most of Hitler's henchmen and toadies in the Berlin bunker are painted black, as they rightly should be. But the film allows a few streaks of nobility among the villains ... as there were among ordinary Germans. Even if, in the 1950s, they kneejerk-refused to acknowledge that Jews simply disappeared from the cityscape and that there had been death camps.

"Downfall" made me think of an afternoon at the Federal Republic's then-capital, Bonn, on the Rhine, in 1958. I had finished a pretty formally scripted Q&A interview with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, then the reigning father of the split nation's fledgling democracy. Once we got over the prepared part, the old man asked if I would care to join him in a bottle of his favorite Moselle wine. I, of course, gladly accepted.

"Now, Herr Stockton, you may ask me any question you like, and I will answer as best I can. But you can't use the answers, except for background."

I happily agreed. We chatted about Nato, which was then still aborning and arming. The chancellor, who looked as if his face had been seared in a hot oven and who rarely cracked a smile in public, showed a surprising, nicely attuned sense of humor.

Toward the end, as the dark gathered over the Rhine and the lights came on in the lovely old Beethovenish Chancellory, and Konrad Adenauer swirled the wine in his long-stemmed glass, I asked, "Herr Chancellor, you are getting on in years, but you are amazingly active and you work long, long days. Mr. Churchill, who's only slightly older, has retreated from public life. Why?"

Adenauer paused, twinkled through his scarred face, and leaned toward me.

"Ach, Herr Stockton, Herr Churchill has fought his war. I'm fighting mine now." He stopped short of saying that the German people needed him to guide them to democracy, but that was the import of what he was saying.

Now, six decades after the collapse and 50 years after Adenauer took charge, Germans and others can look at their most painful moment and begin to grapple openly with the madness that was Hitler.

Of course "Downfall" also asks us, indirectly, if there are any lessons from its subject which may be pertinent to the United States in the 21st century.

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