25 April 2005
By Gwynne Dyer
Adolf Hitler has now been dead slightly longer than he was alive, and he is about to stop being real. So long as the generation whose lives he terrorised is still with us, he remains a live issue, but the 60th anniversary of his death on April 30 is the last big one that will be celebrated by those who survived his evil and knew his victims. By the time the 75th anniversary comes around, they will almost all be gone. And then Hitler will slip away into history.
It’s a process that is almost impossible to avert, because basic human psychology is at work here. Once enough time has passed that all the people involved in a given set of events would be dead by now anyway, we stop treating them as real people whose triumphs and tragedies matter, and only the loving attention of a filmmaker, dramatist or a novelist can bring them to life again for us even briefly.
Federico Fellini made the point once and for all in his 1969 film “Satyricon,” a story set in the ancient Mediterranean world that really makes its characters emerge from the classical myths and live. For about a hundred minutes you really care about them, in a strange way. The last shot shows the hero emerging from the labyrinth into the fresh air and the sunlight — and then, with no warning, in the middle of a sentence, the frame freezes and morphs into a time-worn fresco of the same scene. Fade to black.
It’s shocking because Fellini makes you understand the true nature of your relationship with the past. Its people have been dust for hundreds or thousands of years, and for all that we try to give them the respect and the weight that we give to living and recently dead people, the fact is that we can’t. The point when historical characters, good or bad, make the transition from flesh-and-blood heroes and villains to mere frescoes on a wall is the point where living people no longer remember them with love or hate. With Hitler, we are nearing that point.
You don’t think that could happen? Consider the way we now treat the “Corsican ogre”, Napoleon Bonaparte. He has become a veritable industry for military historians, and is revered by half the population of France because he ruled the country at the height of its power and led the French to several dozen great military victories before his boundless ambition finally plunged them into total defeat. Nobody seems particularly perturbed by the fact that his wars caused the deaths of about four million people.
That is a far smaller number than the thirty million or so deaths that Hitler was responsible for, but Europe’s population was a great deal smaller in Napoleon’s heyday. Europeans actually stood about the same chance of dying as a result of Napoleon’s actions at the height of his power in 1808 as they did from Hitler’s actions in 1943 — and Napoleon has been forgiven by history. So if all of those who died in Hitler’s war are soon to enter the same weightless category of the long-dead, what is to keep history from forgiving him, too?
There is one profound difference between Napoleon and Hitler. Both were tyrants and conquerors, but only Hitler committed a deliberate genocide. Most of the people who fought and died in the war didn’t even know about the Nazi death camps at the time, but in retrospect it is the Holocaust, the six million Jews who died not in the war but in the camps, that has come to define our attitudes towards Hitler, and has transformed him into an icon of absolute evil.
So he should remain, but history is mostly about forgetting and not very much survives the winnowing of the generations. Jews are right to want this piece of history not to be forgotten, and the rest of us need it too because remembering the astonishing amount of pain and loss that a man like Hitler could cause by manipulating hatreds is an essential part of our defences against a recurrence. But the bitter truth is that from now on it will be increasingly uphill work.
I would not raise this question at Passover if the anniversary of Hitler’s suicide did not make it the one right time to do so. I also understand why most Jews have zealously defended the unique status of the calamity that befell their people and resisted any link with other, smaller but not utterly dissimilar tragedies that have befallen other peoples: the Armenian massacres, the Cambodian genocide, Rwanda, and the rest.
We cannot afford to let Hitler fade into the past because we need him to remind us of our duty to the present and the future. If the memory of the Holocaust is to stay alive not just for Jews but for the whole world, it may be time to start rethinking how to present it to 21st-century audiences for whom the Second World War and the Second Punic War seem equally lost in the unremembered past. Was it only about the Jews, or should we see it as a warning to us all?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9 (“So he…the rest”).