04 March 2006

Last night Channel 4 screened Downfall, the film about Hitler’s last days.

My thoughts:

  • It’s a great movie
  • It goes someway to explaining why the Germans followed Hitler for as long as they did
  • It demonstrates (for the first time I know about) the devastating effects of artillery
  • (I feel) it is at times a bit stilted.  (As I understand it) there are good reasons for this
  • It’s tempting to think: there but for the grace of God go we.  In other words, that it would have been, (indeed could be) quite easy for us to go down a similar path
  • That’s no reason to indulge in self-loathing
  • How did Traudl Junge get through Soviet lines?  She was (obviously) a woman and she was wearing an SS uniform - either of which (one would have thought) would have put her in line for a pretty hard time.

So, why did they follow Hitler for as long as they did?

  • He could sell them dreams.  For most of Downfall, Hitler is demented but on at least one occasion he calms down and convinces those around him that there are all sorts of secret resources that he can call upon and that all will be well.
  • (believing in his specialness) many had sworn oaths to him personally, which they felt honour-bound to obey.  Why, I don’t know.
  • The “stab in the back” myth of 1918.  This was the (laughable) idea that had the German Army kept on fighting it would have won.  The consequence was that this time around many were determined not to repeat that “mistake”

The devastating effects of artillery?
For example:

  • 60% of First World War casualties were caused by artillery
  • I have been told (here, I think) that a high explosive shell has the same energy on detonation as an express train travelling at 90mph - though not, sadly, the number of carriages
  • An HE shell will blow a man apart to such an extent that not a trace can be found.  That would have been the fate of the most of the 50,000 missing in action whose names are listed on the Menin Gate memorial at Ypres

Why the temptation to think that we could go the same way?
Because (it seems to me) that the British are not that different from the Germans

But that shouldn’t force us to question ourselves?
No, because:

  • No other civilisation has ever done any better
  • The economic forces that made the Second World War so destructive are the same ones that gave us the extraordinary prosperity (of all kinds) that we enjoy today. 

Stilted?  Why?
It seems to me that the film is entirely based on eyewitness testimony.  The upside is that we know that this is what actually happened.  The downside is that it jerks about a bit depending on which eyewitness supplied the testimony.  I am rather glad the producers avoided the temptation to make things up.  It is just too important that everything we see is true, or, at least, as near to the truth as we are ever likely to get.

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  1. I saw Downfall the other evening for the first time too and was transfixed. It certainly put a lot of detailed flesh on the bones of the situation. Mental is the only way to describe the activity as the Third Reich became ever smaller.

    One thing, what do you think of the theory that the Battle For Berlin would have been a lot different had it been the British and Americans trying to take the city rather than the Russians? Not in the bunker perhaps, but the commanders in the field would have been much more amenable to surrender.

    Posted by Mark Holland on 05 March 2006 at 01:59pm

  2. I think that’s what historians sniffily refer to as a “counter-factual”.

    I can see their point.  It is quite hard enough to work out what happened and why without adding in what would have happened.

    Was there any track record of German forces surrendering to the Western Allies in greater numbers than to the Soviets?

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on 06 March 2006 at 05:18am

  3. We hardly ever watch TV these days but made an exception for this. It was excellent and much of it was very familiar from having read Antony Beevor’s “Berlin”.

    Your comment on artillery interested me as my late father served with the RA in WW2. He brought back a Nazi flag that his unit liberated from the roof of Bremen City Hall. Unfortunately I have no idea where it is now, although it’s not something that I could take on holiday to Austria…

    Posted by David Farrer on 06 March 2006 at 02:02pm

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