For years, I was unable to hear German spoken in public, without an inner wince.
The very language brought up ancestral memories, in the form of images, conversations, narrated recollections, of horror. As a child growing up in the rich religious and cultural education of Judaism, I was more than exposed to knowledge about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Indeed, my Hebrew school education included, at a very young age, witnessing the Nazi propaganda films which included sights of mass graves, the concentration camps and gas chambers, killings, collections of eyeglasses and clothing, and the many objects made of parts of people (such as lampshades made from human skin).
In public high school and later college, I encountered prejudice in the form of teachers who denied or made light of the Holocaust; bullies who desired to injure me simply because of my Jewish identity; even someone who threw at bottle at me (from across the street) for wearing a yarmulke. I also had the knowledge that my material grandfather (Zaydie) had escaped persecution in Poland in 1929, and that most of his family perished in the Holocaust.
Having sat through the movie “Downfall” provided a measured healing. The film chronicles the final days of Hitler’s suicide bunker. The characters are portrayed as humans, conflicted and contradictory. They buy into their own illusions as they face various moral dilemmas. One, a doctor, upholds his humanity, helping the wounded and speaking the truth, even if it is unpopular; he argues, for example, that it is fruitless to honor the dead dicator’s final wishes by fighting to the last or committing suicide. Another, a Nazi leader’s wife, kills her own children rather than see them grow up in “a world without national socialism,” a world she claims is not worth living. She also begs the failing Hitler to save a hopeless situation and lead the people once again to their glory. A series of anonymous characters, the German military police, drag innocent grandfathers and grandmothers from their homes and either shoot or hang them, calling them traitors or hanging signs on their lifeless bodies marking them as Bolshevik collaborators. The German generals who defended bravery are exposed as cowards, drunkards plunging themselves into delirium. By and large, everyone in the film seems to have lost moral direction and perhaps sanity.
The film provides vivid illustration of the ways in which individuals can, consciously or not, employ psychological defenses to avoid seeing reality. The reality is that their world is crumling and that they have perpetuated, and continue to make choices that perpetuate, violence and injury. Bruno Ganz, playing Hitler, articulates that in order to “accomplish” everything he has had to sacrifice compassion. Appeals to ideology are used to disguise or justify murder. Rationalizing, splitting, demonization, and other defenses are masked through high-minded language that enable the perpetrators to maintain control (and a high degree of self-control) rather than recognize the consequences of their actions and risk disintegraion. In this sense, the film universalizes evil, making the characters’ misdirection, in all its grim brutality, a recognizable facet of human behavior.
Ultimately it is not the German language, Germans, an individual called Hitler, the Nazis, or any “other” that comes to represent the dark if not demonic side of human nature; rather, it is that tendency to use denial–to obfuscate and suffocate the truth through psychological defenses, ideology, and language–that comes across. The measured healing comes from recognizing the universality of those tendencies, which have arisen and continue to manifest in many cultures on the Earth.
The contradiction between Ganz’s character–who admits, before his death, he will be ‘cursed by millions’–and the sweetness in the face of Ganz, the actor (even in acting maniacal) also exposes the contradictions inherent in human nature. As the Psalms put it, we are ‘but a little lower than the angels yet a little more than dust.’ That counterpoint, the struggle of the soul, becomes the torment of each person in the film as the character wades through his or her own individual moral dilemma.
The film offers no clear moral resolution, except at the end, where it interposes documentary material in which Hitler’s secretary acknowledges how she denied her complicity for years, then finally came to terms with personal responsibility for her own part in the genocide. Various systems are offered to account for correcting the imbalance in human nature–such as law (the legal norms embodied in the Nuremberg trials); medicine and medical ethics (the doctor’s embodied humanity); psychology (exposing the splitting, rationalism, and other defense mechanisms justifying and supporting the brutality); spirituality (or rather, lack of compassion behind use of quasi-religious ideology); public health (effects of the attitudes and behaviors of leaders charged with making choices affecting their populations’ health).
From the limited perspective of integrative medicine, and its public policy dimensions, each discipline’s perspective plays a part and may have something valuable to contribute. In other words, perhaps some possible directions–at least in terms of deepening the understanding of, and preventative capacity to avert, such human-made horrors–may lie between these different disciplines, or at the intersection of law, medicine, ethics, psychology, spirituality and public health.