In “Max,” the controversial 2002 film by the Dutch filmmaker Menno Meyjes, a young Adolf Hitler makes a life-changing discovery. “Art plus politics equals power,” he writes. Whether this fictional scene bears any resemblance to the real Hitler’s genesis as the most evil figure of the twentieth century (indeed, many would say of all time) is pure conjecture, but the phrase is certainly worthy of consideration.
In Meyjes film, the 30-year old Hitler is a struggling artist with minimal artistic sensibility. A lowly corporal who has survived the ignominious German defeat in the first World War, he is a man who lacks self-esteem. Pathetic is the word that comes to mind, and it is probably the word that Meyjes intends his audience to associate with the character.
The film has been criticized for humanizing the inhuman, for suggesting that the monster who fomented the atrocities of the Holocaust was in fact a human being who was even a confused young man at one point, not, perhaps unlike most young men are at some point in their march to full adulthood.
But, of course, he was a human being, and he did have a childhood and a pre-monstrous youth that may well have been somewhat similar to the life suggested in the film. To deny such a possibility seems to trivialize the experience of the Holocaust, almost as if to suggest that it be consigned to history’s mythological side, like the Trojan War or the Tower of Babel. Would we want generations of history students in the next millennium to study the Holocaust as a legend or a fairy tale, rather than the real-life horror that it was? I think not.
But fictionalized accounts notwithstanding, in later life Adolf Hitler did lead his nation into a period of indescribable horror, marked by the murder of some eleven million human beings (six million of whom were Jews). How did he do it?
Meyjes is not the first to consider this question, but he presents it in stark terms. The film shows Hitler in his earliest oratorical ventures, and, as in many of the old newsreels that show the real Hitler in his most rabid displays of fiery demagoguery, he says little of substance, yet succeeds in arousing his audience. In one such speech towards the end of the film, he shouts “Blood Jew,” over and over again, as if he were exhorting his minions like a cheerleader on a football field. Soon, the small crowd, fully aroused, is on its feet, echoing his mantra. “Blood Jew!” they all shout, after which several of them go out and attack a Jew. The year is 1919. What does it mean?
Art plus politics equals power. Hitler surely understood that point. And so, we can assume, do all successful politicians. Hitler’s ability to arouse the passions of his audience may have begun in his recognition of their national shame, which he may well have felt himself as a defeated soldier in their army. Finding a scapegoat for that shame may also have been relatively easy. For whatever reason, the Jews in Germany were, on the whole, better educated, more cultured, more successful in business, and, perhaps, even more envied than their fellow non-Jewish citizens. (Not coincidentally, Turkey’s Christian Armenians were similarly regarded by the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire in the years leading up to the first mass genocide of the twentieth century, a historical event that took place just as Hitler was beginning to sprout his oratorical wings.)
“The medium is the message,” was the aphorism that Marshall McLuhan used to describe the advent of modern technology. His view was that anything can be sold if the packaging is effective. Television proves his point. Want people to buy your beer? Show a group of young people, just like your intended consumers, having a good time at a party. Add a little sex appeal and flash the beer logo. They’ll buy the beer.
Want people to see your movie? Show a few scenes that include a little sex, a little violence and add an ultra-dramatic voice-over. They’ll see your movie.
Want people to vote for your candidate? Create a few catchy lines that make people feel good. Repeat them often, preferably with a backdrop of American flags and attractive, fresh-faced young people. They’ll vote for your candidate.
Hitler was, at least as portrayed in “Max,” a singularly undistinguished artist. But he was a genius at creating the art that carried his political message. How he came up with that message may never be understandable. But how he was able to sell it must be understood.
Want people to hate the Jews? Design the swastika, tie it to German nationalism; conceive the idea of an Aryan race, tie it to Nietzsche’s prophesy of the super race; discover an evil within, identify it as the Jews. Add brown-shirted young men and goose-stepping soldiers, all standing behind you while you speak, and before long, the masses will hate the Jews.
The Holocaust was Hitler’s creation, but it did not occur solely because of Hitler. Indeed, as was the case with the Armenian genocide earlier in the last century, and as has been the case in every genocide since, it is the people who make these horrors possible. It is the masses who are the assassins, by their overt acts and by their acquiescence. And that gruesome reality is what Hitler captured with his combination of art and politics.
Of course, Hitler was a historical anomaly. He was the product of a time when a decadent society had lost its way; when a nation’s people had been defeated in war and were defeated in spirit; when the international community was bent on peace at any price, or on looking the other way, or on leaving German problems for the Germans. His road to power was entirely fortuitous. We won’t see his type again. Will we?