Here’s a thought that I’ve never had before, and I’m wondering if historians have ventured into the territory: we cannot psychologically distinguish between Hitler, exterminator-of-millions, and Hitler, political force. But there’s a benefit to reading Hitler’s politics, including his seizure of the Rhineland in ’38 and then of Gdansk and northern Poland in ’39 and his justification for those actions.
The thought crossed my mind while I sat at a compelling (though admittedly dry, which is perfectly suited to my tastes assuming the content is rich) Sundance documentary screening tonight – for Settlers, a film focused on Israeli/Jewish provocateurs who take the form of a radical but powerful minority in the modern state of Israel.
The opening act of the film depicts the beginning of the expansionist, nationalistic, Zionist movement. In this portion of the film, taken from historical footage and audio recording, the Rabbi making a speech to his yeshiva in 1967, a mere months before the Egyptians would stir the hornets’ nest that was an on-guard Israel, sounds and looks like Hitler himself. I was not quite bold enough to ask the director during Q&A whether or not his intent in selecting the footage he chose was to draw the parallel that seemed so obvious to me as I watched it.
The parallels grew stronger as the subtitled interviews and chronological telling of this particular telling of the history of the West Bank region progressed. The settlers interviewed for the film sounded like Nazis sounding the drum in favor of lebensraum and a return of national lines to the Fatherland’s natural boundaries. By the conclusion of the movie, I was wondering: if IS were to grant interviews like these, in which leaders were to give their motivation for invading countries across Western Asia, wouldn’t they sound quite a lot like these Zionist settlers?
If Hitler had followed a different act – say, another Hitler – wouldn’t he have been fettered by political convention, and might he have stopped short of murdering millions and instead, perhaps, merely shut up the Jews in ghettos and leave it at that, just as Israel has done to Palestinians in their own formerly-unambiguously-held territory? The racial or ethnic purity thing rears its head often enough in the tale of the settlers, too, though, I’m afraid.
I left the film wondering: if we were to separate the mass-murdering, racial-purity side of the monster and examine the political aims (and I realize that, frankly, these are inextricably coextensive with one another), wouldn’t we recognize quite a great deal more Hitlers in this world than we now feel comfortable acknowledging? We might be forced to recognize that he wasn’t so unique after all, though the circumstances that brought him to power and the effects of his actions were wholly unique to him and our world at the time in which he was in power.
It’s a lot more comforting to think that Hitler was one of a kind. But he was not. Even the products of his mania – the slaughter of millions – has been duplicated, and even bested in camps in the United Soviet Socialist Republics, a multitude of times since the end of the second Great War.
You can read a short write-up and see some footage from the film here.
(Another interesting nugget in this bit of film is in this other thought: there exists an inherent danger democratic republics face when a devoted and maladjusted minority behave in manners that threaten the existence of their host state while the state and its silent majority cannot muster the will to quash the threat to its existence that the minority poses – dictatorships deal with dissension a lot more effectively, at least in the short term – and, unfortunately, if the minority behaves in a manner that prevents the long term ever from arriving, the short term inability of a democracy to respond is its sure downfall.)