WW2 People

|   21 May 2011

Sympathy for the Devil

Is it legitimate to express ‘sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler?

This week the Danish film director Lars von Trier was banned from the Cannes film festival for confessing – tongue in cheek, one suspects – that he was a ‘Nazi’ and that he had ‘sympathy’ for Adolf Hitler.

Von Trier craves attention and loves to shock – that much is obvious not just from his previous history at Cannes, but also from earlier remarks at the same press conference at which he announced he was a Nazi, when he said that various attractive actresses had asked him to make a ‘Hot sex’ film as his next project. He is clearly a silly man.

But it is the reaction to his remarks about Hitler that is really intriguing. Suppose he had said that he was a ‘Communist’ and had ‘sympathy’ for Stalin¬† – would he have been chucked out of the Cannes film festival? I suspect not.

So the important question to ask is why are remarks about Hitler and the Nazis treated so differently? Well, one reason is that it is still academically acceptable to argue that there were many positive features to Stalin’s rule. I saw that myself when some readers of my book on Stalin and WW2 criticized me for being too ‘hard’ on Stalin. I remember thinking at the time that no one said I should contextualize Hitler in my book on Auschwitz by adding ‘positive’ features of his rule like the re-occupation of the Rhineland. Yet that was the argument that some people used about Stalin. ‘Yes, he may have killed millions,’ one critic said, ‘but he also industrialized Russia.’

I’ve written before about how nugatory it ultimately becomes to try and debate ‘who was worse’ Hitler or Stalin. They were both appalling. But Hitler is perceived differently in the public consciousness, I think, for three key reasons. The first is that he was much more pro-active in his aggressive actions than Stalin – Hitler had a plan for conquest that Stalin did not. The second is, of course, the Holocaust. Though Stalin deported whole nations to Siberia he never operated a wide ranging plan of absolute extermination. And finally there is the unpleasant reality of racism. I think that many people – probably unconsciously for the most part – think that since Hitler was the leader of a cultured nation at the heart of Europe he ought to have behaved better than the leader of Russia.

Still, I don’t believe any of this analysis went through the minds of that rather sad figure Mr von Trier before he made his remarks about Hitler, nor would it have featured much, I suspect, in the decision making process that led to his expulsion from Cannes. All parties involved seem to have acted almost instinctively.

But what, I wonder, will happen if a silly film director expresses these same remarks in twenty years time? After all, one can say one sympathizes  with Genghis Khan without danger, and he was a mass murderer on a grand scale. Will the passage of years lesson our intolerance to insensitive remarks about the Nazis?

2 Responses to “Sympathy for the Devil”

  1. Nicked says:

    Wouldnt be surprised but not in twenty years time. Genghis was way way back in the past. Hitler will only just be out of living memory and moreover thanks to film we have evidence not available in the case of genghis.

  2. Catweazle says:

    What a jerk. This comes of unqualified people straying into areas about which they know nothing.