Der Übergang

I finally got around to watch Der Untergang (or “The fall of the third realm” in the uninspired Czech translation, the English title “Downfall” is considerably better) a few days ago. Set in the fast imploding Nazi universe in the days before the ultimate collapse, this is a refreshingly real and honest account of madness set upon itself. Real as a story that is, not an arbiter of historical truth. Unsurprisingly, given its subject, the European debate has been on its instrumental role. Will it prevent a rise of neo-nazism? No, certainly not. Neither will it be their The Birth of A Nation.

I rarely visit the cinemas, but this film ought to be seen in one and not just watched on DVD. Partly to reinforce its claustrophobic nature and partly to feel, and not just look at, the shells ripping Berlin and its tattered defenders apart. Meanwhile, down in the bunker, Adolf weds Eva even though the required paperwork that the couple are of proper mateable Aryan descent is waived.

There was an unsettling idea to stage the Nazis’ final downfall not in Berlin, but in the fairly impenetrable Festung Norwegen. The several hundred thousand German soldiers stationed there had a relative comfortable and safe existence by the northern bunkers, far away from both the west and east fronts. There was less comfort in the labour camps for the largely Russian prisoners that managed to survive the arctic winters.

The war struck my mother’s home, an isolated fishing village a few fjords to the south of Narvik (road connection came twenty years later), by surprise. Outsiders rarely came to visit, let alone Germans with guns. The neighbouring farmboy realized he was going to be drafted when he heard about the invasion. Resourceful as he was he got a friend to find an axe to chop off one of his toes, as it was better to lose a toe than your life. The friend was no expert executioner so his best attempt was met with the yell of “Yow, you cut too far” and a stream of invectives. The “you cut too far” story got better with each retelling, of which there were many throughout the decades. As it turned out the joke was on him, the mobilization order never came and whenever German planes flew overhead and everyone else scurried for shelter (the village was never bombed) he had to hobble around hoping not to get hit.

Post-war reconciliation was swift, except to the British tabloid press perpetually stuck in 1942. West German soldiers trained in Norway as part of a NATO exercise only a few years after the Nazi German soldiers had occupied the country. The scars would remain. As one war survivor put it in an interview fifty years later, he didn’t hate the Germans, but he still shuddered whenever he heard German being spoken.

I toured Europe extensively fifteen years ago and then WWII was still raw. After all the Cold War was just an epilogue, and Germany and Japan had won (this was also the time of Japanophobia in USA). The Berlin Wall was being chopped up and sold to the highest bidder and the Anschluss of DDR was in progress, to mixed emotions both inside and outside the country (“I love Germany so much I’m glad there are two of them”). Even where people were just recovering from the Soviet Russian occupation the memory of the Nazi German occupation laid just beneath. Since The War affected not only every European alive at the time, but also their children, I expected its repercussions would last a century.

Now fifteen years later the healing has happened faster than that. Thirty years from now World War II will cease to be memory and remain part of our history instead.


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