It took a while before the news got around the world; but on this day, 30 April, in 1945, Adolf Hitler got around facing trial and execution by committing suicide in his bunker. It would take another six decades until that hideout was opened for public inspection, when, in 2004, the Führer’s final days became the subject of a German film Der Untergang (2004). The Great Dictator had often been the subject of caricatures and crude character sketches, which are so much easier to accomplish than a life-size portrait. They are so much easier to take, as well, considering that a realistic image forces us to acknowledge that, far from being super- (or sub-) human, Hitler was one of us.
Throughout the Second World War, parodies and revenge fantasies boosted the morale of the Allies, comforted by way of comic deflation or enraged through violent melodrama. Radio popularized songs like Spike Jones’s previously mentioned “Der Führer’s Face” and Pete Seeger’s “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave.” If he could not be assassinated, potshots had to do:
I’m-a going to Berlin
To Mister Hitler’s town
I’m gonna take my forty-four
And blow his playhouse down.
This is how, a few days after the Führer’s death, the Almanac Singers modified those lines of Seeger’s original song when they performed it for a live broadcast of Norman Corwin’s celebrated VE-Day tribute “On a Note of Triumph,” the highest-rated American radio play of all time:
We’re gonna tell the postman,
Next time he comes ’round,
That Mr. Hitler’s new address
Is the Berlin buryin’ ground.
The Führer was dead, all right. Some eager radio writers had already killed him off, in fantasies like the aforementioned “Death Comes for Adolf Hitler.” And yet, did that “playhouse” of his ever shut down only because its director, its producers, sponsors, and select members of staff were found dead, along with an audience of millions or, as discussed here, tried and executed in the spectacle of Nürnberg?
Corwin cautioned the American public, asking listeners to “fix [their] eyes on the horizons” and swing [their] ears about.” The old regime did not simply expire, no matter how many rounds had been shot to silence the enemy or how loudly one went “Round and Round” the problem of facing the aftermath.
Lately, I have been watching a number of German post-war films that dealt with the recent past of the fallen Reich and were less than sanguine about the Wunder of the nation’s reinvention as a republic. That is, they dealt with the inconvenient truth that the Nazis were not all below ground. Some had gone underground. They went on to make it big during the US-financed Wirtschaftswunder (or economic boom). Both Wir Wunderkinder (1958) and Rosen für den Staatsanwalt (1959) comment on the big fascist business and bureaucracy behind Germany’s capitalist society and its corruption by Nazi big shots who, rehabilitated without remorse, managed to get high up by keeping a low political profile.
It is this sense of a hidden presence, of an unresolved, let alone conquered past, that, many decades after Germany’s surrender, made it difficult for me to face life in that country, a country where fascists old and new still dance round and round Hitler’s grave as if in hopes of a resurrection; where those in denial of the past or in support of its policies still trample on the graves of millions; and where the radical left not only opened wounds, but fire, perpetrating acts of extremist terror.
I have not been back these seventeen years. We all have our baggage, you might say. Sometimes it weighs so heavily on our souls, it keeps us from dancing . . .