Over the last few months I’ve found myself watching more documentaries than anything else, specifically the plethora of World War II ones on the Smithsonian Channel. Admittedly, they’ve been edited into outrageous themes and even worse titles—“The Nazi Temple of Doom,” “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine,” “The Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz,” “Secrets of the Third Reich,” “The Teacher Who Defied Hitler,” and my personal favorite, “Apocalypse: The Second World War.”
Merely reading their names makes you cringe and think of terrible propaganda films and/or wonder if George Lucas produced them. At any moment you expect Indiana Jones to swing through and punch Hitler on the nose and save the world. If they were articles online, we’d call these click bait, but the fact is as you’re skimming through a couple hundred channels and you see those titles, you stop because the name intrigued you.
And once you’ve tuned in, despite the cringeworthy titles, you’re there for a front row view of history. Through remastered and colorized footage of the war from not only official government-released material, but also amateur photographers at the time, you have the incredible ability to watch the unfathomable.
Unsurprisingly, many of the documentaries have taken a particular interest in showing the final newsreel of Hitler, his Palsy-riddled hands shaking as he greets the promising members of the Hitler Youth a few short weeks before his suicide. It’s a disturbing look at the obviously failing health of one of the most terrifying men in history, and stirs a deep-seated anger. How dare the man who committed the most unspeakable of horrors have the audacity to be human?
As you progress through the other films, you get a chilling up-close view of those atrocities. In “Treblinka” you learn how the Nazis began streamlining murder. They show actual footage of the Nazi Occupied Poland extermination camp, with countless lines of Poles and Polish Jews lined up waiting to die. You see photos taken by people who came out to watch families being stripped, separated and shot. You see them queued to go into the depths of this camp only to never return, and the rest being forced to carry and bury the bodies coming out. It is unspeakable, and God forbid you ate before watching, because it’s only going to come back up again. There on your TV, as you’re curled up on your couch with your takeout and blanket, is the Holocaust.
I am avid imbiber of history, and war history in particular. My plane reading this weekend is Churchill’s recollections of World War II, I watch countless documentaries, and there’s rarely a war movie that comes out I don’t see. I am not ignorant of the atrocities of what occurred, but it has always been secondary or tertiary accounts, or recreations. I’ve been told, given the figures, and seen a few printed photos on a museum wall, or names on a memorial. But I have never been shown, and now I will never be able to unsee it. Again, though through a very different lens, I have seen the humanity of the horror through this footage.
There’s something chilling in being able to sit in my living room and be able to queue up the death of millions and the man who ordered it. The inane titles are almost offensive when you think that they had to be packaged in this light to get people to to care. Yet at the same time, especially around Memorial Day, I can’t help but be thankful that these exist, in whatever form they may take. I will never be able to unsee the footage from Treblinka, even months and months later I can close my eyes and recall it vividly, but nor should I. The obsession with Hitler’s final days may be lurid history, but by being able to see that this monster was actually a man, that he could condemn millions to death but could no longer stand without a hunch, or keep his hands from shaking, is a slap in the face reminder that one of us did this. A person, a human being, a man who once lived and breathed, feared and ego-tripped his way through life not so very long ago single-handedly destroyed races, nations, and full generations and there he is, in our home, and on our TV screens.
And that is terrifying and something that should never, ever be forgotten. One person can change the world and be the onus for it crumbling. We should see Hitler as human, and see what humanity can do and invite that knowledge into our home. It may help us sleep better at night to forget or to relegate Hitler as a one-off psycho, but it opens the door to let someone else do it again. I believe there is power in the horror of those photos and film clips: the power to shock the system into a reboot of how we perceive humanity and the world, the power to make us rethink the atrocities we know occur and choose to turn a blind eye toward, and the power to perhaps act as a deterrent in the future.
That’s why I will always stop and watch these war documentaries, no matter how offensive or absurd the title, so I can see, so I can remember, and so the visual history lives on.
*edited May 29th to clarify that the “Polish extermination camps” were located in Nazi Occupied Poland and run by German Nazis.
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