Everything to do with it

    MEMORY: How did otherwise ordinary human beings take part in one of humanity's greatest crimes?

    «If ninety-nine had said yes before me, I might have participated as well, »says an interviewee, recalling the mass conformity engendered by fascist youth organisations in wartime Germany, normalising the persecution of Jews and dissidents. Luke Holland’s Final Account, which screens at IDFA, is a documentary survey distilled from around three hundred interviews of those Germans and Austrians still alive who were active in or eye-witness to the deadly functioning of the Nazi machine. By speaking with those who, even if they had not directly perpetrated crimes, saw and heard of atrocities without intervention or opposition, the film conveys insight into a climate of silent acceptance and deflection of responsibility, that allowed horror to spread in broad daylight, and was underpinned by a heavy programme of propaganda and groupthink indoctrinated from childhood.

    Over and over

    Of course, it is far from the first cinematic gathering-together of Holocaust-related testimony, with Claude Lanzmann’s much longer Shoah (1985), which clocks in at over nine hours, remaining the definitive act of bearing witness to the cataclysm that has been committed to cinema. But the interviews Final Account records are powerful in revealing just how chillingly adept the human mind is in evading recognition of personal responsibility, what extremes citizens are willing to accept when they are socially condoned as norms, and how Nazi apologism remains rampant today. This final point is made all the more urgent and topical by the inclusion of a meeting of a former, repentant SS member with a new generation of far-right radicals in current times at Wannsee, where Nazi officials convened in 1942 to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution (a euphemism used by the Nazis for their plan to annihilate the Jewish people), and where today the young neo-Nazis are dismissive of his efforts to warn them of their blindness and of the shame of Hitler’s legacy. New documentaries are needed, so long as the lessons of the Holocaust and the roots of ethnic hatred must be learned over and over, and as long as such atrocities threaten to repeat themselves.

    the film conveys insight into a climate of silent acceptance and deflection of responsibility, that allowed horror to spread in broad daylight

    Just as education is essential in unlearning hatred, Final Account shows how it had a formidable role in instilling children with xenophobic beliefs and practices during the Third Reich, arguing that perpetrators are not born so much as made. Children as young as nine were tasked with taking pictures of those buying from Jewish village shops to exhibit in town halls, and to stand guard in front of Jewish department stores — activities that schooled them in the practices of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and intimidation. The Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, in which 267 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish properties and cemeteries were damaged or destroyed, and 30,000 Jews taken away to camps, enacted hate as a terrible public spectacle. While some parents were less than zealous in inculcating regime ideas in their offspring, many teachers asserted strong control. So, too, did peer pressure and the natural desire of children to be part of groups and to come together in sanctioned sports teams and the like. As one interviewee says, the youth organisation uniforms were worn constantly, and that army-like visual conformity «leaves a mark.» Beyond verbal teachings, was film propaganda. The anti-semitic Suess the Jew (1940) was screened in small villages. Hostile stereotypes circulated by such films persist today, as one interviewee shows when he claims «consequences» for the Jews stemmed from their lack of popularity, which came from their «deal-making,» and «hooked noses.»

    Final Account shows how it had a formidable role in instilling children with xenophobic beliefs and practices during the Third Reich, arguing that perpetrators are not born so much as made…

    Looking the other way

    Adults learned quickly to look the other way — and any who didn’t perished in the camps so that the intellectual leadership of the resistance was soon gone. Financial incentives fuelled the silence. Most people around a camp, from butchers and bakers to delivery drivers garnered material benefits from them being able to sell goods there, while many heard the hushed rumours that Jews were being driven up the chimneys. Although admissions of knowledge of the atrocities while they were being perpetrated come through over and over, making less credible those who make the excuse they didn’t know, complicity or personal responsibility is frequently side-stepped. «I saw it, but as a bookkeeper, I had nothing to do with it,» says one eye-witness of prisoners being worked to death, with typical evasion. Even those in the Waffen SS, the supposed Nazi elite (whose privileged status was marked by blood group tattoos), claim their position on the frontlines meant they had zero involvement in the camps and the treatment thereof Jews and dissidents. «I have no regrets at all of being in that unit,» says one persistently proud former member, who fails to mention or express any remorse for the military’s well-documented savageries; the razed and annihilated villages of civilians carried out in Ukraine. Safety in numbers may have appealed to cogs in the death machine — but their unreformed spinelessness can’t redeem them.

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    Carmen Gray
    Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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