The Fuehrer Headquarters 1939-1945 / The Great Age of German Films 1933-1945

Book Reviews
Published: 1984-04-01

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Das Führerhauptquartier 1939-1945 [The Fuehrer Headquarters 1939-1945] compiled and edited by Gerhard Buck. Leoni am Starnberger See [D-8137]: Druffel Verlag, 1983, 176pp, DM 36.00, ISBN 3-8061-0830-7.

Die große Zeit des deutschen Films 1933-1945 [The Great Age of German Films 1933-1945) edited by Michele Sakkara. Leoni am Starnberger See [D-8137]: Druffel Verlag, 1980, 184pp, DM 36.00, ISBN 3-8061-1002-6.

These are two "Contemporary History in Pictures" volumes which besides being beautifully produced and presenting many photographs rarely seen (at least in America), are refreshingly devoid textually of anti-Nazi polemics or innuendo. They are published by Germany's foremost revisionist publishing house, Druffel, which was founded in 1952 and directed for many years by Helmut Sündermann, formerly the Reich's Deputy Press Chief under Otto Dietrich. Unlike his erstwhile boss, Sündermann was immune to the pervasive post-1945 character disease known as "Creeping Zeitgeist" and did not go the turncoat route; rather he set on a course of writing and publishing books dealing with the war and the Hitler era which approached things straightforwardly and honestly, with none of the boring snivel-cringe-deplore-and-apologize tone (always done with one eye cocked on the watchful victors) which may nearly universally be found in books coming out of postwar Germany. Since Sündermann's death in 1972, Druffel has been ably run by his son-in-law, Dr. Gert Sudholt, who has kept up the tradition which makes the house (along with the Grabert Verlag of Tübingen) a lonely voice of sanity and restraint in the asylum known as West German publishing. These two picture books represent the tradition well and, given the current vogue for such eye-pleasing and easily-read productions, it may be hoped with some justification that their circulation, particularly among the young in West Germany, will be considerable.

Das Führerhauptquartier 1939-1945 is a guided tour through the various operational headquarters used by Hitler during his campaigns. The first such "FHQ" was really his special train Amerika which took him to his Polish front field headquarters at Bad Polzin; the last was the bunker beneath the shattered Reich Chancellory in Berlin. In between were seven different camouflaged, fortified, heavily-guarded complexes of bunkers and houses running through Europe from West to East. In or in transit to these austere settings, Hitler spent the last five years of his life, aside from occasional side trips and sojourns in Berlin, Berchtesgaden, or Munich. It was doubtless a strange existence, but then this was a strange man playing a strange, quite unique role. As "First Soldier of the Reich" Hitler had vowed on 1 September 1939 not to take off his military tunic until victory had been won – failing victory he would die in the struggle. He kept this vow. The denouement on 30 April 1945 was certainly easy for him; he was not afraid of death in a personal sense (his only concern was that it would cut short his work), and spoke often during the war about the peaceful "release" death would bring him. What was surely difficult for Hitler was not dying for his cause but living for it in the role of a Feldherr occupied almost exclusively with the conduct of a long, run-amok war that he didn't want and hadn't planned for. With most everything else shunted aside from his personal consideration – the great building plans, the artistic and cultural renaissance, the ongoing Gleichschaltung in all realms (it was hardly completed in the '30s) – Hitler, the artistic personality above all, must have felt like an artist forbidden to play his instrument. Left to him instead were the cacaphonous instruments of war, including generals, which he had not intended to play upon for very long in his late life; there were other things that needed doing, completing. But events interfered: first the failure to gain in lightning fashion the Eastern empire that he felt was absolutely necessary to Germany's, and Europe's, future, and then the struggle merely to keep the pressing enemy coalition out and survive. The Feldherr could not retire.

This book records in pictures the world – it really was a separate world unto itself – Hitler lived in during the war, the places where the course of the struggle from the German side was decided. We see what these places looked like – their surroundings, their insides, their occupants (many of the photographs show the actual work of the headquarters being conducted). There is Felsennest (Mountain Nest) in Germany near the Belgian border, from where the May 1940 invasion of the West was directed; Wolfsschlucht (Wolf's Gorge) at Bruly-de-Pesche in Belgium, command-post for the defeat of France; Tannenburg (Pine Mountain) in the depths of the Black Forest, where in July 1940 the great gains were reviewed, and from which Hitler made nostalgic visits to his old World War I battlefields; Frühlingssturm (Spring Storm), a length of train track near a tunnel at Moenichkirchen in Austria, where the interventions in Greece and Yugoslavia were overseen; Wolfschanze (Wolf's Lair) near Rastenburg in East Prussia, the most famous and oft-used (1941-1944) of the headquarters, a forest-swamp from where the greatest campaign of all – against Russia – was directed, and from which was witnessed the irrevocable turning of the war; Wehrwolf near Vinnytsa in the Ukraine, used in 1942-43 to direct the Southern Russian front; Wolfsschlucht 'II' at Martival in France, constructed in 1943-44 for the expected Western invasion, used by Hitler only once in June 1944; Adlerhorst (Eagle's Nest) in the village of Wiesental (!) near Bad Nauheim, built in 1939-40 but used for the first and last time during the December 1944 Ardennes offensive. Not slighted either are the Reich Chancellory itself (both the regular offices and the later underground bunker) and Berchtesgaden. The book is arranged in the general chronlogical order in which the headquarters were used; Gerhard Buck's economical but informative text details the history of and most important events occurring at each place. Captions scrupulously identify places and persons in the photos. An appendix reproduces examples of orders relating to headquarters logistics and travel. As a documentary look at world-historic places and people, this book is fascinating. (It is one thing to read about the "oppressive, closed-in" atmosphere of Wolfschanze; it is another to see it. The absolutely massive concrete bunkers there, towering up incongruously within the towering pine groves, contribute an impression of unreality.) Perused in conjunction with such books as David Irving's Hitler's War, Walter Warlimont's Inside Hitler's Headquarters, Felix Gilbert's Hitler Directs His War, or the Kriegstagebuch des OKW, it is invaluable for an appreciation of the historical sense as well as the historical record of those places where decisions were made which shaped our world – though not the way the decision-makers intended.

A final note: Most of the headquarters complexes still stand, in varying conditions of ruin and overgrowth, and are open to any who wish to wander around them. At Wolfschlucht, for example, one can roam in Hitler's bunker bedroom, or stand on the same spot where he stomped with joy upon learning of France's capitulation. The final section of the book is devoted to photos of the sites as they are today. One picture may be worth a thousand words, but one visit must be worth a hundred thousand pictures.

Short of a visit the 160 photos in Das Fuehrerhauptquartier 1939-1945 are the next best thing.

By the very years given in its title, Die Grosse Zeit des deutschen Films 1933-1945 proclaims its defiance of the conventional "wisdom." This wisdom holds that the "great age" of German films – as of all things artistic and cultural in Germany was the Weimar age; after that things got dark, all true creativity was stifled, and evil came to the fore. Most all the great and innovative film artists went into foreign exile (cf. Fritz Lang), and Germany was left with hacks who could turn out only boring banalities made even more banal by constant mandatory infusions of heavy-handed National Socialist propaganda. True, Leni Riefenstahl and a couple others may have done some great work, but the greatness was of a peculiar "demonic" nature. All-in-all, film production in the Third Reich not only contributed little or zero to the historical development of filmic artistry, it was actually a blot on that development, just as National Socialism itself was a blot on Western civilizational progress.

What does it take to bury such myths? Time, for one thing. (One would do well never to undervalue "mere" time as a corrective healing agent.) Though the "consensus" picture outlined above still has a powerful hold, especially as used to indoctrinate lay or only semi-specialized audiences, recent years have in fact seen its steady erosion in favor of a more balanced – even revisionist – view, this accomplished by film historians and filmmakers themselves. Already in 1969 David Stewart Hull in Film in the Third Reich could not, even while dutifully inserting some of the standard disclaimers and clichés, hide his admiration for much of what he was describing. Andrew Sarris in the 1970s could praise Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will even to the point of remarking that one might well, were a viewing of Triumph his only key, wonder what all this fuss about Hitler's Germany being so bad was about. Francis Ford Coppola could publicly proclaim his admiration for Riefenstahl – even to the point of organizing a festival retrospective for her. The "consensus" is breaking down, albeit slowly. And it involves more than merely "revising Riefenstahl" – for, it is being discovered, there is much, much more to Third Reich filmography than merely her great work. Die Grosse Zeit des deutschen Films shows just how much.

The book contains 138 pictures and is divided into three chapters: "Great Directors," "Great Players," and "Great Films," descriptive biographies or filmographies accompanying the selection of pictures in each. A short but meaty historical and critical essay introduces the book, justifying in delightfully bold fashion why 1933-45 must be considered the "great age"; this essay alone is almost (not quite) worth the price of the book. (The pictures alone are worth the price; pictures plus text make it a bargain.) Preceding all is a brief foreword explaining the purpose and scope of the work. The scope is considerable – in the variety of films, personages, themes, and styles presented – but it is by no means exhaustive nor does it try to be. It is not a history of the German cinema in these years, but a selective display of highlights from that cinema: 10 directors, 42 star players, and 42 films are offered in the respective chapters. As in any such arbitrary selective production, one might quarrel here and there with what has been omitted. But choosing a comparative handful from the hundreds of films made during the National Socialist era is not easy, and editor Michele Sakkara has succeeded remarkably well in culling those films which demonstrate the versatility and high artistic quality of the German cinema of those years. All the great ones are here. (This with one caveat: here the emphasis is on feature entertainment films and dramatic actors and actresses, not documentaries. Indeed only one documentary, Riefenstahl's Olympia, is mentioned at any length. The great party, state, and military-campaign documentaries, which indeed make up a very significant part of the National Socialist film heritage, are left out. They would deserve a similar book of their own.)

"Feature entertainment films" in the Third Reich were not necessarily devoid of a message – although, as in Hollywood, the vast majority were strictly entertainment, even "fluff." Many of the greatest films – and that includes most of those featured in this book – did have something to say. Hitler, Goebbels, and the latter's brilliant Reichsfilmintendent, Fritz Hippler, were all acutely aware of the power of film as a propaganda medium. They were also aware that such use of film could be overdone, and that often people wanted just to be entertained. (When it came time to celebrate the state-run UFA film studio's 20th anniversary in 1943, Goebbels instructed that the giant film made to mark the occasion be absolutely devoid of any political content. The result was the color comedy-fantasy epic Münchhausen starring Hans Albers, one of the most beloved films ever to come out of Western Europe – still widely shown today.) Perhaps because of the restriction of "message" films to a relative few, extraordinary care was taken in them that the message be delivered powerfully and effectively. (This is doubtless the prime reason for the virtual blackout on these films today, in both Europe and America; Münchhausen may be "safe" fare, but Hitlerjunge Quex is definitely not.) A "message" was not necessarily a blaring, loudspeaker-style state or party political announcement. It could be a quiet, eloquent statement on a philosophical or social issue, like the plea for understanding of the essential humanity of euthanasia for the mortally ill given in Ich KIage An. ("Dear Abby" might not appreciate the fact that her own position on this social issue is exactly the same as that in this "Nazi" film.) Or the value of the countryside over corruptive city life, in Die Goldene Stadt. Politics, of course, had its part to play. Historical-political themes were a favorite, especially during the war years: British mendacity in Ohm Krueger and Titanic; German greatness in Der Grosse Koenig, Bismark, Karl Peters, Kolberg. (It is most interesting that there were no World War II German dramatic films dealing with grand political-historical figures of the contemporary day. Hitler, quite in contrast to Stalin – and Roosevelt – never allowed an actor to portray him on the screen. Nor were allowed any portrayals of the nation's great antagonists – again quite a contrast. Hollywood produced The Hitler Gang but UFA produced no Der Roosevelt Bande. In a way it's too bad.) The Jewish question was touched on in Jud Süß, Die Rothschilds, and the strikingly effective documentary Der Ewige Jude, called by some the "most evil film ever made." (Ah, but perhaps it was in the nature of things.) These three, incidentally, were the only films made in National Socialist Germany that could be described as at all anti-Jewish. It is instructive to compare this fact with the fact of the dozens upon dozens of virulently, obscenely anti-German films that came out of Jewish Hollywood in 1935-45 – and since.

What emerges from this book is the sense of a (deliberately) "lost" world being recaptured for the memory. There was a whole film culture in Germany of great intelligence, industry, technical achievement and devotion to art, which has unconscionably been largely ignored; it was every bit as exciting and important to the development of this young art as what was happening at the same time in Hollywood's own "great age" – or, for a better comparison, Soviet Russia's. (The Soviets and the Germans were making the best films in the world back then.) The German films do survive, even if they haven't been talked about, or shown, much. It is a great pity that thus far Americans and others have not, for the most part, been afforded the opportunity to appreciate it all: the superb acting of Ferdinand Marian, Werner Krauss, Hans Albers, Heinrich George, Otto Gebühr, Kristina Söderbaum, Zarah Leander, Marian Hoppe; the thrilling musical scores of Herbert Windt, George Häntzchel, Merc Roland; the meticulous direction of Hans Steinhoff, Veit Harlan, G.W. Pabst, Carl Ritter; so much and so many more. Their names light up the pantheon of film history as they lit up the screen. This book is a fitting and long-needed tribute to their artistry. Those fortunate enough to witness that artistry will find in it all the confirmation needed of the truth contained in the title of Die Grosse Zeit des deutschen Films 1933-1945.

– Keith Stimely

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Keith Stimely
Title: The Fuehrer Headquarters 1939-1945 / The Great Age of German Films 1933-1945, Book Reviews
Sources: The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 5, no. 1 (spring 1984), pp. 95-100
Published: 1984-04-01
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 8, 2012, 6 p.m.
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