History Lessons in Movies: Hitler's Reign of Terror
When looking for historical movies or documentaries about World War II that a 12-year-old could watch, I discovered a documentary called "Hitler's Reign of Terror", from 1934, made in the USA. It is remarkable because it's the first US-made movie that denounced Hitler's actions in Nazi Germany. The movie revolves around Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.’s trip to Nazi Germany to show what Hitler was up to.
It's worth remembering that, at the time, nobody in the US government had condemned Hitler's actions yet, what's more, since the United States was still at peace with Germany, criticism was viewed as dangerous to USA-Germany relationships. Even though the film had a short run in New York theaters, the reviews it received were not positive, and one of them, ironically, found ridiculous that the film predicted that Hitler's Germany was a future threat to world peace.
Fast forward to nowadays and we obviously know that the battles that took place during WWII were bloody and they cost millions of lives, from all sides. This was known during the conflict, but what came out later is that the Nazis committed their worst atrocities in secret, even hiding them from the German population. We now know that, as soon as they seized power, the Nazis started a battle with the past, trying to erase as much of it that didn't suit their narrative as possible, by burning books by Jewish writers, or by authors or music that they called "corrupting foreign influences", such as writer Ernest Hemingway or the music of black performers like Duke Ellington (the movie “Swing Kids”, 1993, depicts this). As they started to eliminate their old enemies, the younger German population was indoctrinated into blind obedience.
For a history teacher, like my uncle, there are not enough lecture hours to describe the many mass crimes perpetrated by the Nazis during their 12-year reign in Germany. When the subject is WWII, one of his favorites, he always has a historically accurate movie to recommend. And he has told me many stories and episodes about that dark period in history. Some of the stories he told me were nothing short of disturbing, but they are also a reminder of how quickly a few people in power with no morals or scruples can transform a peaceful world into a barbaric hell.
Take the SS, Hitler’s elite guard, and the Nazi regime’s backbone, they were the organizers of the Gestapo (the secret police) and in charge of running the concentration camps and the extermination camps. When the nightmare was over in 1945, only a few of those responsible for the killings and atrocities were brought to justice in Nuremberg (the movie “Judgement at Nuremberg”, 1961, talks about this). However, thousands of those responsible for the killings, mutilations, torture,... managed to escape.
Photo source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of William O. McWorkman https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/pa1045472