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From: The Socialist issue 564, 28 January 2009: Join the march for jobs

Search site for keywords: Nazis - Working class - Germany - Revolution

Film review

The Reader

Reviewed by Pete Watson

This thought-provoking film is about teenage passion meeting with Germany's Nazi past. It centres on Michael Berg, a successful lawyer, whose life becomes involved with a brutal SS concentration camp guard.

The film opens in 1958 when a teenage Michael falls in love with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz. She disappears. It is only later that he discovers that she had been an SS guard at one of the Nazis' concentration camps. She is eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

Berg is faced with a moral dilemma. He could assist Schmitz because he has information which could reduce her sentence. He does not. He is however drawn to her throughout his life and seeks to help her. His life is forever changed by the revelation about her past. He becomes distant and distrusts women.

The film raises two political themes. The first is the idea that it is impossible to tell who is a Nazi. Schmitz was a bus conductor and lived an isolated, but seemingly ordinary, working-class life when Berg meets her.

The second and related theme is that Germany is collectively guilty for its past. Berg trains as a lawyer and is involved in debates about Germany's Nazi past in class. One student declares that everyone knew about the death camps so why were only a few on trial?

This is a powerful but politically flawed film. It almost presents the view that anyone could be a Nazi. Psychologists have talked about the 'totalitarian personality' to explain how seemingly ordinary people could become Nazis. This view states that ordinary people become fascists because of a personality flaw.

However, the growth of the Nazis cannot be explained apart from the history of Europe between the First and Second World Wars. It was a time of economic crisis, of revolution and counter-revolution. The Nazis grew out of the ruined middle classes who despaired that the working class would be able to change society. The German ruling class financed the Nazis in fear that the working class would succeed.

In these turbulent times reason became unreason. The most intellectual and academic middle-class liberals swallowed Nazi myths and lies because they were deranged by their times.

The growth of the Nazis was found, not in psychology or genes therefore, but in class society. The German working class played a heroic role in seeking to prevent the Nazis coming to power. If there is any collective guilt to be passed out in Germany it would be to the ruling class who financed and supported the Nazi party.

These Nazi butchers were very real people. Schmitz apparently was modelled on Ilse Koch, who was the wife of the commandant of Buchenwald camp. She used to ride through the camp on horse back lashing out at prisoners with a whip. She was said to select prisoners with tattoos so that lampshades could be made of their skin.

Such scum can rise to the surface of society only when the organised working class has been crushed. That is the warning of history.

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

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Article dated 28 January 2009

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