One of the academically interesting consequences of the end of the cold war has been access to historical material that would not necessarily been available to Western historians while the Soviet Union was still in existence. Michael Kloft’s documentary details one such historical resource: a recently discovered archive of over 100,000 letters written by German people to Adolf Hitler between the years 1932 and 1945.
Part of the interest in watching such a documentary, as with most Hitler films, is an admittedly mesmerizing kind of historical hindsight that allows one to simultaneously cringe and chuckle at the woman who wants to have Hitler’s baby and the man who would consider it the honor of his life if he could only be allowed to give Hitler a haircut.
There is a more serious philosophical and historical investigation going on here, however. As we now stand over fifty years past the end of World War II, attempts to understand Hitler the individual get less traction than attempts at “cultural” criticism–attempts to understand the German people and heritage that allowed (welcomed? supported? was victimized by?) Hitler’s rise to power. The documentary wants to be a meaningful contributor to that debate, but its biggest handicap is its source material. With over 100,000 letters to choose from, the archive itself is bound to have letters from those who opposed as well as from those who welcomed the Fuhrer.
he contemporary standard in news media (director Kloft has done several films for PBS’s American Experience) is that one must show examples from both sides, even if, on average those samples are not representative of the whole. Add to the mix the requisite letters from obvious crackpots, and it is hard to get a sense, in sixty minutes, of which letters are more representative of the whole and which are interesting but anomalous remnants of history.
The concerns about take home messages aside, the film is nevertheless engaging throughout and quite fascinating in segments. Several letters are about the party’s treatment of Jews, and there is a sort of jarring, poignant naivete in one letter from a Jew asking Hitler to restore rights to his people because, other than in this one area, he really has admired and supported the leader.
One letter that was quite a find (and which is surprisingly introduced with little fanfare) is from film director Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl told Cahiers du Cinema in 1965:
Triumph of the Will brought me innumerable, very hard troubles after the war. It was, effectively, a film made to order, proposed by Hitler. But that was happening, you must remember, in 1934. And, assuredly, it was impossible for the young girl that I was to foresee what was going to come about. At that period, Hitler had acquired a certain credit in the world for himself, and he fascinated a certain number of people–among them Winston Churchill. And I, I alone, I should have been able to foresee that one day things would change?
At that time, one believed in something beautiful. In construction. In peace [….]
This description of herself by Riefenstahl is hard to square with her letter in Dear Uncle Adolf, which talks of being “thrilled” by the site of the German army marching through the streets of Paris. The juxtaposition of these two sentiments, though, is a reminder of both the value of the written archive and the challenges presented to the historian in assessing his or her material. People (individuals and groups) change over time. As circumstances change, they may try to revise their own personal or corporate histories. Sometimes this process is deliberate, at other times it can be so gradual and unconscious that a person can really convince himself or herself that he believed, thought, or acted differently in the past than what a dispassionate survey of witnesses or archives might suggest.
Ultimately Dear Uncle Adolf won’t provide definitive answers for those who seek to understand the relationship between the man and the larger culture, but it does prompt and invite the right sort of questions.