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over simplified and inaccurate
on 5 September 2013
I forced myself to watch all six episodes after watching the fifth one which deals with the holocaust. I agree that they are a very polished and convincing piece of work. I am Lithuanian and the Lithuanian translations were very good with little omitted. The people involved in the film's production appear to be top-notch, one even having been knighted.
The first problem is in finding the warning. This series did not give any warning signs of impending doom that we could apply today to avoid a repeat. Each episode covers a different aspect. The first is on Hitler's rise to power and a lesson might be learned from that. But other films I have seen on his rise to power seem to have offered more information. The other episodes cover different aspects of the regime, the only one approaching the `lesson' of the first was a discussion in episode 6 of why the Germans were unable to get rid of Hitler themselves. This is more a lesson for future dictators than their opposition. Overall, the only lesson I can see is to hate all `Nazis', perhaps all Germans since little distinction is made. And to hate the collaborators, especially Lithuanians, but not Italians who the film says, in general, committed few if any atrocities. This hatred is based more on the emotions evoked by the film than on hard facts. Since one of the cornerstones of Hitler's success was promoting a hatred of Jews and Slavs, I should think the film should encourage understanding and forgiveness rather than hatred. Or maybe the warning is that people today can be taught to hate just like the Germans in the 1930s?
The second problem is that the data is skewed. For example, in one election, Hitler's party received only 2.6 per cent of the vote. Then the film says that 97.4 per cent of the electorate rejected Hitler's message, which is utterly ridiculous. A few might have rejected it, but for the most part, they simply found another's party's message more attractive. With such a low polling number, it is quite possible that many if not most of the electorate had not even heard Hitler's message.
I would have thought that a documentary by people with such credentials would have gotten the party's name correct. In the translations of the German dialogue, you will notice that only National Socialist is used. This is because `Nazi' was an insult, something akin to calling G.W. Bush a redneck.
The interviews have been badly cropped, resulting in a loss of context. For example, one interview is on two episodes. In it, a German veteran relates how they were given orders to destroy all buildings and kill everyone they met. Because of the placement, it would appear this was done during both the advance and the retreat. If the Germans had done their job advancing, there would have been nothing to destroy or kill during the retreat. According to R. Kershaw (War without Garlands), such an order was given in eliminating the pockets (Kessel) because Russian resistance was so strong and concentrated, there was no other way to advance. And while there was a scorched earth policy during the retreat, there was often little opportunity to implement it because the retreat was so fast. And I have not heard of that later order extending to the inhabitants. A look at the post-war population of these areas will show the `failure' of such a mass order. For example, in Ukraine, 5-8 million Ukrainians died during the war, which includes half a million Jews and 1.4 million soldiers. According to Wikipedia, in 1939, the country had a population of 31 million and in 1959, 42 million. So either the Germans were really bad at following orders or the film is wrong in its assertion.
An interview was shown with a Lithuanian sentenced to 20 years for the murder of Jews; his companions had been executed on the basis of his testimony. He was asked if he felt guilt over what he had done. He pointed out that he had served 20 years, but he had no answer deeper than that, which really irritated the interviewer. The interviewee refused to speak any more on the subject. Now I can understand the interviewer not understanding, but a noted historian and an experienced producer should understand that participants simply cannot afford to look too deeply into such events. Ask frontline vets about how they feel about the people they killed and rarely will you get deep answers, if you get one at all. Ask a bomber crew member how they feel about the babies they killed and see what the answer is. My uncle could not ignore his conscience and drank himself to death. That part of the interview should have never been included in a high quality documentary because the producer should have understood the situation better. The only reason I can see for its inclusion was to show how `evil' the Lithuanian collaborators were, so we could hate them.
Because I am Lithuanian and do work with history and historians as a translator, I know a bit of the rest of the story, although I am by no means an expert. So I will comment on episode 5 (on the Holocaust), which features Lithuanian atrocities, which definitely occurred. One problem is that the film appears to make the point that in other countries these murders were committed by the Germans but in Lithuania mainly by the Lithuanians and on a vaster scale. The brutality of the Lithuanian executions is highlighted: in Lithuania they bludgeoned the Jews to death with a crowbar and then played the national anthem over the corpses, while the executions elsewhere were `humanely' conducted by shooting. Like all of the other episodes, the story is very superficial and none of the complexity lying behind these events is given. For example, the above interviewee even points out that his companions were angry, but no explanation was given for this anger. It is a shame that the interview was not given in its entirety. The interview I translated was definitely biased with the interviewer continuously asking pointed questions, shaping the interview to fit his agenda. It is quite possible that no exploration was made of why these Lithuanians were angry with the Jews. Some of those accusing Lithuania of atrocities have political agendas that have nothing to do with the Germans. I will not name these because I am not trying to continue such hostile attitudes but any accusation should always be examined for the accuser's agenda. I am presuming the film's emphasis on Lithuania is due to precisely these accusations, the sources of which are not given in the film. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, little if any research was possible in this area in Lithuania, meaning these claims could not be proven or discredited, which vacuum allowed them to become established to a certain degree without substantiation. For example, no excavation has been made of these mass graves. They do exist and they do contain large numbers of bodies, but the numbers may be far smaller than the local pre-war population, which is what they are usually credited as containing. There is no record of how many Jews fled with the Soviets or into the forests, where they may have also perished, but that is a slightly different story. In the crowbar story, it is mentioned that these were not ordinary Jews, but mainly those Jews suspected of Soviet collaboration. However the whole episode is about the fate of the Jews and it is easy to ignore that crucial distinction. Some of the story behind that event is the following. The Russians under the Tsars strove to create tensions among the various nations that comprised their empire in order to prevent massive revolutions, i.e. divide and conquer. For example, in Lithuania during its occupation by the Russian Empire, only Jews were granted the privilege of legally fencing stolen property. An effort was made to keep the Lithuanians isolated on the farms and also to isolate the Jews to some extent, for example by allowing them to study in their own schools. At the beginning of Lithuanian independence, ethnic Lithuanians were mostly farmers while the Jews controlled the bulk of the wealth like banks and shops. The Russians had been more comfortable conferring wealth and economic power on the Jews because they had not revolted two times in the nineteenth century like the Lithuanians had. This imbalance was due to ethnic Russian policy, not Jewish superiority, Lithuanian inferiority, or a Jewish conspiracy. The interwar Lithuanian government tried to ease the situation by passing laws that slightly favoured ethnic Lithuanians over Jews in business so that eventually two equal communities would be formed in the society. The Jews, who had supported the declaration of independence, felt betrayed. Because the Jews were still not allowed to hold political office in interwar Lithuania, they did not feel capable of redressing the situation in any way. Before the Soviet occupation, Lithuania was not known for pogroms. The Germans favoured a super race policy and Lithuanians were not Germans so no effort was made to `convert' Lithuanians to National Socialism, although German `scientists' did look for evidence that Lithuanians were a long lost Germanic tribe so that they could claim Lithuanian lands for themselves. As a consequence, aside from the genocide and economic problems, the Germans affected Lithuania very little compared to the Soviets. The Soviets, on the other hand, were egalitarian. So they tried to convert everyone to communism. Seizing this weakness created by the tsars, they actively recruited the Jews to serve in their occupational government. But the Soviets did not see any possibility of converting people with set anti-Communist convictions and the ability to lead, like school teachers, military officers, NCOs, pillars of the community, politicians, businessmen, etc. So during the reign of this Soviet occupational government that the Jews participated in, tens of thousands of the best leaders Lithuania had were deported to Siberia or executed. Most of the Jews in the government did not directly participate in these deportations and executions; it was mostly guilt by association. Imagine the Russians doing the same to Winston Churchill, Bernard Montgomery (a slight anachronism, I know), almost all of the officer corps, and a large percentage of the teaching staff throughout the UK. How would the Brits feel about those responsible? What many do not know is that the Germans did not `liberate' Lithuania in 1941, although they did create the conditions for that to happen. The surviving Lithuanian leaders who had accidentally been missed by these hurried deportations organised a defence force and threw the fleeing Russians out, setting up a month-long interim government until the Germans arrived. The Germans rejected all offers of accepting Lithuania as an ally both before September 1939 and in July 1941. We were only conquered territory with no self-determination. The failure of officials, whether volunteer, appointed, or elected, to follow German instructions was punishable according to German law. And anyone helping the Communists was a traitor to the Reich and liable to receive a death sentence. You can now imagine how, with most Lithuanian voices of reason removed from the picture, how a leaderless Kaunas mob would take a crowbar to Soviet collaborators, quislings if you will, and play the national anthem over their corpses.
There were many reasons for joining the National Society party and judging from what this film said about the way the exterminations were kept secret, few probably joined solely due to a burning desire to kill Jews. Few military recruits dream of committing atrocities; they usually dream of battlefield honours. But their dreams got hijacked. Ask Snowden how easy it is to renounce your vows to the state because you disagree with what the state is doing. And it was harder to get out of Hitler's Germany. The Germans did allow the Jews to flee Poland into Lithuania, but usually after they had robbed them and humiliated them. But even before this, Lithuania had the highest per capita population of Jews in Eastern Europe. This is why the `level' of atrocities was so great in Lithuania.
It is interesting that Schindler, a member of the National Society party, is not mentioned in either episode 5 or 6. Episode 6 discusses why Hitler was not deposed but not the other forms resistance took. Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Vice-Consul in Kaunas, saved over 6000 Jews and did the most for the Jews on Lithuanian soil. The Lithuanians did nothing to hinder Sugihara's activities.
In short, if you need propaganda to pump your hatred of Germans and by association, Lithuanians, then this is a good DVD for you. If you want a substantiated documentary about the European theatre during the Second World War, look elsewhere. I gave it a two, because there are some facts in it, although trusting their truthfulness and completeness is difficult.