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July 5, 2002 at 10 AM

Echoes of Denial

Yesterday’s sentencing in Germany of a former SS officer lends an opportunity to note an excellent Holocaust-related film I recently saw.

Amen tells the true story of a German soldier named Kurt Gerstein (played by German actor Ulrich Tukur), a specialist in hygiene and water purification, who reluctantly joins the SS. When he realizes that the SS is using his knowledge and skills to aid the Final Solution — the genocide of European Jews — he decides he must alert the world. Matthieu Kassovitz (who directed the excellent 1995 film La Haine), plays a Catholic priest from the Vatican who is sympathetic to the soldier’s attempts.

The film, inspired by a 1963 play, The Representative, focuses on denial, a subject that seems less often discussed in Holocaust history than other, simpler matters. It conveys the unwillingness of the many different players to stake claim in the moral battle of the Second World War. German citizens, the German Protestant clergy, the Vatican, the American government: all were at least partially aware of what was happening in Eastern Europe, but none took the initiative to protest or halt the genocide.

French director Costas-Gravas focuses in particular on the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII, who put caution, diplomacy, and self-preservation ahead of regard for the lives of millions of Jews. The historical accuracy of this portrayal is open to argument — as is any historical documentary subject — and one could argue that Pius XII may have had little success in stopping the Holocaust even if he had tried harder. The film even perhaps indirectly confronts this contradiction in its portrayal of the cold, frightening efficiency in which the Nazis proceeded with the Final Solution. For those with the power to stop this machine of death, including the German people and the Allied powers, it would have taken immense attention and effort. This doesn’t mean, however, that they shouldn’t have tried, and the Catholic church’s inaction (which has been partially acknowledged more recently by the papacy) remains difficult to forgive.

Amen successfully and powerfully conveys the madness and futility of a world that would permit such an atrocity to occur. European Jews were not important enough in the minds of the world to warrant the attention they deserved and the shock of this ultimate failure in human compassion still resonates powerfully 60 years later. This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an important one. The world still finds excuses for inaction, but maybe it wouldn’t if it had a better memory.

Comments

” European Jews were not important enough in the minds of the world to warrant the attention they deserved. “

Actually, it was even worse than that, many people were glad to get rid of the Jews for different reasons (intolerance to a different religion, hatred, cupidity, jalousy, or just because they needed a scapegoat). The most striking example is the swiss banks for whom the “vanishing” of their clients was the deal of the century.

On the other hand, how explain that the American Jews didn’t protest?

— Sabine | Jul. 5, 2002 — 3 PM

Regarding “…and one could argue that Pius XII may have had little success in stopping…”. read Daniel Goldhagen’s “A Moral Reckoning”, Knopf, ‘02, esp. about the Danish Lutheran Church (p50)

— russell phillips | Jan. 10, 2003 — 12 AM

Previously: High Gear

Subsequently: Future Report

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