Hitler's History Films: David Welch Looks at the Dramatisation of Fuhrerprinzip in the Nazi Cinema, and How History Films Were Used to Propagate Themes of Anti-Parliamentarianism and the Concept of an Individual Leader of Genius

By Welch, David | History Today, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Hitler's History Films: David Welch Looks at the Dramatisation of Fuhrerprinzip in the Nazi Cinema, and How History Films Were Used to Propagate Themes of Anti-Parliamentarianism and the Concept of an Individual Leader of Genius


Welch, David, History Today


DURING THE THIRD REICH the state commissioned a number of extravagant historical films, intended to strike a chord with German audiences, and to reinforce the notion of Fuhrerprinzip (the leadership principle). The notion of a mystical figure embodying and guiding the nation's destiny was derived from volkisch thought, and Adolf Hitler was believed to have the will and power to actualise the Volksstaat (the people's state).

However, as the embodiment of the people's will, the God-like status bestowed upon Hitler posed certain problems for Nazi film-makers. Any dramatisation of him on screen would verge on the blasphemous, but there was no limit to the ways in which his capacity could be envisioned. So filmmakers chose great figures of German history on whom they could project the Hitler prototype. Between 1937 and 1943 these included a poet (Friedrich Schiller), a sculptor (Andreas Schluter), a scientist (Paracelsus), an explorer (Carl Peters), a statesman (Bismarck), a successful industrialist, and a king. Simultaneously, Hitler was exalted in Nazi propaganda as an amalgam of such geniuses.

There were a number of variations on the leadership theme. Generally these featured characters from German history presented in the Fuhrer's image, although occasionally a contemporary figure was used whose life provided analogies to Hitler's career and teachings. The most notable film in this latter category was the highly successful Der Herrscher (1937), directed by Veit Harlan and starring Emil Jannings as Matthias Clausen, head of an industrial dynasty clearly modelled on the Krupp dynasty. The story was a free adaptation of Gerhart Hauptmann's play Vor Sonnenuntergang (Before Sunset), with script-writers Thea von Harbou and Curt Johannes Braun providing the Nazi interpretation. Although ostensibly about a widowed industrialist whose family try to have him certified insane when his ideas and love for a young secretary threaten their inheritance, the importance of the film lies in the characterisation of Matthias Clausen. Whereas in Hauptmann's play the gentle art collector is destroyed by the conflict, in Harlan's film he renounces his family and becomes a powerful figure in rebuilding Germany by bequeathing his factory to the community.

The moral of the story was that if one submitted unconditionally to absolute authority such loyalty and obedience would be rewarded by final victory. Individual rights would be willingly forgone for the sake of the whole community. This demand for individual sacrifice was established in one of the opening scenes in the film. According to Veit Harlan, the recurrence of typical Nazi phrases like `popular community', `individual sacrifice', and `the intellectual and the manual worker' were written into the script by Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and his Under Secretary, Walter Funk.

Leni Reifenstahl's documentary of the 1934 Nazi Party Rally, Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) had highlighted the emergence of the new `homo germanicus'--a man of destiny with a clearly defined mission. Der Herrscher rationalised the apparent contradiction in Nazi thought between individual freedom, collective responsibility, and the Fuhrerprinzip. It served the twofold purpose of reconciling the need for an all-powerful leader with its corollary, the loyal follower. The conclusion to be drawn from the film was that under a weak democratic form of government, the Clausen works, and Germany's industry in general, had been controlled by foreign interests to the detriment of the German people. Under the guidance of the individual leader of genius, by contrast, the true spirit and economic well-being of the nation would be realised. Der Herrscher can be seen as an explicit lecture from the Ministry for Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment (RMVP) on precisely what the state expected from its citizens.

The different types of films produced during the Third Reich reveal a good deal about Goebbels' Filmpolitik. …

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