Religion

This Film About Nazi Germany Explains Everything I Dislike About Faith

Have you seen the movie Downfall? It’s the story of the last days of Hitler’s life, told mostly from inside his bunker and around Berlin. Needless to say it’s a sobering movie, and one well worth watching. (By the way, spoilers ahead.)

One of the toughest scenes of the movie comes near the end. Mrs. Goebbels, wife of Joseph Goebbels, decides to kill all six of their children. She sedates them, and when they are unconscious she poisons each of them to death.

Seeing a mother kill her own children—Nazi or otherwise—is far from easy. Out of a movie full of disturbing scenes, this is a top contender for most disturbing.

But why? It isn’t just because kids are harmed. Sure, seeing a kid killed or abused is always a gut-wrenching scene. But there are other scenes like that in Downfall. A bit earlier in the film, we see a group of Hitler Youth manning a machine gun nest. One of the child volunteers, a blonde-haired girl perhaps 11 years old, gives explicit instructions to her male comrades: when the Allies close on their position, her friends must kill her, so that she is not raped by enemy soldiers.

Seriously.

She has fucking pigtails.

And yet, horrific as that morbid child-rape talk is, it’s really Mrs. Goebbels with her pills and six dead kids that haunted me after the film was over. And here’s why:

Mrs. Goebbels was a true believer.

I’m just trying to lighten up this post. It’s Monday for chrissakes.

Suspension of Disbelief

In general, people don’t like to commit to strong beliefs. Most people like to stay toward the middle of the pack, not any one extreme.

But when an extremist philosophy rises to power people will cover up their doubts. If toeing the party line will bring them safety, success, or even just social approval: consider it toed. People suspend their disbelief when there is a benefit to doing so.

Most of the people in the bunker were not true believers. Numerous scenes in Downfall elegantly depict generals and aides who have lost all faith in Hitler. They nervously endure the Fuhrer’s tirades. They accept and pass on his orders. But they glance at each other with looks of shock and horror as he talks about taking back the city, repelling the Russians and winning the war.

Whatever reason these generals may have originally become Nazis—for the sake of their career, love of their country, fear of Jews, or whatever—it was not because they had an unshakable faith in Hitler and his vision. When his ideology leads them toward failure, they quickly give up any pretense of belief. They begin to look after their own lives instead of the cause, which is a very human thing to do.

Balls Deep

Not Mrs. Goebbels. She believes wholeheartedly in Hitler’s vision of the Third Reich and the new Germany they are going to build. And when the end comes, when Hitler has committed suicide and surrender terms are being discussed, Mrs. Goebbels makes her choice for a very clear reason: because she can’t stand to live in a world where Hitler’s great vision doesn’t come true. And she doesn’t want her kids to grow up in such a world, either.

She’s given a chance to take her children and flee; in fact a more grounded Nazi pleads with her to do so before it’s too late. After she delivers her offspring into death, she and her husband go ahead and kill themselves as well.

To her, a world where her ideology does not succeed—or where it may have been flawed to begin with—is worse than death.

What’s Wrong Here?

Most of the Nazis in the film did not have the conviction that Mrs. Goebbels had. They were willing to compromise their party’s vision when it failed them. They only suspended their doubts while it was advantageous; they never really committed to the crazy belief system they were part of.

I wonder, how many religious people are doing the same thing?

How many would drop their belief tomorrow if it meant their life? Did they ever really believe in the first place, or were they just not voicing their doubts?

Is a god or an afterlife really something most people buy, or do they just accept it as the wrapping for social acceptability?

I’m eager to see your thoughts on this. How many true believers are really in a congregation, and how much would that change if churches didn’t emphasize belief so much?

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29 thoughts on “This Film About Nazi Germany Explains Everything I Dislike About Faith

  1. Iiiiiinteresting. Oh, I so love a thought-provoking question first thing in the morning.

    Well, it’s a circular question for me. I believe that endurance is a true test of character– that is, choosing to live even after all your illusions have been shattered, when you are standing in the wreckage of your life, and you choose to carry on. That might look different than you’d expect, given the circumstances, but I suppose my most deeply held belief is that there is always hope in the future. As for the little girl, I can empathize with her decision…but faced with certain death, or certain suffering, of the two, at least there’s always the hope that pain will end. And, of course, death is always an option later.

    I was influenced by the movie “Women of Valor” about nurses captured by the Japanese in WWII. Some of the POWs kill themselves, others die from fever, some escape, and in the process, inflict suffering on those who cannot escape. I could see how each moral decision had to be made, and re-made, every day, every moment.

    I have no problem with belief, per se. Faith is like self-control, it waxes and wanes in you according to the circumstances and your emotional reserves. I am intrigued with the idea of a church that does not emphasize beliefs. Surely shared values (that is, shared beliefs in the morality of certain principles) is the bedrock of any group, organized or not.

    I’m doubt that I have any belief that I would not renounce at a moment’s notice if coerced (though perhaps that’s simply evaluating pragmatism over honesty) I see absolutely no difficulty with choosing a set of beliefs that I like, perhaps wish were true, proceed to act as if they were true for as long as they are useful, and discarding them when they begin to bind. Perhaps I’m morally bankrupt, but it certainly has worked for me so far.

    • That’s a fascinating answer Shanna. I like the idea that their actions may have nothing to do with their original state of belief, but instead reflect a test of endurance. In which case, it’s not that Mrs. Goebbels was more of a true believer (or not only that), but that she couldn’t find a reason to endure the difficult new situation they were in.

      This raises two questions for me:
      1) Was she then just wrapping her decision in the language of true belief, to make it seem more virtuous than it was? Or was she really a true believer as well?
      2) Why could others in the bunker – general who stood to face execution if captured, whereas she would likely be spared – find reasons to stay alive and keep going, while she couldn’t find any reason at all? Is it because she was too invested in National Socialism and thus didn’t have other sources of meaning to turn to? Is a “diversified portfolio” of sources of meaning stronger than true belief?

      Curious to hear your thoughts.

      • Oohh. I love the idea of a “diversified portfolio”.

        Not having seen the movie (and now I NEVER will– I hate being forced to contemplate the moral quandries of others. I demand happy endings, dammit!) I have no idea where they were headed with their interpretation of Frau Goebbels, but as you mentioned to Mockingbird, humans can rationalize everything. I think the fact that she was so invested in Nazism she couldn’t go on. Think about it: When you have nothing but contempt for the rest of the planet, and they defeat you in spite of your clear superiority, what DOES that say about your worthiness? I think that shame and rage were the primary impetuses here, but that she really did believe she was dying loyal to the cause.

        As for the generals, soldiers are nothing if not pragmatic. Sure, they’re willing to die if need be, sometimes even for a cause, but in their minds, they’re always going to get lucky. I think they probably have to believe it.

  2. Oh man. I think doubt is a thunderstroke of mercy. If we are honest and humble, we are never too sure. If we are sure our actions will speak love or death. I think in most things I reserve the right to suspend my belief.

    There are only a few allegiances where I say “I believe please help me believe.” And even these involve the crisis of doubt.

    Great one, m

    • Mark, I really like the way you put that. I’ve never before heard the term “suspend belief.” We always hear of suspending disbelief – effectively being skeptical, but going along with a notion because it’s fun (in a book or movie) or beneficial (in a social movement). But the idea of suspending *belief* – that’s loaded in a whole different way.

      Does suspending belief mean fake-recanting when it means your life?

      Or does suspending disbelief mean sincerely giving up a belief because it is no longer useful?

      Or something else?

  3. Mockingbird says:

    I nearly wrote “there is nothing I believe in that I would die for.” But I have to disagree with myself. There isn’t any faith thing that I would die for, but there are values that are so important to me I wouldn’t want to live if I sacrificed them. At least I hope they are.

    • The good (or bad) news is that, if you did violate one of those deeply held values, within a short period of time you could invent a rationalization for why it was actually a good thing. The human mind is great at that. It’s getting through that initial period of feeling completely disgusted with yourself that’s the hard part….

      Mockingbird, can I ask what sorts of values you have in mind that wouldn’t be worth living without? (If that’s too personal, I understand.)

  4. Oh, I like Mockingbird’s answer. That’s what I was trying to figure out how to say, I think. And I don’t see that as a moral issue or failing at all. I….don’t even feel like “faith” is the accurate word for how I feel about my gods, because it’s not strong enough, but at the same time, getting killed for them doesn’t serve me *or* them. I’m reminded of – I can’t remember his name at the moment (looked it up – Thorgeir Ljósvetningagodi, now THAT’S a mouthful), but he was a prominent heathen gothi in Iceland around the time of the conversion. At the Althing, he was consulted as to what he thought about the rise of Christianity and what should be done with the situation, and he after contemplating it in silent meditation for a day and a night, he announced that he thought that Christianity should be the official religion of Iceland from hereon out. He was probably considered a traitor by some (especially since he later converted to Christianity himself, I think), but his decision kept Iceland from tearing itself apart in war as many other countries had over conversion, and the fact that they “went willingly”, so to speak, enabled the practitioners of the traditional religion to keep doing it in private, letting the traditions survive much longer than they would have otherwise. Would it have been better for him to stick staunchly with his beliefs, cause a war, and probably vastly increase religious persecution in the process? I don’t think so.

    As to whether belongers of mainstream religions today believe in that same way…obviously some do. I’m thinking of the people who sold all of their things because of that crazyass Judgement Day dude.

    • I like this one, Michelle. Too me, this is the spirit of true leadership. In a somewhat similar vein, it used to be said that “China was never conquered” because they had a similar tendency to simply absorb their conquerors.

    • “Would it have been better for him to stick staunchly with his beliefs, cause a war, and probably vastly increase religious persecution in the process?”

      I suppose it depends on whether the war was winnable – in which case it would have actually freed people from religious persecution. But from your description it sounds like it wouldn’t have been. Interesting, I had never heard of this fellow – thank you for sharing this story!

      • Ah, and there’s the rub. I guess we can’t say for sure, but Christianity won the war everywhere else in Europe. I think I forgot to mention, one of his conditions was that if Christianity became the public religion, the pagans still had to be allowed to practice their religion in private – so that was written in from day one. Not equal, but much better than things ended up elsewhere. Because of that, Iceland still has a lot of their traditions that have been passed down (and has a fairly strong Asatru revival now, I think), which is incredibly awesome & very useful for those who aren’t from Iceland too (though I tend more continental, but it’s still interesting stuff).

        I’m always happy to provide information about Random Obscure Historical Figures ;)

  5. Great post, Drew.

    What does the Hero believe? Does the Hero have a conviction that would lead her to kill her children, or to kill at all? Do Heroes hold that tightly to beliefs?

    I’m curious how belief plays into your understanding of the Hero.

    • Hi Teo, AWESOME question.

      I firmly believe that heroes, no matter what their other values or beliefs, must always oppose imperialism and the forced domination of others. By doing so, they should never be in a situation where they need to kill an innocent third party to succeed at their goal.

      If Mrs. Goebbels followed that policy, for instance, she could have chosen to kill herself but would have left it up to her children to grow up and make their own choice. Because she wouldn’t force such a thing on them.

  6. I’m with Shanna. There are no religious “beliefs” I would die for. One of the reasons Paganism drew me in the first place was that it largely gets away from “faith,” which has been corrupted by (specifically) Christianity to mean credence in the incredible. I cannot subscribe to any creed, so there is no creed (credo, belief) I would die for.

    On the other hand, I’ve come to terms with the fact that death is inevitable. A bout of malignant cancer (now “cured”) taught me that. It’s merely a question of timing. And one of the things that the channeled entity Abraham (Esther Hicks) says that I particularly like is that “you’ll never get it done, and you can’t get it wrong.”

    Death is simply one option among many. I’m sure there are many circumstances under which I would gladly and swiftly choose death. Many of us will eventually face that question in fact — the massive heart attack is one of the easy ways out. Kidney failure is also fairly gentle. Bone cancer is not.

    So I’m seeing at least four different questions here.

    1) Choosing a swift death to avoid a painful and lingering (but inevitable) death. This could be responding to a diagnosis of bone cancer, or responding to a threat of being terminally questioned by Tomas de Torquemada’s flunkies.

    2) Choosing death over despair (the loss of hope).

    3) Choosing death over dishonor. This is your little girl in the movie. This is perhaps Frau Goebbels. Those who subscribe to the “end justifies the means” rationalization are particularly vulnerable, since they commit atrocities for the “greater good.” Should they fail, they face their own long list of atrocities done for nothing — a dishonor they cannot escape.

    4) Choosing death because of belief. The big UFO cult in Switzerland some decades back comes to mind. Many instances of martyrdom.

    • When it comes to suicide, I’ve always drawn a line between altruistic suicide and selfish suicide.

      Altruistic suicide is the soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his buddies… what an amazing gesture of love.

      Selfish suicide is pretty much every other form of suicide. No matter how much anguish you may be in, and how badly you want to kill yourself to stop it – chances are that if you live on, you’ll eventually get past it and find happier times.

      I call it selfish suicide because a person does it to make themselves feel better, disregarding the feelings of others.

      Is it the individual’s right to make that choice? Yes, I suppose so. But it can be horribly cruel nonetheless.

  7. Matt says:

    My guess is there is literally one in a million people who would die for their beliefs, samurai-style. People will tell you a hundred times how strongly a certain character value is followed, but drop it at an inconvenience.

    My bitterest thoughts when leaving the YMCA was how completely lacking its leaders (my local versions at least) were in the four basic values they espoused. Caring, Honesty, Respect, and Responsibility. Those traits were common among the low level workers who flocked to the organization because of the promise. But as people climbed the ladder, they disappeared. Horrid.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your experiences at the YMCA. I’ve generally had good experiences with the leadership of the nonprofits I work with. They may have different perspectives than the people “on the ground” but they still seem to believe in the organization’s ideals. I’m sad that the ones you’ve met didn’t feel that way.

      Your “one in a million” reminds me – at the Columbine high school massacre, the shooters told a number of children at gunpoint to renounce Jesus and the children refused. I have no idea how old these kids are so I don’t know how that would translate to adults’ reactions; I suspect adults would look more at pragmatical solutions for self-preservation (“renounce now, repent later”). But I did think it was interesting that kids refused to renounce their beliefs in the face of death.

    • Huh. I’m usually a language Nazi (get it!) and I had no idea. I always thought “towing” the line made sense – so “toeing” it looks weird to me. But I’ll go with toeing from now on since it’s correct. Thanks for schooling me Ruadhan, I love learning these things.

  8. I think many have jettisoned the religious beliefs of their immediate culture or families. I’m more interested in the evolution of beliefs, how you can take the ones you have and let them evolve into something more and become something great.

    Many of us are raised in a spiritual system. It’s easy to jettison one, but where do you go after that? How do you evolve (evolution refers to change, metamorphosis, not necessarily progress). How long does it take to get over the regret and pain of the old system to incorporate something that follows.

    I tried to address this my article: Crisis of Faith: http://urbanhaas.blogspot.com/2009/06/crisis-of-faith_09.html. There are ways to rebuild and go on. Leaving behind belief can be difficult and painful, reincorporating what worked before, just as hard.

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