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.
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.
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.
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?