It’s Sweepstime For Hitler, But Winter for Truth

It’s springtime, I mean sweepstime, for Hitler in Hollywood. I’m sure you’ve all heard of the forthcoming two-night, four-hour, prime-time CBS “Miniseries Event” called Hitler: The Rise of Evil (airing May 18 and 20). Well I’ve finally seen a review copy of the controversial “docudrama,” and there’s a lot I could say-and may say in the future-about the soap opera–fication of the Hitler story.

But there’s a drama behind the docudrama that hasn’t received the attention it deserves. A story about the political uses of Hitler and history, and about the consequences of someone revealing the truth about the misguided political agenda of the docudrama.

I’m speaking about the fate of the very man who shaped and then boasted of that misguided agenda. I’m speaking about the fate of Ed Gernon, the executive producer of Hitler: The Rise of Evil , who proclaimed to TV Guide that his Hitler movie was really an admonitory allegory that showed parallels between Germany’s support of Adolf Hitler and America’s support of George W. Bush. Ed Gernon was summarily fired by the Canadian production company, Alliance Atlantis, that made the Hitler movie for CBS, just three days after the New York Post ‘s Page Six previewed his inflammatory TV Guide quotes.

There are three scandals here. First, there’s the foolishness of Mr. Gernon’s Bush-Hitler thesis, which I’ve written about previously (see The Observer , April 14, 2003). “It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole world into war,” Mr. Gernon told Mark Lasswell in the April 12 issue of TV Guide . “Gernon stated his belief that fear fueled both the Bush administration’s adoption of a preemptive-strike policy and the public’s acceptance of it,” Mr. Lasswell reported. “Gernon said a similar fearfulness in a devastated post-World War I Germany was ‘absolutely’ behind that nation’s acceptance of Hitler’s extremism.” So we Americans are cowards like the Germans who heiled Hitler.

The director of the miniseries seconded Mr. Gernon’s parallel by telling Mr. Lasswell, “The resonance of Hitler’s rise with current events is ‘primarily what I wanted to show.'”

I’ve already commented on the staggering lack of historical and moral discrimination such statements represent. But at the time I hadn’t seen the film-sorry, the “Miniseries Event”-itself, and didn’t wish to comment on it until I could gauge whether it actually embodied the Ed Gernon vision, or whether Mr. Gernon was just retrospectively putting his own dim spin on the rise of Hitler. Still, the director had said the parallel between the rise of Hitler and the age of Bush “is primarily what I wanted to show.” And after watching the review copy CBS sent me of Hitler: The Rise of Evil , it’s clear (as I’ll show in a moment) that in one crucial respect, it does embody the Ed Gernon parallel-and seems to alter history to do so.

So that’s one scandal. The second scandal is what happened to Mr. Gernon after his remarks became public: the firing, which punished him for his political beliefs and made him a scapegoat, thus allowing others to escape responsibility. This was something I didn’t learn about until after my column expressing amazement at the obtuseness of Mr. Gernon’s TV Guide remarks came out (although it turned out his firing took place before my column appeared). I first read it in the April 10 edition of The Hollywood Reporter , three days after the Page Six preview of the TV Guide story: “Ed Gernon, the longtime head of Alliance Atlantis’ longform division, has been fired from the company because of remarks made in a TV Guide interview regarding Alliance’s upcoming CBS miniseries chronicling the early years of Adolf Hitler, sources said. Alliance Atlantis declined comment … as did Gernon …. ” Both Alliance and CBS dissociated themselves from Mr. Gernon’s comments and maintained that “the tone or the content” of the miniseries did not reflect those views.

This is the second scandal-one I’m surprised more attention has not been paid to. I’ve heard no outcry from the bold Hollywood defenders of free speech against the “chill wind” of repression. Were they too busy trying to shut down Web sites that made fun of anti-war celebrities such as boycott-hollywood.us to care about Ed Gernon’s case? Is it because it involves the mighty CBS? Or is it because, in his clumsy way, Mr. Gernon was expressing the embarrassingly simplistic and reductive nature of the politics you saw in the signs in the anti-war marches reading “Bush = Hitler”?

It’s true that The Progressive magazine noted the Gernon firing in its “McCarthyism Watch” (and Los Angeles Times TV writer Howard Rosenberg criticized the move), but The Progressive isn’t going to be pitching any sitcoms to CBS in the near future. Where are Tim and Susan, Moore and Gore (Vidal)? It really seems to me to be a scandal if Ed Gernon was fired for his politics: Much as I disagree with his simple-minded views, it’s hard to imagine any other explanation than that Mr. Gernon was fired for telling the truth about them, about the vision he evidently felt was expressed in the film that he was in charge of. It seems so blatant you almost wonder if the “firing” was a temporary device to keep his views out of the picture in the p.r. run-up to the broadcast and he’ll be back at his desk after it airs. But it’s still the wrong message to send.

Here’s the third scandal: Alliance Atlantis fired the messenger; both they and CBS have strenuously dissociated themselves and their film from the Gernon message. But they’re either deceiving themselves (that’s the kindest interpretation) or they fell asleep during a crucial sequence in the second segment of their “miniseries event” (not utterly improbable). The place where Mr. Gernon and his director’s “message” is powerfully embodied, embedded-at least in the review copy sent out to the nation’s TV writers. If Alliance was going to fire Ed Gernon for that message, and CBS is still going to complacently broadcast it anyway, then shouldn’t they all have fired themselves instead?

Before I get to that crucial sequence-the one I’ve come to think of as “the Ed Gernon moment”-let’s review the somewhat benighted history of this prime-time Hitler soap, which was originally titled Hitler: The Early Years .

It started out promisingly, proclaiming that it would be based on the first volume of Ian Kershaw’s excellent Hitler biography, the one that covered the years 1889-1936. But Mr. Kershaw and the producers (ironic term now) parted ways for not-well-specified reasons, although CBS chief Les Moonves was quoted as calling Mr. Kershaw’s approach “dry” and “academic.” (Alas, serious history often is. Maybe a Survivor: Third Reich! approach would be less “dry.”) It’s not clear whether the historian left before or after the first script (not by Mr. Kershaw) got into circulation last year, and prompted protests from some Jewish groups, who argued that by focusing on Hitler’s childhood and youth, it encouraged viewers to empathize with poor little sensitive and abused Adolf. And that, by concluding in 1934-before the great slaughters began-it would be misleading, giving us a Hitler without (most of) his victims. The first script was described in The Times by someone who had read it as having an ending reminiscent of the triumphalism of the ending of Rocky .

So it was back to the drawing board for the CBS Hitler project, with a new scriptwriter and a new title. No longer Hitler: The Early Years , it was now Hitler: Origins of Evil . CBS president Les Moonves pledged that only about five percent of the film would deal with Hitler’s childhood. (In that, he’s correct: It’s probably even less in the version I saw, but it still manages to intimate an “abuse excuse” for Hitler’s later inhumanity.) As I’ve written here previously, I found the “Origins of Evil” subtitle disturbing, since before the script and title change Alliance Atlantis had approached me, asking me to be a consultant on a subplot based on a figure I’d written about in my book, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil . This was the anti-Hitler journalist Fritz Gerlich, one of the few conservative journalists to speak up against Hitler during his rise to power in Munich. Fortunately, as it turns out, I had a conflicting commitment. (As I’ve also written here, the director Jim Sheridan has been trying, without much success, to develop a script based on my chapters on the heroic and largely unrecognized anti-Hitler journalists in Munich, including Gerlich and the reporters and editors of the socialist Munich Post .) And so when Alliance Atlantis found me unavailable, they had two German books about Gerlich translated to base their new subplot on-which, as we’ll see, led them into a dicey interpretation of Gerlich’s fall.

But to my great relief, CBS made a second title change at the last minute (about the time I wrote about my concern that Hitler: The Origins of Evil not be associated in any way with the book I’d subtitled “The Search for the Origins of His Evil”). Now and forever, the CBS “miniseries event” will be known as Hitler: The Rise of Evil . (I’m surprised they didn’t give it a Springsteen touch: Hitler: Come On Up for the Rising .)

But enough about me. I recount all this both for the sake of full disclosure and for emphasizing the irony of my coming to the defense of Ed Gernon (his job, not his views). What is fascinating is that CBS and Alliance Atlantis still maintain that the film has nothing to do with Ed Gernon’s view of it, his belief that American support for the Bush administration should be looked at through the lens of Adolf Hitler’s rise. That Mr. Gernon’s vision is not reflected in either “the tone or the content” of the “miniseries event.” After all, Mr. Gernon was merely the creative executive in charge.

As I said, I guess it’s possible they weren’t paying attention all the way through, or they just didn’t get what was going on in the segment I call “the Ed Gernon moment”-although it could hardly have been hammered home with a heavier hand.

But in case anyone misses it, let me spell it out the way I saw it in the tape that was sent out (with a glossy press kit) to TV reviewers across the land. It will be interesting to see if there are some last-minute changes after I point out the alteration of history in the Ed Gernon moment.

The objectionable moment comes in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire. It’s Feb. 27, 1933; Hitler has been appointed chancellor by Reichs president Hindenburg, but he still doesn’t enjoy dictatorial powers.

Hitler surveys the flames of the burning legislative chamber in Berlin. The movie has chosen to imply-ambiguously-a version of the origin of the Reichstag fire that has largely been discarded by contemporary historians, including Mr. Kershaw. Most (not all) historians now believe that Hitler or the Nazis themselves did not set the fire, or cause it to be set, but took advantage of the act of a disordered Dutch ex-communist to create a “state of emergency.” One that allowed Hitler to suspend constitutional rights, ban the Communist party from the coming election and eventually make himself sole Führer .

But the origin of the Reichstag fire is not the troubling issue.

The issue is what the docudrama has Hitler say as he surveys the flaming ruins of the Berlin legislative chamber. In the docudrama, we hear Hitler declare: “This is a signal from God. We’re under siege. The terrorists have opened fire, and we will fire back” (my italics).

Beginning to get the Ed Gernon analogy? In case there’s any doubt how we’re supposed to read it, check out the way Hitler’s words on the scene at the Reichstag fire are altered by the CBS “docudrama.” In Mr. Kershaw’s Hitler biography (the book upon which this miniseries was initially to be based), the historian gives us the standard version of what Hitler told his vice chancellor, Papen: “This is a God-given signal, Herr Vice Chancellor! If this fire, as I believe, is the work of Communists, then we must crush out this murderous pest with an iron fist!”

But the change from “we’ll get the Communists” to “we’ll get the terrorists” is hard to understand as anything but a labored attempt at a contemporary analogy. It’s altering a key sentence in history to make a polemical point about today.

In case you miss the point, we then cut to Hitler previewing the proposed emergency “Enabling Acts”-which paved the way for Hitler crushing all opposition and assuming dictatorial powers-for Hindenburg, the German president. A grim Peter O’Toole, playing Hindenburg, gives the corrupt and senile buffoon far too much credit: He expresses reservations in words I don’t recall reading coming from Hindenburg in my research for Explaining Hitler , but maybe they’ve come up with a source I’m unfamiliar with.

“Why, this completely overrides the constitution!” an outraged Hindenburg supposedly tells Hitler.

“These are troubled times, sir,” Hitler supposedly replies. “The constitution cannot anticipate them. A national monument has been destroyed.” (Gee, what analogous “national monument” destroyed by today’s “terrorists” could they be seeking to conjure up?) “Our democracy is under attack, and if we’re to wage war on these foreign infiltrators, certain civil rights must be suspended.”

Again, Hitler predicated the assumption of dictatorial power on the alleged threat of an internal communist uprising. It was the specter of domestic Marxists, not “foreign infiltrators,” that he invoked to obtain emergency powers. The phrase, one speculates, was inserted to help the slow of wit or hard of hearing to make the implicit analogy to today’s War on Terror, also directed against “foreign infiltrators.”

Nonetheless, just to hammer things home again, Hitler is shown in the temporary Reichstag, again using “terrorism” to justify gutting the German constitution: “In order for the government to carry out necessary procedures against terrorism, the Reichstag must support an enabling act. This act is your opportunity to hand power to act over to those who can wield it most effectively. From now on, all legislation will be handled by the administration.” (Did Hitler use the term “administration,” or is this a tendentious translation of “Reich” or “government”-an attempt to link Hitler to a certain other “administration” the CBS audience will relate to?) “Freedoms of speech, association and the press are temporarily suspended. Privacy rights … are revoked.” (See, it’s Ashcroft and the Patriot Act!)

Yes, it’s the Ed Gernon moment: The war on “terrorists” by the “administration” uses a Reichstag fire–type pretext (9/11 is implied) to achieve its evil goal of suspending constitutional rights. It’s the Noam Chomsky-no, worse, the Gore Vidal-vision of 9/11, Iraq and the “Bush junta.” (Mr. Vidal believes the “Bush junta” was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks.) It’s the “Bush = Hitler” signs at the anti-war marches. But where are Chomsky, Vidal and the anti-war movement to defend their artistic spokesperson, Mr. Gernon, fired for telling the truth about the point of view of his work of art?

Think I’m exaggerating the Ed Gernon analogy? He even works in a confusing sort of “oil” explanation for the climactic events of the Hitler “miniseries event.” It appears in the subplot involving the anti-Hitler journalist Fritz Gerlich. Gerlich was arrested as he was about to go to press with what associates believed was a crucial anti-Hitler scoop (whose nature is not known for sure), and eventually he was murdered by the Nazis during the “Night of the Long Knives.” The June 1934 “Blood Purge,” as it’s also known, was mainly directed against Hitler’s rival for power in the Nazi Party, Ernst Roehm, head of the SA (Stormtrooper) brownshirts. Hitler’s excuse for the murders was that Roehm was plotting a coup against his leadership.

One of the German books about Fritz Gerlich that Mr. Gernon’s people used in place of my chapter offers an elaborate conspiracy theory about Gerlich, Roehm and Hitler based largely on the word of a suspect intriguer named Georg Bell, who had worked for Roehm but had also served as a secret agent of some sort, and who may have been playing some self-serving, devious game. Bell apparently convinced Gerlich that he had defected from Roehm, bringing with him information of a foreign-based conspiracy to manipulate the Nazi Party in order to gain control of German oil contracts. A conspiracy supposedly initiated by a shadowy “man from London,” as he’s called in the “miniseries event” (actually Sir Henri Deterding, I believe, in Bell’s conspiracy theory). According to the CBS “docudrama,” this conspiracy theory had Roehm’s SA receiving financing from “the man from London” in hopes Roehm would depose Hitler and come through with the favorable oil contracts for his clandestine foreign supporter.

I’ve always been troubled by this theory, skeptical of anything that emanates from the shadowy intriguer Bell. Bell has always rung false to me, you might say. But Gerlich may have bought into it; in the CBS version, he definitely does. It’s too bad the movie portrays Gerlich’s courageous final scoop as the product of Bell’s conspiracy theory-a theory that tends, in effect, to legitimize Hitler’s trumped-up “Roehm coup” excuse for the Blood Purge, in which Gerlich and other Hitler opponents were murdered as well. I have a feeling the miniseries producers haven’t thought this through. And it pains me to see Gerlich’s genuine heroism-and newsman savvy-come down to this in the film.

The one thing that pleased me most was the use they made of the detail about Gerlich’s bloody spectacles. It was a detail that I had gotten in a personal communication from one of Gerlich’s last surviving colleagues, who was in his 90’s when I tracked him down in 1995, Dr. Johannes Steiner. Dr. Steiner recalled Gerlich’s death in Dachau and added the chilling detail that, after the Gestapo had murdered Gerlich, they “sent to his widow, Sophie, Gerlich’s spectacles, all spattered with blood.”

I had highlighted Gerlich’s bloody spectacles in my book as an emblem of a special sort of Nazi cruelty, the “gratuitous cruelty,” that some have identified as the signature of their evil. And I’d seen those spectacles as a metaphor for a neglected way of looking at Hitler’s rise-through the lens of his first explainers-through Gerlich’s bloody spectacles. Did they get that detail from me or from another source? Never mind: I feel that if I have somehow contributed something to restoring the heroism of the long-marginalized Gerlich to the honorable place it deserves, even in this soap opera, I should feel I’ve accomplished something . It’s certainly the most powerful moment in the film.

But the irony, of course, is that Gerlich deserves this recognition because he was a truth-teller , and lost his life for it. In the film, among Gerlich’s last words in a letter to his wife, written on the way to Dachau, are these: “Urge others to speak out, even when what they have to say is not popular ” (italics mine).

Gerlich was a smarter guy than Ed Gernon seems to be, on the evidence of Mr. Gernon’s public statements. But Ed Gernon spoke out about his point of view, told the truth about the contemporary allegory embedded in his film, and he was fired for it, and this is wrong. Wrong especially for a film which ringingly urges people “to speak out, even when what they have to say is not popular.” Maybe they should cut that line from the film, since they’ve rendered it so laughably hypocritical.