I’m a big fan of Quentin Tarantino films, as is probably apparent to regular readers of this blog. I am especially fond of his most recent effort, Inglourious Basterds (see my October 29, 2009 post for a full review), which excels in nearly all cinematic categories. Some have been critical of the film because of its deliberate (and extreme) distortion of history. In case you haven’t seen the film—spoiler alert!—the story concerns two fictional plots to assassinate Hitler and his fellow Third Reich imps. Unlike the actual Stauffenberg assassination attempt that merely injured the Fuhrer, Tarantino’s film brings Hitler to an extremely violent end. Part of the incentive to concoct such a story, presumably, would be to give viewers the satisfaction of watching Hitler get what he deserved—indeed, the fate that many of us would like to see all genocidal maniacs meet. I think Tarantino has indicated as much in some interviews about the film.
While reading excerpts from Ian Kershaw’s recent Hitler biography, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the historical facts and have concluded that Tarantino’s invented story of Hitler’s demise is really less satisfying (in the sense of being pleased by the wicked getting their just deserts) than what actually took place. On the afternoon of April 30, 1945, Hitler, Eva Braun, and assorted Nazi officers were holed up in a bunker at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, as the Red Army closed in. The Fuhrer had heard that Mussolini had been captured and killed (though he probably was not aware of the gory details), and he wished to avoid such a fate, as well as the ignominious prospect of his body being permanently displayed by the Soviets as a trophy of their triumph. So Hitler’s plan was to commit suicide and have his body cremated. Specifically, he would take a pill of prussic acid. However, being doubtful about the effectiveness of the poison, he instructed one of his officers to test it on his dog, an Alsatian named Blondi. The dog died almost immediately upon ingesting the poison—which apparently prompted no emotional response from Hitler, despite the fact that he showed more love to the animal than any human in his life, including his long-time lover Eva Braun.
So when it was clear the Soviet army was only a few hundred meters away and could storm the Chancellery at any minute. Hitler and Eva Braun executed their plan…and themselves.
Why is this true story more fitting than that envisioned by Tarantino, or, for that matter, any of our own dreams of, say, a live Hitler capture, trial, and execution? For one thing, there is the powerful symbolism of the self-destructiveness of evil. The pursuit of absolute power is self-defeating, and those who live by the murderous sword often fall upon it. Hitler, of course, is only one of the more recent examples of this fundamental truth about the human condition. History has seen myriad despots destroy themselves, whether directly by their own hand or as an indirect consequence of their wicked actions.
One must also consider the emotional dimension of the story. What despair must Hitler have experienced in those final days and, especially, his last hours. Perhaps during that time he came to some sober reflections on the true moral horror of what he had done. Perhaps not. But the despair he felt surely gave him at least a taste of what so many millions of innocent Jews and other victims of the Nazi scourge felt as they awaited their fate in concentration camps—a sense of hopelessness and the most sickening sorrow.
Of course, in the end, there really is no completely just recompense for the wicked on this earth. As Scripture tells us, we must wait for Judgment Day for that (cf. Eccl. 12:14; 2 Cor. 5:10). But human history, and particular narratives, may nonetheless be more or less pleasing from the standpoint of justice. Some point better than others to deep moral, spiritual, and human truths. And it seems to me that, in these respects, however much we may want to indulge our own fantasies about Hitler’s fate, we can’t improve on the tale as told by God.