May 28, 2024
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Final Account, Not Really

Luke Holland, the British director of the documentary “Final Account,” was the son of a Viennese Jewess who fled the Nazis. He died in June 2020 of cancer, at age 71, but managed to complete this film before his death. “Final Account” is a fascinating but painfully difficult view into the lives of ordinary German men and women. Some of them were SS members/murderers, others were desktop murderers, and some were silent bystanders.

Many still claim they didn’t know what was going on. This is a patent lie. The camps throughout Germany (and Austria, which had eagerly joined Germany) were supplied by local farmers, bakers and tradesmen, and staffed by many in the area. In Mauthausen, locals came to watch guards and prisoners playing soccer on Sunday afternoons. The German postal service delivered letters, often with photos, from the soldiers. One enterprising soldier made copies of pictures he took of mass killings and sold them to his army buddies, who sent them to their sweethearts. On their leaves, they also brought home “souvenirs,” although officially all confiscated valuables belonged to the Reich. Businesses, properties, furnishings and household goods became the property of Germans through methods both “legal” and illegal.

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower liberated Ohrdruf, he insisted that the concentration camp be filmed, and that the local citizens be forced to walk through it. The mayor of the town returned home after the visit and hanged himself. The citizens were tasked with burying the piles of corpses.

In the war’s immediate aftermath, Alfred Hitchcock made a film that used footage of the camps, much of it taken by British war photographer Sidney Bernstein. The victors refused to allow its distribution. They didn’t want to continue to make the Germans feel guilty and ashamed, as they needed West Germany to help them fight the Cold War.

Bernstein then came to the United States to make a film with Billy Wilder, a refugee who had escaped the Nazis and joined the American army but was unable to save his own family. The film they made flopped in Germany; audiences in 1948 walked out en masse. Documentary films by other filmmakers also went unseen. It wasn’t until the Eichmann trial that the subject of the Holocaust became a topic for discussion around the world.

The saying “Crime does not pay” is much less often heard today than it used to be. Even for Germans and Germany, crime came at a great cost: millions of dead and wounded, ruined cities, postwar hunger that had many German women doing shameful things to feed themselves and their families. However, the silver lining came in the form of the Marshall Plan of 1948, which began to obliterate the guilt and shame from the general populace and hang it only on Nazis. In fact, the majority of the population were not dues-paying members of the party, but the Nazis would have found it impossible to function without both their explicit and tacit approval and support.

More than half a century later, many Germans still refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Certainly, the masterful Nazi propaganda machine went to massively effective efforts to brainwash the population.

This was particularly true of young people, beginning in early childhood. Teachers were required to be party members. Uniforms, regular social gatherings, hiking, vacation camps and freedom from oppressive parents were all seductive perks that left the last members of that generation with beautiful memories of their wunderbar years. It’s as unsettling as their evasions and excuses. Even more disgusting is their admissions of complicity and continued denial of the reality of the Holocaust.

Some of this is the result of the February 1945 conference in Yalta. It marked a turning point, with Stalin calling the shots, insisting it take place on his own territory. In Yalta, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill formulated what would be a policy of appeasement toward Germany. The Cold War would follow, and despite the many war trials, few Germans would be significantly punished. The Berlin airlift provided food to America’s former enemies. Although it never repaid its World War 1 debts, Germany would soon be rebuilt, courtesy of the Marshall Plan of 1948.

Had Roosevelt heeded his secretary of the treasury’s advice, the world might be a very different place right now. Henry Morgenthau proposed that the allies exact a Carthaginian peace with the Germans, who had never paid their debts for WWI. Forcing a brutal peace on the nation chiefly responsible for starting two world wars would have sent an unforgettable message to the world.

The film depicts German war veterans living well—very, very well—in finely appointed accommodations, with expensive furnishings, silver and artwork. One can’t help but question the provenance of the antiques, particularly in the home of an arrogant self-justified Holocaust denier, where a silver samovar is prominently on display. Did this reprobate acquire it after Kristallnacht from one of the looted Jewish homes?

Some former SS soldiers proudly display their medals and admit to doing terrible things out of a sense of duty. A few express regret. One is shown speaking to a group of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, warning them not to be duped, but they’re not paying much attention. And why should they? He may be ashamed of his past, but that was only a few years of his long life. He’s lived seemingly well since. Clearly, crime did pay for him—and Germany.

Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust historian and ordained rabbi, speaks of the guilt of the guiltless and the guiltlessness of the guilty. Indeed, survivors of major catastrophes, particularly Holocaust survivors, express guilt at having survived when most of their family and community were killed.

In contrast, few of the German perpetrators (and their collaborators) express guilt for the murder of civilians, with Adolf Eichmann as a prime example. Either they didn’t know; were going along to get along; were loyal citizens; or, as sworn soldiers, acted dutifully. Many actually consider themselves victims, particularly the Austrians.

Thus, what is immensely disturbing about this film is its unspoken, and presumably unintended and empowering message: One can commit heinous crimes, deny them, continue to hate Jews and support antisemitic political parties, yet live in comfort and continue to prosper. And, as one can clearly see in today’s headlines, one can begin a war of aggression against civilians, then claim victimhood, and be believed.

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