Viewed from the perspective of the power dynamics among the most important members of the Nazi Party, Hitler’s Circle of Evil does not exculpate the most famous megalomaniac of contemporary history but examines how persons more intelligent than the Lead Evil can activate the realization of a horrendous history.
This drama-documentary begins in 1919, a year witnessing the founding of the Nazi Party portrayed as marginalized, and continues until its fall in 1945. Only when the Nazi as a group is defeated that the world watches aghast at what it has ignored and what the other world leaders had all the while taken for granted.
In the wake of Germany’s defeat is a nation (for there is a nation behind the Nazi) wounded forever, its citizens having to bear the stigma of mass murderers, and a host of other nations either holding the responsibility of answering for the death of young men and women sent to war, or contending with a new world order based on a distorted view of race. There is also the Holocaust, ultimately the icon of horror, bigotry and irrationality, from which many sense how Evil is not a concept but an artefact of human design.
Having opted for a character sketch rather than the usual monumental depiction of the recent World War, this documentary does not jump immediately into the Jewish question. It looks first into this man, Hitler.
It is 1919 and Germany is suffering from economic disaster and an impending defeat in the First World War. The next years would produce what the documentary calls heroes and misfits. These individuals, including such infamous names as Hess, Goebbels, Göring and Himmler, would form the inner circle of “fawning sycophants,” enablers in the modern lexicon.
If there is a new, significant contribution to the stories of Hitler, it is this documentary that paints a picture of an individual who first aims to be part of a legitimate political process. That Hitler fails and with his Nazi Party fails again is the terrifying preamble to the fall and rise of Germany. The story of this nation is one where a minor political party grows into a major political phenomenon and brings to the world a monster, all because there are persons able and ready to assist evil acts.
Disturbing is this image of Hitler as one who is manipulated rather than one who manipulates. Our history books are littered with the one-man evil show of Hitler but, in this documentary, one has a ringside view of three persons bearing destructive agenda against other people and other “races”.
Göring, a bemedaled war hero, rises to become the minister for the biggest state in Germany, which is Prussia. Himmler, a shy character who never becomes part of the Army, reinvents himself and becomes the founder of the elite and notorious SS. As if that is not enough of a force, Göring, who heads Prussia, is given the right to transform the state police force in his domain. From him comes the dreaded Gestapo. Completing the triangle is Goebbels, who is the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.
The three will see them plotting against each other. And yet together, the three will fuel the ascendancy of the Nazi Party into the dominant political force. The three will be there when Hitler is declared Chancellor and, upon the death of President Hindenburg in 1934, both Chancellor and President.
By the fourth episode of this documentary, the Anti-Semitism movement is presented, a sentiment that is gradually developed. The historians involved in the documentary attest how this sentiment begins tentatively among Hitler and his circle. Göring, defined as elite, has, it appears, enjoyed the company of rich Jews and, while he is anti-Semite, is not keen about the banishment of the Jewish population. It is Goebbels who, being resolutely against the “poisonous outsiders”, instigates first the move to encourage the Germans to boycott Jewish establishments. This fails though because many Germans then question the impracticality of the rule. Himmler, the other strong Anti-Jew in the triad, is the sly one, hiding his anti-Jew sentiment even as he supervises the building of camps that would serve as torture chambers for those opposing the government—the communists and the Jews.
If the student of politics and society can step out of the dramatic (and cinematic) contouring of the figures surrounding Hitler, and venture into what the historians in this documentary articulate, then they will benefit from an acute reading of the history of the Third Reich. One aspect explored is the socio-economic context of the period—the late 1920s and 1930s. The Depression in America is linked to the rise of Nazism in Germany. An economic turmoil is now the pretext for demanding the Germans to wake up.
With the Great Depression comes the perception of America as a bully. The demagogues in the Nazi seize this opportunity to ask that Germans unite. But when the call for “Volksgemeinschaft”—translated as “people’s community” or “united community”—fails, Nazi politicians turn to the Jews as the reason for the misery of Germany.
The assassination of a German diplomat by a Polish Jewish teenager proves to be another turning point. Himmler declares a pogrom against the Jews carried out by the police dressed in civilian clothing. The night is called Kristallnacht, or “the Night of the Broken Glass”, a reference to the broken glasses or shards from hundreds of Jewish establishments ransacked, burned, or destroyed by the government-assisted German assault groups.
The cautionary tale at the end of this documentary is Hitler surrounded by officials and political systems, and a nation guilty of conspiring to commit one of the greatest Evil human forces have summoned to reality. It is a tale that can be told at present, because Hitler’s circle shapes politics anytime, anywhere.
Hitler’s Circle of Evil was first broadcast in 2018. The documentary is an offering of Netflix and ZDF Enterprises.