It’s purely coincidental, but the new documentary The Meaning of Hitler was released in theaters and on-demand platforms Friday, the very day some Trump supporters (like the My Pillow guy) insisted their preferred president would magically re-take power. They woke up today to find Joe Biden still occupying the White House.
The film written, directed and produced by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, based partly on the 1978 book of the same name by Sebastian Haffner, examines the enduring fascination with Hitler and Nazism, “set against the backdrop of the current rise of white supremacy, the normalization of antisemitism and the weaponization of history itself.”
Through judicious use of audio and video of Trump, the documentary also invites viewers to compare the Führer and the 45th American president, who arguably share personality traits and political tactics, if not precisely the same goals.
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DEADLINE: Tell me what inspired you to make the film.
MICHAEL TUCKER: Petra’s East German. Our last film was called Karl Marx City, where Petra’s from, and it examined her family’s relationship or supposed relationship to the Stasi, the secret police. And while we were filming that in 2015, we were in the former East Germany, in Dresden, and we happened to film these enormous rightwing anti-immigration demonstrations. And at one of those there were literally people carrying torches, very middle class people mixed in with neo-Nazis, and at some point they turned to us, like a massive group, chanting “Lying press”—in German, “Lügenpresse.”
PETRA EPPERLEIN: And it was super-disturbing because that’s directly borrowed from Nazi language from the ’30s. So that was the initial inspiration to do something about that, since we’re filmmakers.
TUCKER: Just as we were finishing our research and getting into prepping for the movie, Charlottesville happened and there you sort of had the mirror image happening in America, like how is it that all these young, white Americans are marching through the streets of Charlottesville with Tiki torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil”? It suddenly felt really, really urgent, and of course as we were making it, the things that initially were just sort of theoretical, they became more concrete. [Like], how is the past seeping into the present?
DEADLINE: For an American viewer, what’s striking about the film are the parallels between Hitler and Trump. Lying, the obsession with cleanlines, for instance; Hitler being friendless. It strikes me that Trump is kind of friendless too—he’s not somebody invested in friendships. He’s only invested in himself.
TUCKER: That was sort of what was brilliant about using Sebastian Haffner’s book as a frame. When we picked up that book, and you read those small passages about Hitler being friendless, sort of being loveless, family-less, also about his cult, that’s really where you saw the parallels. It’s both about the politics of personality and the politics of grievance—these things really shine through… Certainly Trump is no Hitler and most of the historians that we spoke to are really, really clear that they don’t like to draw these sharp parallels, but you can take from history some lessons.
DEADLINE: There’s this parallel of victimization—it comes through in the film that that was such a basic part of Hitler’s self-image and image of the German nation. It’s absolutely key, in my opinion, to Trump and his followers, this notion that, ”We are being victimized.”
EPPERLEIN: You’re totally right. The perceived victimhood is a huge draw. Obviously for Hitler it was a huge draw, but today it’s not only Trump who uses that, it’s also all over Europe. Just last weekend in Germany we had mass demonstrations by Covid-deniers who also portray themselves as victims, although they are not. Although there are parallels to the ’30s, at the same time actually there are these differences. Because in the ’30s you had a massive economic crisis which Hitler built on. Today, many of these people, they are not economically disadvantaged. These are people who live actually quite good lives. But still they are able to see themselves as victims of society and there are these leaders that completely use that feeling to their advantage.
TUCKER: One of the historians we spoke to pointed out that of course you had enormous political violence in the ’30s. When we spoke to him, that was in 2018. And now, certainly after the events of January 6 and events that continue on, that violence is very real in America. And it really is a threat. So it’s impossible to ignore the history.
DEADLINE: In the film, historians note Hitler’s implicit and then explicit appeal to the German people at that time was giving them permission to indulge in violence. Going back to Trump’s campaign in 2016, he talked regularly at his rallies, “The police need to get tougher,” and, “Take out that protester and beat him up,” and things of that nature. Is it a fair parallel, that similarity between the messages of Hitler and Trump?
TUCKER: Trump has always invoked this violence. He’s never threatened anyone, but he’s been able to use that power of the masses to unleash that energy… Now we’re seeing that on this massive scale of actually calling for those masses to take to the streets.
EPPERLEIN: I need to say it again, Trump is not Hitler. But the similarity is in being able to use the masses’ desire to be against the rules of society, and by saying all these crude things that Trump has been saying, he’s basically giving his followers permission to say these things also. And then he pushes it further and further and then the words are being followed by actions and I think that’s a really dangerous path.
DEADLINE: One of your experts comments on the Hitler strategy to “replace the state with chaos.” I was so struck by the parallel to Trump. His administration from the very beginning was complete chaos. There’s a kind of devious strategy in it to destabilize, discredit, do away with the state, such that he can substitute it with his own rule.
TUCKER: That was [author] Martin Amis quoting from Haffner’s book. And by doing that you destabilize so much and put everything so out of balance that it all becomes dependent upon you [the leader].
EPPERLEIN: It’s kind of scary to see how successful Trump and his people were in the process. When you think about how much distrust in the state or in the media exists now because of all this chaos created, that’s on a level which hasn’t been seen before. And I don’t even know how to recover from that. A functioning democracy needs a functioning state. That’s, again, kind of a dangerous territory.
DEADLINE: An intriguing element of the film is how the development of new microphone technology aided Hitler’s rise, the so-called “Hitler bottle” condenser mic. That technological advance in the 1920s was actually quite important to allowing him to seize the body politic through his speeches.
EPPERLEIN: Before these kind of microphones were available, if you wanted to give a public speech you could reach the people only with your own voice—and how many people can you reach? Like 500 people maximum… Suddenly, with the help of this technology and also loudspeakers he was able to speak to a million people at once. And the power of a million people standing together and experiencing something together of course is very much different than just 500 people. And it was a new sensation. That explains a lot of the impact Hitler had.
TUCKER: It’s actually interesting to think how much of it was just sort of dumb luck that this person [Hitler] came to be in the moment when this technology came to be. And the same can be said of Trump. Is it just that he was this person who understood this medium of social media better than anyone else? He just ruthlessly understands it.
DEADLINE: One of the experts you spoke with observes, “Revision of history is quite a central element of rightwing extremist thinking.” We are witnessing some attempts to explain away Hitler by saying he suffered from a psychiatric condition or he acted under hypnosis. And in the American context, there are efforts to explain away January 6 and the insurrectionists as, “They were tourists.” Or, “They were nice people,” or, “They were Antifa.” In Texas, we’re seeing attempts by Republican legislators to change what children are taught, downplaying Texas’ history as a slave state, for instance.
EPPERLEIN: We are watching this unfold in front of us right now—January 6 being the perfect example. We all watched what actually happened and now there’s a desire to rewrite this. This has been going on for the last four or five years even—there is this constant lying in politics on a scale which we haven’t really seen before. And it became normal over these last years. It feels almost like our society grew tired of calling it out all time so it’s just established now as part of our lives. I don’t know how we will recover from this and also I don’t know where this will go. In 10 years, how will we look at the January 6 events? What actually will be the history that will be told? It’s necessary that all of us are very vigilant within the democratic system to make sure that these powers don’t overtake everything and rewrite history and lying doesn’t become the new standard.
TUCKER: [Fox News anchor] Tucker Carlson was in Hungary last week. And there is something that unites these movements, whether it’s in conservative America or Hungary or Poland. There’s a will to control history… There’s also a lot of fictional enemies created—“critical race theory” is the great example. Six months ago nobody even knew what critical race theory was. I don’t even know if I can define it for you… Now, suddenly, that’s the great enemy of the American elementary school student. The weaponization of history—certainly after George Floyd, a really useful discussion and maybe a really painful discussion, but a necessary one, seeing there is a part of America that just doesn’t want to engage with that, just like there’s a part of Germany right now that is tired of talking about the past. They want to move on.
DEADLINE: I don’t want to give the impression that the film is just about comparing Hitler and Trump, because it’s not that. That’s an element of it, and the viewer is invited to ponder that, certainly. But it’s really about Hitler and the persistence of mythologizing of him and Nazism. Why are we still fascinated by Hitler?
TUCKER: That’s sort of the looming question. We spent four years thinking about it, I guess we should have an answer for that.
EPPERLEIN: It’s the endless fascination with evil. Martin Amis addresses this in the film. And then there’s also this element that almost everything we see about this time is produced by the Nazis. It’s propaganda material produced by them and they were real masters in producing their legacy, basically. And these images live on and on and on. And that’s basically most of what we inhale from that time.
TUCKER: Saul Friedlander, one of historians in the film, talks about how those images live on through repetition. So it’s the propagation of propaganda. We see them over and over and over again… The Nazis, they were living in this performance, this “play,” not just for them but for the future. They understood this grandness better than anything before or after them. It occurred to us as filmmakers that there’s a lack of responsibility in not providing context for not only how we use these images but how we tell these stories. The new generation is not going to have the benefit of experience or listening to someone who lived through this or survived it.
DEADLINE: Lastly, in your film there are traveling shots of the German countryside and other locations shot in a car, looking through a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament. [On the website for Daimler-Benz, the parent company of Mercedes, the company acknowledges its role in the 1930s and 1940s contributing to the Nazi war machine]. What do the Mercedes people think of the film, or have you heard anything?
EPPERLEIN: They haven’t contacted us.
TUCKER: There have been no sponsorship offers.