First Run Features specializes in releasing often obscure, but fascinating documentaries, with many titles relating to WWII history. The company has just made available Dear Uncle Adolf: The Germans and Their Fuhrer, a 2010 documentary by filmmaker Michael Kloft. It's pretty hard to bring a new angle to the study of WWII, as virtually every conceivable aspect would seem to have been covered countless times. However, Kloft examines a genuinely unique aspect of Nazi culture: the countless "fan letters" written to Adolf Hitler during his ascent to power and his reign as Fuhrer. It seems that after the Soviets took Berlin in the waning days of the war, they uncovered a massive archive of personal letters written to Hitler by German citizens. These were studied, cataloged and stored because Hitler felt they were a good measurement of how his people felt about his policies. The Soviets kept a lid on the archive but in the post-Cold War period, they were opened up, though it's unclear how many historians took advantage of this obscure but important find. The cameras pan down endless rows of neatly cataloged storage boxes all filled with the letters. A narrator reads some of them, along with official communiques from Nazi officials. All of this is blended with mesmerizing footage of Hitler and his cronies, much of it new to me.
The film presents a stark and timeless lesson about how cultured, educated and rational people can willingly suspend their common sense- as well as their civil liberties- in hopes of appeasing a charismatic leader. While it is true the German people had suffered terribly in the aftermath of WWI and the oppressive conditions of the Treaty of Versailles, the desperate population willingly adopted Nazi policies that a decade were deemed uncivilized. When Hitler tried to take power at the point of a gun, he failed. He succeeded only when he went the legal route, understanding fully that frightened people will pay any price to have a benevolent strongman solve their problems. If the price of this pact with the devil is that countless numbers of their fellow citizens be deemed undesirables and marked for death, well, that was just too bad. The letters written to Hitler and documented in this film run the gamut from those sent by academics to literal nutcases. (Yes, even the Fuhrer wasn't immune from attracting crazed eccentrics such as the barber who pleaded with Hitler to allow him to meet him in Berlin so he could fulfill his dream of giving him a haircut!) Countless women wrote to Hitler, with the type of adoration that American bobbysoxers were reserving for the likes of young Frank Sinatra. Their flowery prose barely hide their all-too-apparent desire to offer him sexual favors. One woman blatantly invites Hitler to father a child with her so that his legacy can live on. However, there are also heartbreaking letters from the early days of Hitler's regime. These come from wives and children who profess their devotion to him and the cause of National Socialism even as they plead with him to intervene and release their husband/father who has been jailed for unspecified reasons. One woman writes incredulously that her husband has not even been formally charged with a crime despite being in jail for months, as though the niceties of the Weimar Republic were still prevalent in the courts. In one particularly disturbing missive to the Fuhrer, a terrified woman reaffirms her Germanic heritage and spells out the reasons why a trace of mixed blood should not result in her being branded a Jew. She pleads with Hitler to deliver her from the "curse" of being Jewish. In contrast, one child writes to Hitler to beg him to annex his native Austria into the Reich because the Jews are using Christian German children as human sacrifices. Such tall tales were widely believed and helped justify Hitler's amicable takeover of a once sovereign nation. The letters and communiques in the film also show how well Hitler understood the importance of not trivializing his super-human image, as a baker is chastised for naming a cake in his honor. The man writes a sniveling and apologetic reply explaining he was only conforming to the popular demand for such a delicacy from local party officials.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the fanatical devotion to Hitler begins to dissipate shortly after his monumental blunder of invading the Soviet Union in 1941. Even Hitler's fanatical propaganda ministry could not mask the fact the war was going disastrously by the winter of that year. This, combined with British and American air raids on German cities, made the population consider the possibility that Hitler and the Third Reich may not have been as invincible as they thought. By the time the Allies were at the Rhine, "fan mail" to the Fuhrer had dropped to virtually nothing as the German populace realized they had put their faith in a man and cause that would lead to their own demise.
Dear Uncle Adolf is as off-beat as it is valuable. If it has one flaw, it's that the 60 minute running time leaves one with a desire to see much more. The film teaches a timeless lesson about the human tendency to embrace charismatic political leaders without adopting a healthy sense of skepticism. In an age where many Americans seem get their news only from outlets that reflect their own opinions and prejudices and never even consider an opposing point of view, it's easy for false gods to be given credibility and prominence they do not deserve. As the old saying goes, "People get the government they deserve."