Athena Video has released "The Rise of the Nazi Party", a three disc DVD set comprised of all ten episodes from the acclaimed British documentary series that was telecast in the USA under the title "Nazis: Evolution of Evil". The fascination with Adolf Hitler and his criminal regime seems to only increase with time. While the documentaries cover well-worn turf, what makes this presentation notable is that the narrative concentrates on the inner workings of the Nazi party and the interaction between its key figures. The series uses dramatic recreations of major events interwoven with an abundance of actual newsreel footage and photographs. Clearly, a sizable sum had been spent on production values. The series interweaves contemporary footage of German locations with the historical films. While the notion is somewhat innovative, the shifting between old and new scenes can be somewhat distracting. That's about the only gripe, however. "The Rise of the Nazi Party" is a fascinating look at how a group of misfits, scoundrels and sadists rose to dominate one of the world's great nations. The series begins with the aftermath of WWI and correctly points out that the greed of the victorious Allied nations ironically helped nurture the rise of right wing extremism practiced by Hitler. The Allies insisted that German pay reparations for the war and the notorious Treaty of Versailles placed such onerous financial burdens on the German people that it risked turning the entire nation into a Third World country. The staggering debt was seen as a cash cow, particularly by Britain and France, the Allied countries that had suffered the most from the conflict. (Incredibly, Germany only recently made the final payments on its war debt.) Because WWI was such a senseless conflict caused by so many vague factors, the German people resented having the entire blame placed on them. As the financial situation in Germany worsened, hyperinflation devalued the German mark to the point where a loaf of bread could cost millions. Simultaneously, as the documentary points out, the Germans suffered another indignity when France sent armed legions to Germany's industrial region to occupy the territory and appropriate the revenues from factories. It was amid such a period of crisis that Adolf Hitler first became known. A decorated hero in the war, Hitler resented the military brass that had signed the Treaty of Versailles and in some warped fashion believed that a cabal of influential Jews were behind the strategy. His inexplicable but rabid anti-Semitism would characterize the entire Nazi movement. Even in its dying days, Hitler had the Nazi regime allocate enormous resources to continue his attempts to exterminate an entire people.
The documentary traces Hitler's first association with fringe groups who were calling for an overthrow of the weak Weimar Republic, a democratic government that had been imposed by the Allies but which had lost the confidence of the German people. Within a short time, the charismatic Hitler becomes the leader of the dissidents and moves to unite the fractions among them into the National Socialist Party. His first attempt to take the nation in a violent coup fails and he is imprisoned. However, behind bars he turns himself into a martyr to his cause by writing his influential memoir, Mein Kampf. When he emerges from jail, Hitler realizes the way to power is to bide his time and go through legal means. The Nazis grow in numbers and in strength but the everyday German doesn't believe they can ever win national offices. They were wrong. During the pivotal election cycle, the average German is lethargic and stays home from the polls while Hitler's fanatical followers turn out in droves. The Nazis become a major factor in the German political landscape. Ultimately, Hitler is appointed Chancellor under the aging but beloved President, von Hindenburg. Knowing that taking action against this national icon would backfire, he bides his time until von Hinderburg's death. He then appoints himself supreme leader of the nation, citing the need for a strong man with extraordinary powers to take on the many crisis facing Germany. The German reichstag all but votes themselves out of any meaningful power beyond being a body of "rubber-stampers" for Hitler's legislation. Within a short period of time, Hitler makes good on his promises. He authorizes massive public work projects that not only wipe out unemployment but also result in the nation having the most modern road system in the world. Worker's wages are raised and the average person's living standards rise appreciably. Hitler becomes a beloved icon. However, the dark side of this success is Hitler's calculated ability to split the population into "us" and "them", the latter being "undesirable" minorities, especially the Jews. He passes the Nuremberg Laws that effectively deprive German Jews of all civil rights- and it only gets worse from there. By rewarding Aryans with a good lifestyle, he correctly gambles that the average German won't do much to protest the persecution of the Jews. By the time he is committing wholesale genocide, many Germans are repulsed but are powerless to stop him. Hitler's obsession for expanding Germany's borders into Czechoslovakia and Austria are achieved without firing a shot, despite having blatantly violated the Treaty of Versailles. However, he miscalculates the Allies with his invasion of Poland, as evidenced by France and England declaring war. Hitler's fate is ultimately sealed when he makes the ill-advised decision to declare war on America in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He is now fighting an industrial giant with seemingly unlimited resources. This factor, coupled with his betrayal of the Soviet Union, it is only a matter of time before Germany is defeated.
The documentary also explores Hitler's love life (or lack thereof) and his obsession with his half-niece, who ultimately committed suicide, possibly because of his dictatorial control over her life. The show also delves into the rise of Hitler's top right hand men: Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and others. Among them is Ernst Rohm, an early supporter of Hitler who built his private body guard, the Brownshirts, into a major military force that virtually equaled the German army. In a sign of the backbiting that would characterize the Nazi brass, Hitler is manipulated by others into believing that Rohm is planning a coup. Thus, Hitler personally leads a raiding party on Rohm and his top men at a vacation resort where they are holding a conference. (It was actually a ruse for Rohm and his homosexual lovers to engage in sexual activities that Hitler felt were appalling for a true Aryan to participate in.) He orders his old friend to be executed. It would serve as a boiler plate for the inner rivalries and paranoia among his confidants that would dominate is reign as Fuhrer. (In the dying days of the Reich, both Himmler and Goering would betray Hitler by each presenting himself as the new Fuhrer and hoping to sue for peace.)
The purpose of the series is not to present the history of WWII. Certain major elements are covered in detail: the Holocaust, the disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union, the attempted assassinations against Hitler, the manipulation of Chamberlain at Munich, etc. However, other key events such as the invasion of Poland, the Hitler/Stalin pact and the fall of France are barely mentioned. The episodes are mostly concerned with the psyche of the Nazi brass. All of it is set to the pitch perfect narration of Joseph Kloska, who provides the necessary tone of gravitas. (Inexcusably, none of the actors who are seen throughout the entire series merit even a mention in the end credits.) There are the usual "talking heads" who provide analysis of the subject matter and these scholars are particularly interesting throughout. The final episode, "Aftermath", is one of the most compelling as it explores the breakout of the Cold War in the immediate aftermath of Germany's defeat. The Nuremberg Trials are covered in considerable detail and the episode bluntly addresses the decision by the United States to recruit notorious Nazi war criminals and whitewash their pasts in order to benefit from the technological knowledge these people had in the areas of science and espionage. (Wernher von Braun, who developed the first rocket technology, had the blood of thousands of slave laborers on his hands yet his indisputably built America's space program.)
The entire series is compelling throughout and will provide new perspectives for even the most devout WWII scholars. The set includes a booklet that features biographies of key Nazis along with a useful timeline of their rise and fall from power.
If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this, it's that when people in democracies are too lethargic to vote or become involved in the political process, the worst elements of society may one day seize power.
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