The Eternal Jew - a Blueprint for Genocide
All teaching about the Holocaust must take up two fundamental questions:
The general knowledge and understanding of contemporary society of the Holocaust are very much structured by the ability of film and television to reconstruct and dramatize History. One instructive example is the American TV-production "Holocaust," which made a strong impression upon most of the world when it was shown in 1978-79. When the victims become faces and names, the legacy of Nazism becomes more substantial: a spontaneous, emotional effect is achieved, which no fact-filled study in the world can provoke.
A more recent example of the same effect is Steven Spielberg's unique film "Schindler's List," which now can be obtained on video, and in many places - both in the US and abroad - is used in Holocaust education. But, despite the indubitable merits of the film one can raise serious question as to whether this kind of teaching method achieves enough. The film most certainly creates strong emotions with its realistic description of the atrocities which German SS committed - and it is an indispensable help to convince young people that the Holocaust actually happened.
But "Schindler's List" describes the Holocaust solely from the perspective of the victims. Never from the perspective of the perpetrators. It gives no explanations to the morally vital question why the perpetrators acted the way they did, and it does not even give a hint of what made the Holocaust possible. The message of the film confines itself to an urging to do like Schindler did, and help people who are being persecuted. This is obviously very important from a moral point of view, but definitely not enough. Teaching the Holocaust also has to create an awareness of those phenomena and attitudes in today's society which might lead to persecutions, or even genocide. It is therefore necessary to supplement Schindler's List with material which demonstrates how human beings could be turned into mass-murderers.
One way of doing this could be to show authentic Nazi film propaganda. Both Hitler and Goebbels regarded the film as the most important medium to affect the way the Germans were thinking and acting. The famous documentary on the Nuremberg Rallies of 1934 by Leni Riefenstahl, "Triumph of the Will," most certainly played a vital part of the formation of the "Führer-Myth", while another so-called "documentary", "Der ewige Jude" (The Eternal Jew) from 1940, was made in order to "reveal the truth" about the Jews. It consisted of everything which was regarded necessary to legitimize their extermination.
A source-critical investigation proves that "The Eternal Jew" probably is the most manipulated film ever made. Apart from the fact
Furthermore, it can be argued that the public showings of the film can be seen as the very promulgation of Hitler's principal decision to launch the Holocaust.
"The Eternal Jew" consists of seventy minutes of virulent antisemitic propaganda of the worst kind and is still an emotional and intellectual challenge for the viewer: How would you have reacted, if you had seen it in 1940?
Although the film was made almost sixty years ago, it is still regarded as so dangerous by the German government that it is forbidden to show it in public - with one exception: University teachers are allowed to use it as part of their courses, and by special permission it can also be shown on seminars on political education, if the responsible person has a formal competence in media science and the history of the Holocaust.
Yet, a lot of video copies are distributed among neo-Nazi and antisemitic groups around the world, where it has a cult status. The film is - to quote from the homepage of National Vanguard - something that "every patriot must have in his collection", and it is strongly recommended in Milton Kleim's National Socialist primer, which can be found on several addresses on the Internet. It is furthermore easy to get, as anybody can buy a copy with an American voice-over from a firm called International Historic Films in Chicago. The German authorities have tried to take legal actions in order to stop it, but without success, because it is regarded as covered by the First Amendment.
These facts pose at least two important questions: Should we, who favor a democratic society, really still be so scared of an almost sixty-year-old hate-picture, that we pretend that it does not exist - and thus in practice leave it to those whose racism it confirms and strengthens?
Should we not instead dare to use the film actively, as part of Holocaust education, and dare to demonstrate the authentic poison in it in order to vaccinate future generations?
The circumstances of the genesis of "The Eternal Jew" are not particularly known - not even by the scholars of the Holocaust. On November 10, 1938, the evening after the Reichscristallnight and exactly 20 years after Hitler's decision to become a politician - at least according to his own recollection and his own myth of his "mission" - the German Führer gave an important speech on the future role of propaganda. Although he did not refer directly to either the events of the Reichscristallnight nor to the Jewish Question in general, the whole speech can be seen as a commentary to what he saw as the lacking support of the German public for the pogrom. Hitler attacked the propaganda makers for not having understood his strategy - which aimed at war - and he made it totally clear to his audience exactly what he awaited from them in the future:
The message of Hitler's critical remarks was most certainly understood by Joseph Goebbels, who now for the first time decided to use the film medium as a tool to instigate antisemitism within the German people. Earlier, he had - as the person responsible for Nazi film production - preferred other topics, e.g. entertainment and more "positive" representations of Nazi world view. But immediately after Hitler's speech he ordered the production companies to submit
In Goebbels' diary as well as in other sources we can follow the production of exactly this film - The Eternal Jew - which right from the beginning and in accordance with Hitler's demands was intended to be the final public legitimation of antisemitism. There are strong reasons to believe that the film and its genesis reflect the very decision making process which led to the Holocaust - especially because the final version of the film can only be interpreted as a deliberate call for annihilation. This is particularly obvious in the cross-cutting between the ritual slaughter - staged and presented as cruelty to animals, and as the visual proof of Jewish "inhumanity" - and a re-cut version of Hitler's notorious prophecy in his speech in the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, that a future war would lead to the "annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."
In order to have as powerful an effect as possible, Goebbels had ordered the film recording of ritual slaughter in the Ghetto of Lodz, and when he saw the rushes on October 16, 1939, he wrote in his diary:
On October 28 he showed the rushes at Hitler's dinner-table, and it should be remembered that Hitler was a fanatic vegetarian. Those present "were all deeply shocked." Three days later Goebbels himself visited the Ghetto of Lodz and commented upon his impression in his diary:
Goebbels made the idea of a genocidal solution of the Jewish problem saturate the whole film, which must be considered as his personal attempt to make Hitler himself draw the "natural" consequences of his own exterministic ideology. The film was tested and recut according to Hitler's wishes several times, before the Führer finally endorsed it for public showing, probably on May 20, 1940 - the day, when German troops reached the English Channel and thus made the fall of France a matter of time.
However, it was several months before "The Eternal Jew" began to be distributed, because Goebbels awaited the finalizing of yet another important part of his antisemitic propaganda package: the feature film "Jud Süß." The latter was intended to inflame antisemitic feelings, which then were to be "proven by facts" in the "authentic film document." "Jud
"The Eternal Jew" finally had its public premiere on November 28, 1940, when the director, Fritz Hippler, in an interview broadcast all over Germany, claimed that the film contained the very proof for Hitler's prophecy from 1939. Hippler also pointed out, that the premise of the prophecy, the war, had become a reality. Immediately after the film had been shown all over Germany, Hitler began to recall the prophecy in his speeches and in private conversations, thus clearly verbally endorsing the message of the film about the necessity of launching the genocide.
In other words, it can be argued that "The Eternal Jew" was Hitler's promulgation to the public about what was to be expected in the war against the Jews, in which he used the emotional power of modern reality-like mass-media in order to transfer his decision to ways of thinking and actions within perpetrators and bystanders. The German people should - just as he had outlined in his critique of the German propaganda after the Reichscristallnight - all by themselves and by their own conviction take the decision of systematically killing the European Jews:
From a purely historical perspective, "The Eternal Jew" is undoubtedly a very important means for the understanding of both Nazism and the Holocaust. No other single historical source gives so much information and insight about Nazi ideology and world view as this film. From my own experience of more than twenty years of teaching I can certify that students on both the high-school and university level can pick up all major aspects of the mentality of the Third Reich, without difficulty, through the analysis of this film.
In several seminars in both Denmark and Germany, I have also been able to witness how this film succeeded in making the apparently distant Nazi ideology a relevant question to even young people of today. During a bit more than one hour they are taken back more than fifty years, and get a personal experience of what it could have been like to have lived in the Third Reich - or how it could have been to have been its unhappy neighbours and scapegoats.
At the Historical Institute at the University of Copenhagen, a project was started in 1970 to establish the methodological principles for source-critical editions of important film documents. One of the chosen films was "The Eternal Jew" - and after many different kinds of troubles I was able to publish the source-critical edition of the film with the Institute for the Scientific Film in Göttingen in 1995.
However, because it quickly became clear to us back in the early 1970s that this film contained unique paedagogical examples of all kinds of audio-visual manipulation techniques, the project got an additional perspective: We wanted to find out whether the film - or parts of it - could be used to teach mass media techniques outside the university, especially on the high-school level.
First and foremost, we had to check how the young people of today were influenced by the film. In our eyes it was both lumpy and grotesque, and we believed that it would achieve exactly the opposite effect as originally intended. This opinion could, however, derive from our knowledge of the Holocaust, and we wanted to have our thesis confirmed by empirical investigations about the actual reactions by the young viewers. Obviously, we did not wish to create any kind of potential antisemitism.
Between 1973 and 1975, we tested "the Eternal Jew" on 1200 Danish high-school students between 16 and 19 years old, giving them a questionnaire with 25 questions. We had built in a couple of "traps" in order to reveal the sincerity of the answers, which were given anonymously. The result was both evident and encouraging. Just one single person related that he had changed his opinion in a negative way - and an analysis of his other answers proved that he either was a latent antisemite already before he saw the film or a mere provocateur.
This investigation showed beyond any reasonable doubt that our fear and the fear of other experts of unintentionally creating an antisemitic sentiment among Danish high-school students was without foundation. If the film did alter somebody's opinion of Jews, it was definitely not along the direction which Goebbels had intended.
The film had instead a quite different effect: The experience of seventy minutes of Nazi hate propaganda suddenly opened the students' eyes to the mental processes inside the ordinary German in the Third Reich. The students said that they now had felt what it was like to live in a totalitarian society - and how difficult it must have been actively to oppose the bombardment of the media. Some of them even wrote that they felt sorry for the Germans, and they started to reason about the question of guilt after the Holocaust. They had suddenly been made knowledgable about the efficiency and the totality of the Nazi propaganda which had brainwashed the German public.
But what was the biggest surprise to us, was the capability of the young people to be critical of what they saw. Because they - contrary to most members of the research team - had grown up with television, they were able to handle the contents of the film in a much more mature way than we had ever expected. They were able to express impressions and points-of-view on different levels and they had also the ability to reflect a more general level as well as to draw their own conclusions.
Despite this encouraging result the project and the use of the film stalled for a couple of years. One of the reasons for this was that the members of the group got their degrees and jobs elsewhere. Another was that the German authorities made the rules for access to the film more rigorous. The difficulty of renting a copy was and is - together with the inexperience of most historians in using film as historical source material - probably the main reason that this film is still virtually unknown to many scholars of the Holocaust.
It should, however, be mentioned, that during the last two years I have taken up the project again and have carried out similar surveys in Denmark and Germany during presentations in high-schools and on universities. The results in both countries are almost identical with the results from the mid-seventies. There is only one marked difference. The psychological engagement is much bigger today than twenty years ago, especially in the former DDR, where there is an outspoken need to come to terms with the inheritance of both Nazi and Communist ideology. This fact has led the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung to distribute copies of my source-critical edition for free - and it is going to arrange a seminar this autumn in cooperation with the German Association of Teachers in History on the possibilities of using the film in both teaching History of Nazism and Political Education.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners has led to another intense debate on the reasons behind the Holocaust and once more directed the interest to the guilt of the ordinary German. The German journalist Josef Joffe from the
Why did it happen in Germany? is one of the crucial questions in Goldhagen's book. What he demonstrates is that an exterministic attitude towards the Jews did exist among the ordinary Germans who participated in the Holocaust, and he finds the cultural and historical roots to this attitude in a specific German antisemitic tradition. But he does not - as many of his critics have pointed out - account for the responsibility which has to be put upon the Nazi system within which the perpetrators acted. And what about the Nazi propaganda - and indoctrination system? Or what about the outspoken Nazi belief in - and support to - physical violence beyond all restrictions and values?
It is exactly these psychological and socio-psychological factors which become visible in "The Eternal Jew." The film demonstrates in an overwhelming way how cultural stereotypes suddenly can develop into paranoid arguments for murder. These - still highly emotional - effects on the viewer derive from the fact that it is presented and conceived as "real," as an authentic document produced by the Nazi themselves, for the general public, as legitimation of their world-view. It forces everybody to take an individual position regarding Nazism and antisemitism.
Are we still to be afraid of this Hitler's public call for the annihilation of the Jews?
My answer is a convinced no. The showing of the film forms instead a ominous warning to what can happen when a "produced reality," in a reality-like medium, is perceived as reality itself. In this connection, "The Eternal Jew" is the predecessor of all the TV propaganda which - e.g. in former Yugoslavia - has aroused and legitimized genocide even in our time.
A study of this film and comparison with its later successors of inhumanity can - in the light of its consequences - help us to disclose the psychological patterns behind genocidal mentality, which should be the fundamental aim for all teaching about the Holocaust.
Thank you very much for your attention!
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Last modified: September 14, 1998