Some months ago a friend of mine loaned me a movie called Downfall, about the grim last days of Hitler in the underground Berlin bunker as certain defeat against the Russians awaited. One of the more fascinating aspects of this compelling and dark movie is how do people deal with the certainty of the defeat and destruction of all they hold dear, and the prospect of embarrassing and humiliating punishment and death. The results are somewhat predictable once the options of people shrink to vanishing, the old trusty standbys of fight, flight, or freeze. Through it all, one faces the fact that Hitler received a great deal of loyalty he did not deserve from people who were not themselves monstrously evil but who largely did not bother to understand, for reasons of their own pride or shame, the nature of the man to whom they gave their loyalty. The movie itself is told from the perspective of Traudl Junge, a young woman who against her parents’ wishes works for Hitler as a secretary and has a short marriage to an SS officer that leaves her a young widow, both brave and vulnerable. It is a wise choice for narrative purposes, as it creates a sympathy for a person which is at odds with one’s abhorrence of what she is involved with.
What do people do in these circumstances? Most of what they do is grim. Some people try to leave early and negotiate and bargain their way out of failure, leaving them to be judged as traitors for trying to save their own skins when the moment is lost. Others try to hide out and lay low until they can find a safe hiding place through escape. Still others party, drinking themselves into oblivion and trying to enjoy their last days and hours in debauchery and partying. Still more examine ways of suicide, from poison often in combination with shooting oneself in the side of the head, as this film is full of a great deal of self-destruction. Still others grimly fight on and seek to preserve order from mounting chaos, even killing others who try to surrender or loot, while others simply go about their existence in the grim hope of survival despite the total destruction they see and face. Most of us are not brave in our moments of greatest peril, but sometimes bravery is simply putting a foot in front of another so that we can endure another day despite the horrors that we have seen.
At the end of the movie, reflecting on her time in service to Hitler, Junge makes a chilling observation that it was no excuse to be young because it would have been possible to find out the atrocities that were going on and that she was in some small way aiding and abetting Hitler’s atrocities as a result of her secretarial service to Hitler. In looking at a movie like this, one thing we must recognize is that whether male or female, old or young, powerful or helpless, wealthy or impoverished, we are all responsible for what we do with the choices and opportunities that we possess, even if we are not aware of those options. Although our heavenly judge is merciful, all too often our pride gets in the way of our seeking mercy. On the one hand we face the temptation to sacrifice our decency and our principles for survival, betraying our deepest character, and on the other we are often too stubborn and proud and sacrifice ourselves needlessly and without purpose or nobility. So it is even with the largely ignoble people we see in this film.
There is still more relevance, if we are willing to examine it closely, as unpleasant as it can be sometimes. One of the consistent approaches of people to impending disaster  is to traffic in delusions, imagining up resources that one does not possess that will surely retrieve a disastrous situation at the 11th hour. Hitler, of course, in his bunker facing increasing encirclement, imagines that the 9th army will save him and that other armies will appear from nothing to deliver a crushing blow, but that was not a realistic hope. In the end, Hitler is reduced to telling others how to dispose of his body so it will not appear in a Soviet triumph, and cursing the German people as weak because they accepted and, to some extent, supported his rule and must therefore share in his ignominy and shame. Germany deserved a better fate, and we also deserve a better fate than we face now, but this life is not about what we deserve, unfortunately.
 See, for example:
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