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Downfall: a study in political narcissism, then and now

Monday, 11 January 2021  | Brendan Byrne




The German motion picture Downfall (German: Der Untergang, 2004, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel), aside from being a masterwork of filmmaking, also serves an important purpose: it humanises Adolf Hitler. In doing so, it explodes the myth that subsequent generations of neo-Nazis would have you believe: that Hitler was a defiant, unbowed ubermensch, who, when the world rejected his genius and tried to destroy his accomplishments, chose to exit this life on his own terms in the manner of his own choosing.

Downfall tells us the truth about Hitler. It depicts him as he always was: a small, petty, inadequate human being, incapable of engaging in mature human relationships, who, when confronted with the annihilation of his monomaniacal fantasies, chose to facilitate the destruction of the German nation in the spite-filled hope that it would not survive him. He then committed suicide in a grotesque parody of Wagnerian self-immolation, self-absorbed and egotistical to the bitter end.

In other words, Adolf Hitler had the personality of a spoiled child; and Downfall depicts his final days in the bunker for what they were: an existential temper-tantrum. Hitler’s monomania – his obsessive preoccupation with his own 'greatness' - might have given him an inflated ego; but it also ensured that ego was desperately fragile. Any contradiction, any unwelcome intrusion into the unshakeable self-belief that was the product of his own profound self-deception, was met with obliterating anger. There was only one reality: the reality upon which Hitler himself insisted. Everything else was ‘fake news’, the disloyal subversion of defeatists and saboteurs.

Anyone wanting to understand the behaviour of outgoing US President Donald Trump – especially in light of recent events, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC - would do much worse than to watch Downfall. When the influential German news magazine, Der Spiegel, produced a cover for its 6th June 2020 edition that depicted Trump as an arsonist burning down his own country, it knew what it was talking about. Like Downfall, it was reaching back to the example of Hitler, willing to obliterate Germany if it made life impossible for any who had the temerity to survive him.

And Trump is no different. The American electorate, having had the gall to declare itself sick of his misrule and vote accordingly, deserves to be punished for its perfidy. And if that means giving voice to lies whose only effect is to widen the already bitter divides that fracture US society; if it means allowing the COVID-19 pandemic to continue its rampage unchecked; if it means refusing to co-operate with the incoming government to ensure that the new administration has a stable platform from which to begin operating – so be it. America ought to have recognised and acclaimed Trump’s genius, and simply given him the presidential office that was his by right.

And there can be no doubt that Trump thinks he is a genius. Not just in the sense of political or machismo posturing. Not just as an ‘act’ with which to beguile the unwary or project an aura of superficial charisma. But deeply, truly and profoundly. At the core of Trump’s monomania is a deep-seated conviction that he is a genius. A genius businessman. A genius television celebrity. A genius President. All the evidence to the contrary is simply manufactured, the malicious envy of those who can’t compete with him but who conspire – like Hitler’s generals - to bring him down.

And like Hitler, Trump’s ego is every bit as inflated and every bit as fragile. Having convinced himself that he is the messiah who will lead his people to greatness (with a necessarily disproportionate degree of the benefits going to himself, his family and his kowtowing cronies), the reality that this conviction is a banal, juvenile fantasy simply cannot be acknowledged. Instead, he must claim the mantle of ‘victim’, must become the tragic hero who is sacrificed on the altar of his nation’s blind ingratitude. Like Hitler, Trump seeks to project an image of himself that falls somewhere between Siegfried in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung and Christ on the Cross.

In Downfall, Hitler slams angry fists on his desk and screams at his generals that the war is not lost. In the weeks and months after Trump’s loss in the 2020 Presidential election, he has insisted that the election result was a fraud and that he ‘really’ won in a landslide. The scenes are identical. The psychology is identical. Hitler the political and military genius, and Trump the genius businessman, celebrity and President, simply could not have been defeated under normal circumstances. They must have been the victims of treachery and disloyalty. No other explanation can otherwise account for why they have been undone by mere mortals. Neither is evidence in support of this argument required. It is a truth as self-evident as their genius.

And Trump, like Hitler, is prepared to let his country burn if that is what is required in order for the fantasy to remain intact. In Hitler’s case, it was the encircling Allied armies; in Trump’s, it is COVID-19 and societal discord. But like Hitler, Trump also has an eye to the future. Hitler wanted to create a mythos that disguised his inadequacy and banality as a human being in the glorious raiment of a Wagnerian-Nietzschean hero. Trump wants to create a mythos that disguises his corruption and incompetence as President in the garb of a victim of electoral theft. The war is not lost. The election was stolen. Both are lies, and both are the germ of a dangerous mythology. The false narrative that motivates neo-Nazis today is the same false narrative that could motivate Trump’s supporters in the future.

There are already rumours circulating that Trump is planning a re-run in 2024. And just as Hilary Clinton’s calamitous description of Trump’s supporters as a ‘basket of disreputables’ provided them with a ready-made rallying cry in 2016, so a mythology of the ‘stolen election’ could provide Trump with the motivating narrative that fuels a return to power. Afterall, the myth of the ‘Lost Cause’ of the southern Confederacy remains a powerful narrative in American popular culture more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, providing self-justifying energy for everyone from white supremacists to separatist militias. And Hitler’s climb to power occurred after the disastrous failure of his abortive coup in 1923; even as he was seizing control of the German state in 1933, he was being written off and dismissed on the basis of his past failure. Writing Trump off now could prove a catastrophic error.

Downfall is a superb motion picture. But its true value resides in the fact that it provides a decisive counter-narrative to neo-Nazi mythologising by humanising Hitler and depicting him in all his mean, sterile, empty narcissism. Hopefully, someone will one day perform the same service with respect to Donald Trump, producing an American version of Downfall that explodes the mythology he is trying to create, and that reveals instead the destructive, monomaniacal reality that lurks beneath.

Brendan Byrne is an ordained Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. He is presently in congregational ministry in Melbourne, Australia; the creator and host of Ergasia: A Podcast of Work, Faith, Theology and Economics; and an Associate Member of the Religion and Social Policy Network of the University of Divinity (Vic).


Comments

Barry Turner
January 12, 2021, 9:55PM
I would add that now there is probably a more familiar comparison to Nero in letting the house burn down.

This showed that the Civil War never really ended it just went underground. The Structural Apartheid is evident in the way communities are set up right down to the electoral college voting processes which is heavily gerrymandered in its historical setup.

At least the likes of Angela Merkel have a sense of understanding history which they find very sobering.
Brendan Millane
January 28, 2021, 4:43PM
Well I think there are some similarities in outward personal behaviour between Trump and Hitler but I don't really think it is helpful to conflate Trump as another Hitler. Trump never had the equivalent of the annihilation of vast swathes of eastern steppes occupied by the Slavs and the extermination of the Jews as his agenda for over a decade before he came to power - as did Hitler.

Just seems way over the top to try and paint Trump as an evil monster similar to Hitler - after all Hitler/the Nazis never got a popular vote anyway near the levels Trump achieved.. so what is the point ? Are the 50.5% and 49% of the US electorate in 2016/2020 followers of the most evil doctrines equivalent of the Nazis ?

Yeah Trump is a nasty piece of work (and a liar too like many other politicians) but I think the US electorate knew that but voted for him anyway.

I cant buy equating Trump with Hitler in any way but minor superficial qualities.

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