History should never be completely set. It should always remain organic and flowing, changing and modifying as new facts and perspectives are added to the already known narrative. When it comes to World War II, we are constantly discovering new things: the extent of the enemies resolve, the small pockets of heretofore unsung heroism, the vastness of the damage to both country and citizenry, and perhaps most importantly, the impact on those who became the conquered and defeated. Indeed, we need to be reminded of the way in which the 'enemy' viewed their cause, how they came to power, and how they mistook honor and duty for a desire to rule the world. In the case of Nazi Germany, almost everything from the outside looking in is known. What we've rarely heard, however, is the story of how everyday Germans initially responded to Hitler, how the political agitator became a dictatorial force to be reckoned with, and what happened when the last vestiges of the Third Reich were swept away by the Allied Forces. Thanks to the History Channel, and this unique three hour overview, those forgotten facets of Germany's rise to power are presented in way that fills in many of those missing mandates.
Divided over two discs - subtitled "The Rise" and "The Fall" - this documentary takes the unique approach of offering oral testimony (ala journals, reports, articles, and long lost interviews) as to the beginnings of and the battles within the Nazi Party. We learn of the disdain many had for Hitler, his election losses, the appeasement move of offering the leader the figurehead role of Chancellor, how he then took that position and ran with it, and the establishment and expansion of the Reich. By the time the Anti-Jewish laws were passed and Germany was poised to invade Poland, many in the country had come around, confessing to the appeal of Hitler's "Master Race/Superior Nation" message. We see the value in the annual Nuremberg rallies, and witness the whitewashing of societal truths during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.
Part Two discusses the feeling of invincibility among the citizenry and soldiery, the quick victories across Europe, the sudden shock of air raids on German soil, and the slow realization that the War may not be winnable. Horror stories involving the Red Army (a literal rape and murder machine) and the Nazi's own horrendous 'Final Solution' round out a kind of inverse confessional. Many of the statements made here attempt a kind of unacknowledged guilt. The German people knew their Jewish neighbors were being relocated - without their possessions - and took advantage of their absence. When the Concentration Camps, sometimes located within a densely populated suburb, were discovered, the populace played possum. One US soldier makes is very clear, however, that as far as he (and the rest of the world) are concerned, ALL Germans were and remain guilty for the heinous crimes of their country.
Sometimes, we need a refresher course. History often gets lost among the rote facts we store in our trivia addled brain, truths tempered by a lack of updates or reconsideration. Taking an approach perfected by Ken Burns' majestic The Civil War, The Third Reich lets those who lived through the time explain and excuse the rise of Hitler and his National Socialist Party. The most important element in the Nazi's takeover was the state of Germany post-WWI. Punished severely for its part in the conflict, the country was in chaos - socially, financially, politically, and logistically. In a battle between competing ideology, Hitler seemed to come up short. While many found his "Strong Germany" message appealing, they didn't like the man or his mannerism. Appealing to the young and the desperate, the Reich built up a base that, by the early '30s, commanded respect and attention. Once given the Chancellorship - as a result of a failed political strategy by opponents - he used the Reichstag Fire as a means of selling fear, a successful ploy that continues to work some 80 years later.
By using the words of writers, soldiers, officials, involved families, and casual observers, and melding them with home movies, newsreel footage, propaganda films, war documentation, and the standard spoils of cinematic war, The Third Reich becomes a decidedly powerful experience. Sure, we get sick and tired of hearing the narrator say "If you were a German living in...". It's like a laborious catchphrase to keep the viewer clued in that this is the story from the enemy's point of view. Similarly, the naiveté and outright obliviousness of the German people ("Life during wartime isn't so bad after all...") can be grating. In their name, a man was singlehandedly wiping out an entire ethnicity and more or less running roughshod over the rest of the world, and all they cared about was how the conflict was affecting their daily existence. It makes the fear and horror - and denial - of the latter statements all the more sickening. Here were a people who allowed a madman to commit genocide and mass murder in their name, and aside from a few dissenting perspectives (including one man who we see tried for his sedition), they could really care less.
Another interesting aspect of this overview is how quickly Hitler disappears from the discussion. During part one, he is all over the narrative. Everything about him is discussed - his jerky speaking style, his awful hairdo, his lack of typical German mannerism, his low class appearance. But once he takes power, once installed as the figurehead and then fiery Fuhrer, it's as if the Reich absorbs him, insulating him, and his people, from the praise/criticism we heard before. Suddenly, there are few discussions about the man himself. Mostly, we hear about the failure of the government as a whole. There are people who long for information, who want the truth untainted by the Nazi's desire to spin everything to the positive. Even the horrific defeat at the hands of the Russians is painted in a way to make the slaughter of German citizens seem noble. All throughout this excellent compendium, we see how lies and betrayal meshed with belief and faith in the Fatherland to sell a citizenry a bill of goods for which many are still paying. It's amazing to learn that, up until the '80s, Germany was still rebuilding after its destruction by the Allies. In some ways, The Third Reich shows that much of the damage will never, and can never, be repaired.
As with any modern, made for television presentation, the History Channel offers up a nice high definition transfer. While the DVD version can't take advantage of Blu-ray's technological tweaks, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is very nice indeed. Even the old home movies and stock footage appear remastered to give them a slick, substantive sheen. The modern graphics are not intrusive and provide their information with speed and efficiency. All in all, this is a very good looking presentation.
Again, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is what you'd expect from a standard TV show. Even spread out over three hours, the narration is clean and crisp and the various voice recreations are solid. The mood music is very atmospheric, adding a tone of celebration where need be and the ominous threat of horrors to come when warranted.
Sadly, none are offered.
It's hard to shine a new light on a constantly repeated subject. From the time we are small, schools shovel the World Wars on us, giving us the intellectual basics upon which to build our understanding of the past. History then has a tendency to remain staid, to stubbornly avoid change until the actual truth comes up to smack it in the substance. The Third Reich may not be truly rewriting the legacy of Nazi Germany and its abhorrent leader, but it does provide a lot of insights previous unseen. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, this view from the other side is occasionally frustrating and extremely insular. It's also a way for the ever-changing story of World War II to be modified to reflect the perspective of all sides - no matter how right or wrong they are/were.
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