I finally saw Inglourious Basterds. I know, about time, right? I can’t believe I waited so long, but I’m glad I did because one of the things that got me about it is a result of being here.

1. I was impressed with myself that I could eat while watching a Tarantino film without regretting it. I suppose this was one of the less-gory specimens, but still.

2. I was struck by how all of the “protagonists”, for lack of a better term, lumped all Germans together as Nazis and all Nazis as terrible, terrible people. Obviously, the Nazi regime was a terrible terrible regime and the High Command did, probably without exception, terrible things in their roles. But the film took a good vs. bad, black vs. white approach. This is totally normal in WWII B-movies that use Nazis as the villains, but I was disappointed at the lack of complexity in painting the sides (although it did serve well in this particular film). The only Nazi who was almost not-that-bad was Fredrick Zoller, but even he pulled a gun on the woman we were led to believe he loved.

The film equates Germany with Nazis, all Germans are evil, all Nazis must die, therefore… It is pitted against the all-Jews-must-die rhetoric of the Nazi party, which makes sense, but I want someone to ask the question: are all Nazi soldiers believers? What about those who don’t have a choice to serve in a time of war? Is it fair to carve swastikas into their foreheads? Yes, many did horrible things and probably believed in what they were doing. But what about the ones who did it to provide for their families and preserve their own lives? Like the Frenchman in the beginning who gives in to protect his own family. Where do you draw the line? Or Wilhelm, whose son Maximilian was born just that morning – he almost goes free but is gunned down because, in the end, he wears a Nazi uniform and this makes him guilty. Does all guilt lie with all soldiers, or are those in the High Command more guilty than those below them?

Though I, like everyone like me, have almost always equated Nazis with evil, I think it’s important to think about what people do in times of crisis, the phenomenon of group-think even when it goes against personal morals, and how manipulatable the mind is. War and politics are complicated, it’s not like everyone in Germany woke up one day and decided to kill Jews. I think it’s easy to forget that. The movie, I think intentionally, shows us how the Germans-are-bad and Germany-is-evil framework is flawed. It leaves no wiggle room for dissent or defiance, or for participating under duress. A soldier is a soldier, a soldier takes commands, a soldier knows what a war crime looks like but that doesn’t mean he won’t commit it.

There was a great op-ed recently in Ha’aretz about Israeli soldiers who work in the Occupied Territories. They know what they are doing is horrible and wrong, but they do it, because doing it is better than having it done to you. It would be a sad sad thing if in the future, the world treats the Israel of today as it treats the Germany of the ’30s and ’40s; a country filled with monsters and heartless Basterds.

(I’m not really comparing Israel to Nazi Germany – my point is only that the things soldiers will do cannot always be equated with their personal morals or what they would do if they felt they had a choice.)


2 thoughts on “Inglourious

  1. For clarification:

    I got this email:

    Did you just compare Israel to Nazi Germany and then parenthetically say that you weren’t comparing Israel to Nazi Germany?

    And I respond thusly:

    In that people often conflate Israeli policy, Israeli government, Israeli soldiers, and Israeli civilians in the same way that the movie conflates Germans and Nazism, yes. And in the way that Israeli soldiers are sometimes made to do things that may go against their own morals, as it may be assumed some Nazi soldiers were, yes.

    I do not think Israel is like Nazi Germany.

    But there are plenty of (Jewish) commentators, even those not so far “to the left”, who would warn that Israel’s domestic and territorial policies are encroaching on those of pre-War Nazi Germany. (See Lillian Rosenthal and Uri Avnery, both survivors.)

  2. Israel is worse than Nazi Germany in the only sense that matters to you: its capacity for self-renewal. That means, the question of legality. I’m confident Germany dressed all its official and semi-official and non-judicial murders with statutory authority, duly administered (nothing “arbitrary and capricious” about the regulations through which those statutes were executed). But Nazi Germany was not, as its first principle, anti-Jewish. It could have adopted a star of David with a “do not enter” red slash running diagonally across it as its logo. What would you say–killing Jews was one of the five objectives of Naziism?
    Israel’s number one objective is to make there be no Palestinians so that Palestine does not exist so that Israel has a right to the property. This is the significance of the 1992 Basic Laws language about Israel being a “Jewish and democratic state”. If non-Jews exist, at least in or around Israel, they would not only threaten a demographic catastrophe by one day outnumbering Jews and voting out the Jewish state–they would immediately threated a legal catastrophe by denouncing the Jewish state as anti-democratic in its basic intent by depriving non-Jews of equal status–which a Jewish state must do, if it is to be a Jewish state.
    Let me tell a little story about Vietnam, which I have never been to, though I’ve recently visited Iraq and been slightly blown up (a few millimeters from being totally blown up, in the punctured heart sense of the word) there. I was always fascinated by the Vietnam war, which was perhaps in part inspired (my fascination, that is) by my turning 18 and drawing draft number 016 the year Nixon stopped drafting men into the military. So, after being in Africa for a year with the Peace Corps (“this job is pointless and I’ve heard from someone back home,” I told the sector director, who replied, “this whole thing stinks”), I ended up at a Catholic college in Maine, SJC, as a second-time undergraduate (first time at Carleton in Minnesota although, or because, I grew up in Maine, though not born here). The dean of students at SJC was a Vietnam vet, a Marine officer (still in the reserves, still looking dashing in uniform), who’d gone on to be an assistant naval attache in South Africa (in the seventies, evidently). The dean of the college, Sr. Doloros (who once remarked to me that some of the most evil men she’d ever met were Jesuits, and who explained to me, in another encounter in the corridor, SJC’s function as “this is as close as these kids will ever get to a real college”–and let me also mention their college catalog’s explanation of their purpose, citing intellectual development as the thing to be found there, all the auxiliary social development, etc., falling in place if you put intellectual skills first–cf., Carleton’s essay, which was pure gibberish, presented in eight points), roped me into setting up a lecture or debate about South Africa. See, she’d seen my type of frantic desire for a home among the Catholics before and wanted to make something of me while I discovered that Catholics are human like me. So somehow I got a few South Africans to come to campus. So one day I’m passing the dean of students, the former Marine, who comments that the mistake the South Africans had made was putting their prejudice in the law. This would have been, probably, 1981.

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