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The Uncivil Servant: “The Decent One”

Mitchell Abidor
September 28, 2014
by Mitchell Abidor 3-DECENT-ONElartgestIT’S CERTAINLY A TRUISM that no one is only one thing, and even if there is some element that dominates a person’s existence, or our vision of that existence, people have multiple facets and are viewed differently by all who know them. The most caring of husbands and loving of fathers can also be a killer. The most brutal of killers can also be a loving father and husband. That this applies to the men behind the Nazi genocide is the lesson of Vanessa Lapa’s astounding film The Decent One, which will be showing at Film Forum in New York from October 1-October 14. Lapa’s film is a private portrait of Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), and it aims to unsettle us, to unsettle our notion of the Holocaust and its perpetrators, as well as any complacency we might have about human character. By constructing the film around private letters and diaries, Lapa, a Belgian-born filmmaker who lives in Israel. shows Himmler as a human being who contains a monster, and not the other way around. Viewing him that way forces us to view the perpetrators of the Holocaust in a startling light. The private materials written by Himmler, his father, his wife, his daughter, and his mistress, which form the spine of The Decent One, trace his life from his childhood until his suicide at the time of the Third Reich’s collapse. The archival material that Lapa draws from was massive and scattered: At war’s end, the American troops who captured Himmler’s villa took the papers with them and shared them out. Over the course of decades, the papers traveled the world, until one section ended up at the Hoover Institute and the rest were purchased by David Lapa, the director’s father, to enable her to make this film. Lapa merges and juxtaposes them brilliantly with archival footage that shows Himmler the husband and father, relaxed, playing with his child, fishing with the family, as well as Himmler the strutting, goose-stepping Nazi in his Ruritanian uniform. The assembled portrait is a fascinating one, and in viewing it we see the unity of the man within his internal schisms. The boy who licks stamps is the same person as the man who will review the most effective methods for killing Jews; the shaken young man convinced that no one likes him “because he talks too much” and isn’t voted into a student society will rule the police of a vast Reich. Even monsters started small, and though our knowledge of what will come colors our image of the embryonic Himmler, by experiencing his adolescent worries and concerns we see that he was, after all, a boy and young man like any other — who grew into a fate unlike any other. His idées fixes, from early in his life, would come to rule his life. As a little boy, he wrote of his fondness for war games and bemoaned his loss of ten million (toy) soldiers. During World War I, he speaks of Russian prisoners as “multiplying like vermin.” Just as the Nazi leaders would look down on the Germans for their inability to win their war, he has contempt for his fellow Bavarians’ lack of strength, their “shitting in their pants” during World War I. The strict official morality of the Nazis is already there as well, as he condemns a friend’s 3-year-old daughter for running around the house naked. All of this will flower and be acted on in later life, as, of course, will his early Jew-hatred (“we went to the Reich’s Eagle Bar — It was crawling with Jews”). Perhaps this is one of the most strikingly unique aspects of Nazi leadership: Few of us get to act on our long-held personal prejudices and turn them into a national policy of murder. So there is a straight line from this younger to the older Himmler. But what are we then to make of the Himmler who is so smitten with the woman he will soon marry that he numbers his letters to her, since he’s certain there’ll be so many, and addresses her during the war as “My Dear Mommy” — yet has a mistress he also loves and with whom he has a child? Or the Himmler who dotes on his daughter, never failing to send her gifts from wherever he is, even en route to Auschwitz? Or who advocates families of at least three or four children, but only has one? Or who says about the Jews he is rounding up and killing that “we will have a decent attitude towards these human animals” — and who, as the war is nearing a close, sends his daughter a poem entitled “Redemption,” which says that “the future — German people — is yours, yet kills himself”? What of the Himmler who, with millions dead because of his deeds, can say of “the German officers, the German generals, the German soldiers, that they were decent.” IT WOULD BE EASY TO WRITE THIS ALL OFF as the words and thoughts not only of a mass murderer, but of a hypocrite. Yet the accumulation of material in The Decent One leads to quite another conclusion: Himmler, and by extension his fellows, whom his daughter (for whom Hitler is “Uncle Adolf”) finds cause to criticize — in particular Goering (who “cares about nothing” and is “flashy”) and Goebbels ( a good man, though “condescending”) — were sincere. Himmler loved his wife, his daughter, his mistress (for a while anyway; when last heard from, the mistress is mockingly referring to him as “King Heinrich”). His decency was not false, but was predicated on the notion that “other nations [should] serve us,” and that the life of a German is worth more than that of a non-German. Jews, needless to say, were “sub-human” to him. Once you’ve excluded from the human race Jews, homosexuals (who he had a particular animus towards), Poles, and Russians, anything you do to them is permitted and isn’t a violation of decency. Decency is defined instead as the protection of your own country, your own people, your own “race” — and the mistreatment of those outside the accepted group is permitted since it is not mistreatment of people. You can be just a normal, straying husband, a figure of probity (his wife keeps strict household accounts, and Himmler tells his daughter she can’t keep a pony she was given for her birthday because the gift-giver hoped to profit from their relationship), yet still kill millions -- without the contradiction causing you to crack, or even to feel it. The Decent One’s title is thus both ironic and not. It shows that you can be the decent one and the killer at one and the same time. You can be the definition of decency for yourself and those who believe as you do, and the embodiment of indecency to everyone else. Vanessa Lapa’s film forces us to confront the decent man as killer. Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.