I recently watched Letters from Iwo Jima and was blown away by the movie. I’m glad we have enough perspective that a movie humanizing our (the U.S.) enemies in WWII can be met with widespread critical acclaim and without cries of public outrage. Yet, throughout the movie I kept thinking of a counterfactual: the same exact movie but instead of depicting WWII Japan, it instead depicted WWII Germany.
Disclosure: I was born in China, moved to Canada at 6, and then to the U.S. at 11, where I have been ever since. I disclose this because I believe it makes me more objective than most. I’m Chinese-American but have been indoctrinated by the West so my beliefs are probably partial to both as opposed to only one.
So, now let’s consider the counterfactual (spoilers I guess for those who haven’t seen Letters from Iwo Jima). The Allies have been making progress beating back the Germans and are approaching a city, let’s call it Iwotown, that lies on the path to Berlin. The main character is an unpatriotic, philosophical Nazi foot-soldier, resigned to the fact that he will probably die in Iwotown, yet determined to do whatever it takes to survive. Most of his friends are similarly disillusioned and not much more patriotic. An ultra-patriot shortly joins their squad and everyone thinks he was sent by the SS to spy on them. We later discover that he was indeed a member of the SS but was kicked out for not blindly following orders. He runs away from Iwotown and surrenders to the Americans but is executed when none of the Americans want to stay and watch him. Then there is Iwotown’s commanding Nazi general, an intelligent, thoughtful commander who, before war broke out, befriended military leaders in America and was even given a beautiful pistol as a token of their friendship. He is a deeply admirable character and in flashbacks we see that he would hate for war to break out between the two countries but if it were to happen, he would dutifully and honorably serve his country (which he does). Lastly there is his charismatic officer who won Gold in the 1932 Olympics for horse jumping. He orders his soldiers to save an American marine who distrusts the Nazis at first but bonds with the officer over American culture (the German officer had befriended some famous actors and actresses when he was in L.A. for the 1932 Olympics). The next morning, the American marine is found dead from his wounds and the German officer reads a letter found in the marine’s pocket out loud to his soldiers. It’s a mundane letter from mother to son, but that’s what makes it so emotional. The Nazi foot-soldiers who had wanted to kill him or torture him for information now break down crying as they realize just how much they had in common with the man they demonized. Sure, many officers and soldiers in the movie conform to our expectations of how Nazis behave, but the main cast of characters, all very different from each other, are humanized in their own way.
Now, does that sound like an award-winning movie, one that is almost universally praised as one of the best movies of 2018? Could such a movie even get made, and how much public outcry would there be in America if such a movie ever was? I certainly don’t think such a movie is even within the realm of possibility, especially given our current political climate. I’m not saying that a movie like Letters from Iwo Jima shouldn’t have been created; I’m so glad that such a movie exists, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. What I want to figure out is why the same movie couldn’t be made about Nazi Germany.
Now, some of you might be thinking that I’m making an unfair comparison and that the Holocaust is objectively the most horrific event in history, one that has no parallels. Objectively, that may be true, but I’d argue that almost nobody did the math on the worst atrocities in human history, and only afterwards decided that the Holocaust was an unparalleled tragedy, one that must be emphasized to a much greater extent than any other. That belief is a product of repeated exposure in Western education and culture. Not convinced? Consider the American Revolution vs. the French Revolution. Objectively, the French Revolution’s impact and significance on history is much greater than that of the American Revolution. Yet, in American classrooms, lessons on the French Revolution are a blip on the radar in comparison. I’m sure you can think of many other examples; every country has its own narratives. All Western countries (I think) teach their citizens about the heinous crimes Nazi Germany committed, but almost none teach their citizens about the similarly heinous crimes of the Japanese in WWII. That is certainly not the case in China and Korea. The Holocaust is to the West what the Japanese atrocities are to China and Korea. The events of the 20th century still hold significant sway in Chinese and Korean perceptions of Japan and impact relations to this day. Even if the Holocaust is objectively the greatest historical tragedy, Japan’s actions in WWII is undoubtedly in the same league. So, consider how you feel about the Nazi Germany equivalent of Letters from Iwo Jima, and recognize that there are probably more than a billion people who feel that way about Letters.
Nazism was confined to a certain time in German history, one that was without redeeming qualities, making it easy for the West, and probably the world, to view it as the symbol for pure evil (rightly, I might add). Japan in WWII doesn’t have the same ring to it and there’s no one word catch-all for Japan at that time. It’s easy to denounce Nazis as the symbol of evil as that word almost separates them from the rest of German history; it’s much harder to denounce the Japanese in WWII since the phrase remains tied to Japan. Yet having that catch-all word can obfuscate the truth. Nazism equating to evil, at least until recently, was one of the few things that had almost universal consensus in the U.S. Nobody in their right mind would defend Nazis, thus the PR disasters of Zuckerberg and Trump. So, our view of Nazism as the symbol of evil prevents us from separating the German citizens under the Nazi government and Nazism as ideology; it blinds us from reality. I’m definitely unqualified to speak about this so I’ll let Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl do the talking. From Man’s Search for Meaning:
“It is apparent that the mere knowledge that a man was either a camp guard or a prisoner tells us almost nothing. Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn. The boundaries between groups overlapped and we must not try to simplify matters by saying that these men were angels and those were devils. Certainly, it was a considerable achievement for a guard or foreman to be kind to the prisoners in spite of all the camp’s influences, and, on the other hand, the baseness of a prisoner who treated his own companions badly was exceptionally contemptible. Obviously the prisoners found the lack of character in such men especially upsetting, while they were profoundly moved by the smallest kindness received from any of the guards.”
“In reality there are only two races, namely the ‘race’ of decent people and the ‘race’ of people who are not decent. And ‘segregation’ runs straight through all nations and within every single nation straight through all parties. Even in the concentration camps one came across halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men – just as one came across the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners. Not to mention the Capos. That decent people are in the minority, that they have always been a minority and are likely to remain so is something we must come to terms with. Danger only threatens when a political system sends those not-decent people, i.e., the negative element of a nation, to the top. And no nation is immune from doing this, and in this respect every nation is in principle capable of a Holocaust!”
“Resistance presupposes heroism, and in my opinion one may demand heroism only of a single person and that is … oneself! And whoever then says that someone should have preferred to be locked up rather than get on with the Nazis, then that person can only actually say this if they themselves have proved that they preferred to let themselves be put in a concentration camp, and consider this: those who were in concentration camps do in general judge the opportunists far more lightly – more lightly than those who stayed abroad for the duration. Not to mention the younger generation – how can they imagine how afraid people were and how they trembled for their freedom, for their very lives and for the fate of their families, for whom they were always responsible? We can only admire all the more those who dared to join the resistance movement.”
Frankl isn’t engaging in false equivalency. Throughout the book, he makes it very clear that Nazism is to be condemned, that Nazism will attract a disproportionate amount of deplorable people, and that most Nazis were not good people. However, he also notes that there were even “halfway decent fellows here and there among the SS men” and that there was “the odd scoundrel or two among the prisoners”. Frankl reminds us that even within a system as evil as Nazism, there can still be decent people and urges us, especially the ones who haven’t lived through the experience, to withhold judgment. His eloquent words force us to separate the ideology from the people, to recognize that just because a government is evil doesn’t mean that everyone under the government is. To forget that Nazis are human too is to forget a crucial lesson from one of history’s greatest tragedies; condemning them as pure evil distances us from their actions. It presupposes that we all would’ve acted differently under the same conditions they faced. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
So, now that I’ve alienated everyone reading this, let me bring this back to my original counterfactual. Personally I think there are only two positions one could take, given Japan’s WWII atrocities are at least close to being on the same level as Germany’s (though if someone has a very convincing argument, I’m not opposed to changing my mind): one either supports the creation of both Letters from Iwo Jima and its Nazi Germany equivalent, or one supports neither. Based on what I quoted from Frankl and my earlier praise of Letters from Iwo Jima, it’s not hard to figure out which position I support.
On purely epistemological grounds, if only one of the two movies could be made in the West, I’d rather the Nazi Germany equivalent be made (in China or Korea, the opposite would be true). The reason again comes back to how we’re educated and how we view events; it is because we know all the terrible things the Nazis did and view Nazism as the symbol of evil that we should be reminded of their humanity. Most people in the West don’t have a good understanding of Japan’s WWII war crimes, so a movie that humanizes the Japanese army makes their actions seem ordinary and not that bad. The Nazi Germany version however, because of the ubiquitous knowledge in the West of Nazi atrocities, would steer beliefs more towards the truth: that even though what the Nazis did was horrific and inhumane, they were still human like the rest of us. To deny Nazis their humanity is to say that such actions are only possible for beings less than human and to assume that such a tragedy could never happen again. I realize that the very reason such a movie should be allowed to be made is the very reason it won’t be. There are many more points to be earned signalling your outrage than maintaining a compassionate, nuanced perspective. And sometimes, it’s simply more convenient to deny the humanity of those who commit such unthinkable crimes. I won’t impute ignorance to you for doing so; I only ask you to not impute bad intentions to me for disagreeing.