Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 27, 2007

With apologies to Paul Verhoeven

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 6:22 pm

Paul Verhoeven

Earlier this year I attended a press screening for Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” a film about the Dutch resistance during WWII. The main character is a beautiful young Dutch-Jewish singer named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who decides to fight the Nazis after they kill her parents. She hates the Nazis so much that she is willing to risk her life by becoming a spy and infiltrating their headquarters. But she almost decides to refuse the assignment after learning that it involves seducing the German commandant so as to learn crucial information about the enemy’s plans. Nothing would be more difficult than pretending to love somebody as evil as a Nazi officer.

It turns out that the officer is not the typical goon out of central casting. SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) does everything he can in his power to make life bearable to people living under occupation. Furthermore, he repeatedly intercedes on behalf of captured resistance fighters to make sure that they are not tortured or executed. After Rachel Stein, who has adopted the Dutch name of Ellis de Vries, gets a job as a singer inside Nazi headquarters, she wastes no time getting Müntze into bed and extracting information out of him. In the process, they fall in love with each other. It is harder for her to give into her feelings after what she has gone through, but decides that Müntze is different.

Eventually the Nazis learn that she is a spy and prepare to execute her. If Müntze was only lukewarm about Nazism to begin with, whatever residual loyalty he had to the regime goes down the tubes when he learns that the woman he loves is about to be murdered. He decides to desert from the German army and blend in with the civilian population alongside Rachel Klein, who has also put the fighting behind her. He calculates that his risks are minimal since the allies have begun to take control of the Netherlands and the Nazi army is on its last legs.

Thomas Müntze and Rachel Stein

At this point in the film, something takes place that seemed so far-fetched that I decided not to review the film. As many people must be aware, with films such as “Total Recall” and “Robocop” to his credit, Verhoeven does have a knack for going over the top. I don’t mind verisimilitude going out the window when it comes to science fiction, but WWII deserved better.

Verhoeven portrays the Nazi army as remaining in uniform and in arms under allied occupation, something that seemed far-fetched to me to begin with. But I slapped my head and say “Unbelievable” under my breath after what happened next. Müntze is recognized by a Nazi officer and arrested. After a Nazi court martial finds him guilty of desertion, he is shot by a firing squad. While I was aware of ex-Nazi officers being used against the USSR after the war ended, I had never heard about such an unlikely scenario. After nearly 5 years of brutal fighting, why would the allies allow the Nazis to retain such power?

It turns out that Verhoeven was right. This did happen.

Over the past few days I have been reading Jacques R. Pauwel’s “The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War,” a book that Bill Blum recommended a while back:

Which leads me to recommend a book, “The Myth of the Good War”, by Jacques Pauwels, published in 2002. It’s very well done, well argued and documented, an easy read. I particularly like the sections dealing with the closing months of the European campaign, during which the United States and Great Britain contemplated stabbing their Soviet ally in the back with maneuvers like a separate peace with Germany, using German troops to fight the Russians, and sabotaging legal attempts by various Communist Parties and other elements of the European left to share in (highly earned) political power after the war. This last piece of sabotage was of course very effectively realized. Stalin learned enough about these schemes to at least partially explain his post-war suspicious manner toward his “allies”. In the West we called it “paranoia”

I decided to take a look at Pauwels’s book in order to write something about WWII prompted by Ken Burns’s PBS series and by Clint Eastwood’s 2 movies about Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspective. I have had it up to here with WWII nostalgia and was looking for ammunition against it in Pauwel’s book.

In the chapter titled “An Anti-Soviet Crusade Together With the Germans,” Pauwels mentions that Admiral Dönitz offered his services to the allies in a bid for a new war against Bolshevism. While the allies never took Dönitz up on his offer, they did decide to keep the Nazi army intact. Pauwels writes:

[I]t is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!

A search on Proquest for NY Times articles referring to the execution turned up nothing, but a google search did. Professor Chris Madsen, a military historian now at Canadian Forces College, a military academy, wrote an article for Canadian Military History, Vol. 2 (1993): Issue 1 titled “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945.”

It begins:

On the morning of 13 May 1945, five days after the formal capitulation of Hitler’s Wehrmacht, a German military court delivered death sentences on two German naval deserters, Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck. The trial occurred in an abandoned Ford assembly plant on the outskirts of Amsterdam, a site used by the Canadian army for the concentration of German naval personnel. Later that same day, a German firing squad, supplied with captured German rifles and a three-ton truck from the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada and escorted by Canadian Captain Robert K. Swinton, executed the two German prisoners of war a short distance outside the enclosure. Dorfer and Beck were among the last victims of a military legal system distorted by the Nazi state. At the time no one, Canadian or German, questioned the justice of the event.

Good war? My foot.

12 Comments »

  1. Re “Good war? My foot.”

    Resistance is futile! With Ken Burns’ latest sentimental journey, “The War,” wowing the crowds, I’m sure WWII nostalgia will enjoy boffo box office for some time to come. I must admit that Burns’ incessantly panning camera gives me vertigo, and I haven’t seen one frame of “The War,” but I understand from reviews that Burns manages to cover WWII without ever mentioning the USSR was in it.

    Comment by Carl Remick — September 27, 2007 @ 9:25 pm

  2. No mention of the USSR in Burn’s documentary? Another reason not to watch it.

    I am reading “Thunder in the East” by Evan Mawdsley, which is a salutary correction to anyone’s idea
    that WW2 was a good war. The scale of the Russian losses are almost unimaginable. In some ways I think
    that the USSR was mortally wounded in WW2, despite the “victory” over Hitler.

    I mean that not only in the horrific loss of life, but also the descent into extreme nationalism
    and hatred that was the result of the Nazi assault.

    Comment by Jon Flanders — September 27, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  3. All of my family was killed in Belarus because they were Jewish. One great uncle survived for at least a time to become a partisan attached to the Red Army. In Vitebsk, I believe, out of an original pop. of 170,000+, something like 173 survived. That’s not a typo. If half of the Burn’s film isn’t a positive tribute to the Soviet population, he should have his ass kicked.

    Comment by Alex Briscoe — September 28, 2007 @ 12:24 am

  4. There is a fairly good (IMHO) Italian-Yugoslavian movie from 1969 about the death of those two German deserters.
    (http://imdb.com/title/tt0064386/)

    Comment by Zoltan Matheika — September 28, 2007 @ 5:45 pm

  5. On another note, the movie was quite good.

    Comment by mperelman — September 28, 2007 @ 5:54 pm

  6. Really good, informative review.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — September 30, 2007 @ 5:25 am

  7. I remember seeing the movie Zoltan mentions. It really was very good.

    Comment by empty — September 30, 2007 @ 8:17 pm

  8. Great review and very informative!

    WWII films are getting a revival partly because of the current debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many people long for a time when it was just good guys vs. bad guys, everything was black and white, and there was a definite end to the war. Nowadays, the “good guys” are handing out no-bid contracts to themselves, destroying civil liberties, spying on us, etc. and the “bad guys” won’t ever be defeated because the more people that are killed, the more people join the “bad guys.”

    What people don’t realize, as people have commented on above me, is the enormous human losses and unimaginable destruction that WWII meant for everywhere but America. Europe and Asia were smoldering in ruins and tens of millions lost their lives all so that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could become the dominant imperialist powers. There was a good documentary on PBS the other day, I think it was called simply “The War” and it talked about the Japanese and American internment camps (I didn’t know the Japanese put foreigners in camps in Japan), showed how all of American industry got behind the war effort (in 1941 12 million cars were produced, for the length of the war, only 137 civilian cars were made!) and it showed the fire-bombing of German cities. One city, not Dresden, lost 40,000 citizens in one bombing raid!

    It’s funny how people long for things that are worse than the situation that we have now because they never lived through it.

    Comment by Binh — October 1, 2007 @ 3:06 pm

  9. [...] September I wrote a post on my blog titled “With Apologies to Paul Verhoeven“  that took a new look at the conclusion of his 2007 film “The Black Book,” one [...]

    Pingback by Fifth Day of Peace « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 12, 2007 @ 5:36 pm

  10. Gott mit uns (God with us): Words written upon the belt buckles worn by German Armies.

    Comment by Andres Hurtado — March 8, 2008 @ 10:58 pm

  11. My father was Segeant-Major Webster of the Seaforth Highlanders and he witnessed this tragic event,the wrongful execution of those two young German men…..he never talked about it but I know it saddened him to the day he died on November 7th,1989…..

    Comment by Judy — March 29, 2008 @ 9:12 pm

  12. [...] my interest in films (Sophie Scholl, The White Rose, The Black Book) that illustrate German resistance to Hitler, I lacked the motivation to see [...]

    Pingback by Restless Conscience « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — April 2, 2009 @ 3:07 pm


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