Partial review: 'Hitler's Circle of Evil' (2018)

Hitler’s Circle of Evil is a documentary series on Netflix that narrates the lives and actions of Adolf Hitler’s inner circle, leading up to and during the Second World War. This is a partial review because it is based on watching eight episodes, of a total of ten, though I’m confident about publishing because I’m not sure the two remaining episodes will change my impression much.

What worked

After the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, it has been open season around the world to ridicule, denigrate and deride the group of men who tried to set up a pan-European fascist empire on the skulls and bones of millions of people they murdered to realise their grisly ambitions. They were Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Ernst Röhm and Martin Bormann, among others. Hitler’s Circle of Evil rests comfortably in this notion, that no one is ever going to think highly of these men (except neo-Nazis), and takes a shot at exploring the people, the humans, behind each monstrous visage.

At a time when newspaper editors in the US are pilloried when they attempt to humanise the madmen who pen supremacist creeds and then go on shooting sprees, humanising fascists is a dangerous proposition. But since the credentials of the first Nazis are such that they are quite unlikely to be mistaken for having been good people who did bad things owing to a conspiracy of circumstances, and because right-wing nationalists are finding increasing favour in the most powerful countries of the 21st century, Hitler’s Circle of Evil ends up being well-made (at least in spirit) and well-timed, serving an elaborate reminder that the champions of hate are people too, and by extension that people can be nasty.

Indeed, this is a remarkable series for those who haven’t pored through history books attempting to make sense of Hitler’s henchmen but have, like me, focused instead on the mechanics of the war itself. These men for the most part were sucking up to Hitler, to receive a pat on the back and a sliver of the Führer’s power, and less plotting against Jews and expanding lebensraum. This is what Hitler set up, this was the heart of the Third Reich: if you didn’t jostle, conspire and backstab for power, you would be pushed down the pecking order.

This paradigm often led to ridiculous outcomes – of the lol variety in Martin Bormann’s case and the wtf variety in Rudolf Hess’s. But in the final analysis it is clear that these were all small-minded, weak-spirited, weak-willed men, typified by Heinrich Himmler, who took advantage of the pitiable social circumstances of early 20th century Germany, with a bit of subversion of their own, to animate their innermost insecurities with political, industrial and finally military power.

The show’s vantage point is also interesting because it doesn’t take its eyes away from the inner circle and focuses from start to finish on the interpersonal dynamics of the Nazi leadership. Contrast this with the Second World War in the popular imagination – where it very easily, and therefore very commonly, becomes a grand vision: the dramatis personae are strewn across dozens of countries, mobilising their forces with ships, airplanes, submarines, tanks and troop-carriers, discussing strategies encompassing hundreds of thousands of fighters, billions of dollars and thousands of kilometres.

But according to Hitler’s Circle of Evil, the whole enterprise could alternatively emerge from the lives and relationships among a small coterie of people often to be found in Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in south Germany, that antisemitism was really the populist cloak to hide their venal tendencies and desperate attempts to grab power. As a result some of the war’s more historic moments become flattened, notably the start of Operation Barbarossa, to a few simple considerations on Hitler’s part. On the other hand a lot of what was thought according to the popular narrative to be periods of boring politics or even quietude are brought roaring to life with intimate details of behind-the-scenes action.

What didn’t work

All this said, my principal concern about the show is that even as it holds a mirror to contemporary authoritarian nationalist regimes, and informs us that fascism then and now is the same wine in different bottles, whether the show’s makers traded off the relative importance of each henchman in the pre-war and war years for dramatic effect. Obviously a show that retells events that actually happened to piece together well-documented historical knowledge has little, if any, leeway to take liberties with the truth, but it is entirely possible to distort the picture by muting some portions.

The first sign of this in Hitler’s Circle of Evil comes through with the depiction of Rudolph Hess. Hess goes from being described mainly as Hitler’s groupie, and a smart one at that, who helped the Führer become the Führer and even helped him write Mein Kampf and introduced to him the idea of lebensraum, to being seen as a hypochondriac dolt. Both descriptions can obviously be applied to the same person but it is odd to make only a particular set of traits explicit at different points in the series, almost rendering Hess’s actions unexpected, even contrived.

I concede that expecting to learn everything about the people who shaped 1930s Germany on a single day is ridiculous, but Hitler’s Circle of Evil would have started off knowing this, and it is worth considering what the show could have done better.

Another notable issue is that we learn a lot about Hitler’s henchmen but not enough. The Nazis are commonly associated with antisemitism and a rarely matched propensity for violence, but the origins of these tendencies are barely discussed, certainly not beyond mentioning them as the reason the Nazi Party did X or Y. Hitler’s ambition of European domination, for instance, shows up out of the blue somewhere in episode 5. We know from historical texts why Hitler invaded Europe but the show itself does not do a good job of setting it out.

More broadly, we learn very little about Hitler himself, so there is often haziness about why exactly some decisions were taken or some events transpired, considering Hitler was the ultimate arbiter. By focusing on the ‘circle of evil’, the show bets too much on the henchmen and too little on the tyrant they orbit, and when many of the tyrant’s impetuses are absent from some scenes, they look insipid, even contrived.

Oh, and the kitschy acting. The kitschy acting does not work.

An unrelated note: the Berghof was Hitler’s residence in the Bavarian Alps near Berchtesgaden, constructed under Martin Bormann’s supervision in 1935. In episode 5, Hitler’s Circle of Evil tours through its halls while the narrator talks about the Nazi Party beginning to devote its efforts towards drafting the plan that would come to be called the ‘Final Solution’.

The tour finally ends with views of the alps from the Berghof’s balconies and full-length windows. And here, the historian Roger Moorhouse takes over from the narrator: “There’s a curious paradox and it’s only really made sense of by the fact that there is a new morality, if you like, in inverted commas, within Nazism which allows people to be cultured, intelligent, educated, and at the same time espouse those most radical, hideous, racist ideas.”

This moment in the show is a disturbing one as it implies in an inescapable way that a beautiful sweeping view of verdant mountainsides in the passing embrace of a white cloud might dull one’s suffering, then memories of pain, then the pain of others and ultimately empathy itself. There between the limestone peaks of southern Germany, evil becomes banal.