This is a great short documentary by Marshall Curry called A Night At the Garden, and it details a Nazi rally held in America, in New York, at the Madison Square Garden in 1939. Curry doesn’t force any commentary on us in the film, but rather allows the chilling images to speak for themselves. Often, when considering historical events, especially world changing events like those of the World War periods of the last century, we want to try to put ourselves inside the minds of those involved. What, we wonder, would that really be like? Something that we may forget is that it is truly impossible to do this exercise with any real accuracy, because the background, or the water, if you will, that we swim in in each age is slightly different. Anti-Semitism certainly existed in America in the 1930’s in a way or degree that it did not in the period after the war. The fact that 20,000 Americans showed up at this New York ralley, and the symbols of the Nazi swastika were displayed right along side the American flag, and the Nazi salute was instigated along with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, shows that this was a different time. A film like this helps us wrap our minds around the fact that beliefs that we would find untenable today were accepted by many back then, even here in America.
When I visited the Topagraphie Des Terrors museum in Berlin a while back, I saw a temporary exhibit about how the Nazi party used the figure of Martin Luther for national socialist propaganda, how Goebbels and Hitler felt about Christianity, and how Dietrich Bonhoeffer pushed back against their efforts. I’ll highlight some of the insights I gleaned with some bullet points and then provide some thoughts on how that relates to Marshal Curry’s film, and perhaps how we should be thinking about historical documentation in documentary film:
– Goebbels reluctantly decided to try to try to make the Church an ally to the Nazi movement for morale and anti-Bolshevik purposes.
– Hitler wanted to solve the “Jewish Question” first and the Christian question after the war.
– Martin Luther was painted as a great German leader, pro-war and anti-Jewish, and equated with Hitler, and both figures as being salvation figures for the German people.
– The Bible was rewritten to appear more anti-Jewish by excluding the Old Testament and painting Jesus as arian.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer was actually a bit critical of Luther, yet realized the cultural forces of his day were taking his ideas farther than he would have wanted (I.e. the splintering of the church in the reformation), and argued that a doctrine of “cheap grace” allowed German churches to hide their real-world flaws behind “the correct definition of justification”.
Meanwhile the Germans were burning down Synagogues in Berlin and there was virtually no pushback from the German church… in other words, Goebbels had succeeded in getting them over to his anti-Jewish side.
Over the course of my studies, I’ve noticed through the years that those anti-Semite intellectual roots run VERY deep in German theology and philosophy. In grad school I can remember reading Schleiermacher, Hegel, Nietzsche and other 18th and 19th century German intellectuals and being shocked at the casual anti-Semite remarks thrown out here or there. In hindsight they stick out like a sore thumb. But at the time it was part of the milieu, and people just accepted it. It took many years for those seeds to germinate and grow, but grow they did and we all know the ugliness that followed. Bonheoffer is of course famous for seeing things clearly, a lone voice of moral opposition in a tide of sentiment sweeping the culture in the wrong direction.
I wonder how it is that, over time, over generations, rhetorical or intellectual wars turn into actual wars, or rhetorical and intellectual opponents turn into physical enemies. Or if there is a way, in the rhetoric, to walk this process back.
Makoto Fujimura in his book Culture Care argues that culture wars lead to actual wars, and that we should instead approach culture in terms of cultivation, to change the metaphor from war to growth. The interesting thing about the idea of growth is that once you cultivate something, once you plant a tree, it grows on its own, entirely out of your control. This is true of plants, children, books, and of course, works of art. So maybe thinking about how we can, culturally, plant seeds that more often than not, grow into love, tolerance, beauty, healthy community et cetera, is a more healthy way to approach culture rather than seeking to destroy the other side. As this example shows, we should consider that our words and thoughts can be taken and passed on by others, and those words might grow or sprout into something that gets out of our control. Of course there will always be distortions of the words or works or legacies of good people in service of power. But perhaps we can find ways to make it harder for future Goebbels’ to do so.
A film like this reminds us that there are probably ugly sprouts, seeds and sentiments growing in our own culture, that we don’t think are that bad, or maybe even agree with. Let us try to learn from the past in order to look for a brighter future.