Account" is a 2020 documentary by Luke Holland. The film consists of
interviews with Germans who were Nazis in their youth and participated in World
War II in various functions. Holland found out when he was 14 that his mother
was a Jewish escapee from Austria just before the Nazi occupation. Holland's maternal
grandparents died in the Holocaust. He began work on the film in 2008, 63 years
after the end of the war, so his informants were very young when they began
their Nazi careers. One recalled being a nine-year-old and standing arm in arm
with other Nazis preventing shoppers from entering a Jewish-owned store. In the
interviews, the informants are in their eighties and nineties. Holland
interviewed over 300 former Nazis and obviously only a tiny fraction of those
interviews appear in the 90 minute documentary. Holland received a terminal
cancer diagnosis in 2015, and he died at 71 of cancer after the film was
Obviously many previous films also feature
interviews with former Nazis, survivors, and witnesses, including "Shoah,"
"Shtetl," "Hiding and Seeking," etc. What sets Holland's
film apart? I recommend this film because it is very watchable. It is brief and
rapid. The interviews are so substantial that watching it twice I still felt I
wanted more. I really wanted to know more about all the informants. For someone
who doesn't want to invest nine and a half hours in watching "Shoah,"
perhaps they will watch "Final Account." Of course "Shoah,"
widely hailed as a masterpiece, offers the viewer much more than a brief film
like "Final Account" can offer, but the simple fact is that the
number of viewers willing to watch all of "Shoah" is much smaller
than the number of people willing to watch a 90 minute film, and the more
people know about Nazism and the Holocaust, the better.
"Final Account" focuses
exclusively on Germans and Austrians. Unlike "Shoah," it is not
interested in transferring Holocaust guilt to Poland or anyone else. The
Germans in "Final Account" are nice people. I mean that; I'm not
being ironic. I'd want these folks as neighbors. They are grandmotherly and
grandfatherly, polite and charming. Even the interviewees who say things like
"I don't blame Hitler" and "I don't believe that six million Jews
were killed" and "The SS had nothing to do with atrocities" come
across, not as monsters, but as conventionally decent people. I would lend
money to these people and not worry about their paying it back. I would allow
them to babysit my child, for a brief period. I would assume that if I lived
next door to them, I'd never have to call the police on them. Even though I am
Polish Catholic and that very SS to which some of them belonged, that never
participated in atrocities, included the Einsatzgruppen who committed mass
murders of Polish Catholics.
Einsatzgruppen's mission was to kill members of the Polish leadership most
clearly identified with Polish national identity: the intelligentsia, members
of the clergy, teachers, and members of the nobility. As stated by Hitler:
"... there must be no Polish leaders; where Polish leaders exist they must
be killed, however harsh that sounds". SS-Brigadeführer Lothar Beutel,
commander of Einsatzgruppen IV, later testified that Heydrich gave the order
for these killings at a series of meetings in mid-August. The
Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen — lists of people to be killed — had been drawn up by
the SS as early as May 1939, using dossiers collected by the SD from 1936
forward. The Einsatzgruppen performed these murders with the support of the
Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz, a paramilitary group consisting of ethnic Germans
living in Poland. Members of the SS, the Wehrmacht, and the Ordnungspolizei
also shot civilians during the Polish campaign. Approximately 65,000 civilians
were killed by the end of 1939.
I would feel comfortable interacting in
a neighborly way with these charming, elderly Germans, even though I cried in
shock and disbelief while watching their interviews, because these people did
not decide on their own to commit mass murder. They were decent people swept up
in a movement directed by virtual demons, exceptionally sick and evil people like
Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels.
And of course I thought about today. I
thought of nice, decent, average people who don't resist evil as actively as
they might. And I thought about people like myself, people who are always a
thorn in somebody's side, people who don't go along and don't get along, people
who ask awkward questions and say shocking things. Humanity needs both kinds of
people, the "go along to get along" type and the "thorn in the
"Final Account" is too brief
to present a detailed retelling of the historical perfect storm that paved the
way for Nazism: WW I, Germany's defeat, the Versailles Treaty, the Depression,
the Weimar Republic, the scientific racism that was accepted by scientists all
over the world, etc. But Holland does show archival film of children
participating in Hitler Youth and other Nazi events. He wants his audience to
understand what appealed to these young people. "We loved the uniforms,
the camaraderie, the athletic games," they testify.
In one scene, very thin German children
are shown eating at what might have been a Hitler Youth picnic. Otto, whose parents
were part of this generation, also saw the film. He told me that when he was
watching that scene, he thought of how hungry his father was, and how the
Nazi's providing food to children was part of their appeal.
No, I'm not saying that being hungry is
an excuse for committing Nazi crimes, even so relatively minor a crime as
blocking shoppers' entrance to a Jewish-owned store. But Nazism didn't just
require vicious, cold-blooded killers. It also required, as one of the informants
was, bookkeepers, and men deeply committed to their own honor.
Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation, was in touch with
Holland since the project's origin … "Seeing them as human beings really
makes the movie's point that there were no monsters. They were human beings
that did monstrous things and were living with the consequences," says
Smith. "The final account is Luke holding them to account to some degree
and shows us the fragility of human nature, how easily we're beguiled by
ideology and by putting on a uniform."
The opening scenes of children
participating in Nazi activity and being indoctrinated in hating Jews and other
"life unworthy of life" reminded me of today. Little children are being
brainwashed in American schools right now to believe that some people, only
because of their skin color, bear the taint of evil, and other people, again
because of skin color or other immutable characteristics, are above judgment. We
can't stand up to the evils of the past. Time has marched on. But we can stand
up to evils today. When powerful people tell us that some of us are tainted simply
because of the color of our skin, and others are above judgment, we can be that
thorn-in-the-side of powerful lies.
There's a scene in "Final Account"
when a man in his eighties who was a Nazi in his youth speaks to young Germans.
The documentary claims that they met in the very building where the Wannsee
Conference took place. I was very touched that the speaker condemned the destruction
of Warsaw. I don't know if I've ever hears similar words before. I've been
reading, writing and thinking about Nazism for decades and I don't know if I've
ever come across any German expressing regret for what Germans did to Poland.
Germans have obviously and repeatedly, on stages big and small, expressed regret
for the murder of Jews. Poles, it seems, aren't even a shadow in their
nightmares, a footnote in their confessions. It was good to hear a German
express regret for the destruction of Warsaw.
Below are some screencaps from the
The first screencap is of a German woman saying, "They didn't belong to our ethnic group," in other words, why care about them? Students are being taught such attitudes in American classrooms today.
"I didn't really care that the synagogue was burning down" on Kristallnacht, another German says. Why should he care? Not my ethnic group.
"I was just a bookkeeper!" at a concentration camp.
"We discovered them and reported it." This informant was the most disturbing to me. He reported escaped Jews hiding in farm outbuildings. His face was a storm of sadness, guilt, and indifference. I think he had a very uncomfortable time when he met his maker.
"The SS had nothing to do with it. I had no regrets." Sure, buddy.
The next informant, a man with multiple religious statues behind him, including one of Padre Pio, acknowledged that the SS committed atrocities, atrocities he witnessed.
"It was cruel, but I did not care who burned." I think this was the informant who had a Jewish grandmother. He adopted Nazism enthusiastically, nonetheless.
The next series of photos is of the former Nazi confronting a young German who said shocking things to him. A confrontation.
"I would dirty myself if I admit to that." This same informant said he blame Hitler for nothing. Not even the Nero Decree, I guess. Denial.
The man with the white hair and stunning blue eyes said that Germans said three things after the war. "I didn't know, I didn't participate, and if I had known I would have acted differently." He ended the interview.
"The idea was correct," this man said. Hitler should have simply deported the Jews, but not killed them. Mind, there were only about half a million Jews in Germany, a country of, I think, 80 million, and they were mostly assimilated
The final three photos are of a visit to a home for the elderly in Ebensee, Austria, near a concentration camp. At first, an informant says "we knew nothing." As the interview progresses, it becomes clear that they did know, and at least one woman participated, by hiding her SS boyfriend for months after the war.