If it were ever in doubt that one can be very talented and very stupid (or possibly simply venal), Oliver Stone’s recent interview with The Sunday Times surely settles the matter. Stone is planning a 10-part documentary about Stalin and Hitler that will put them “in context.” And heaven knows we need a dollop of “context” for the planet’s top two pathological murderers with 8-figure victims (well, top three, you have to include Mao).
No, Oliver, “context” is a mitigating, larger, more nuanced truth that yields a less judgmental perspective. As body counts go, Stalin and Hitler created the über-context, and any impulse to be “less judgmental” is a moral travesty. In fact, it is not possible for a human being to be sufficiently judgmental of Stalin and Hitler.
I’m apt to give the Stone documentary a pass — not because it wouldn’t deliver some sparkle of Stone’s filmmaking aptitude, and not even because Stone would likely indulge his penchant for conspiracy theories — but because Stone’s core ideology, with which the documentary will presumably be suffused, is offensive nonsense. Here, courtesy of Norman Geras, are excerpts from the Stone interview in The Sunday Times:
“Hitler was a Frankenstein but there was also a Dr. Frankenstein. German industrialists, the Americans and the British. He had a lot of support.”
He also seeks to put his atrocities in proportion: “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people, 25 or 30m.”
Why such a focus on the Holocaust then? “The Jewish domination of the media,” he says. “There’s a major lobby in the United States. They are hard workers. They stay on top of every comment, the most powerful lobby in Washington. Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years.”
Okay, first, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster was not named Frankenstein. Not a biggie, but come on, a filmmaker, particularly one specializing in faux-history, should know it. Second, I’m no fan of Chamberlain’s appeasement — who is? — but equating hopeful appeasement of a monster with creation of a monster is philosophical silliness. Similarly, I’m no fan of American pacifism in the early years of Hitler’s aggressions — some are — but equating pacifism toward a monster with creation of a monster is likewise philosophical silliness.
Such philosophical silliness already suggests — even before we get to the good stuff — the mind of a child of nine (no offense to nine-year-olds).
Third, if we’re actually talking about “empowerment” of Hitler rather than “creation” of Hitler, then Stone’s singling out of “German industrialists, the Americans and the British” (as opposed to, say, the welcoming Austrians, the Soviets with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, signed a week before the invasion of Poland, or the Vichy French) already tells you all you need to know about the ideological derangement of this man.
Then we come to Stone’s enough-already-about-the-Holocaust. In an age where Iran’s theocratic thugs openly indulge in Holocaust denial, actively pursue an atomic bomb, and speak candidly of obliterating Israel, I just don’t see a compelling case for putting the Holocaust “in context.”
But that’s what Stone wants to do. Jews? Six million. The Russians? 25-30 million. Wow. Hitler was possibly five times more evil to Russians than he was to Jews. There’s a true generalist’s coupling of arithmetic and moral philosophy.
Where to begin?
First and foremost, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union, he was turning on an ally — another murderous totalitarian regime that signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler so that it could comfortably pursue its own wars of aggression against militarily weaker neighbors. The Jews were uniquely the object of a Final Solution, a systematic effort at genocide, based upon not a whit of aggression against other people, but upon their ethnicity.
Second, if arithmetic is relevant to moral philosophy, Hitler killed, or caused to be killed, roughly 40% of the Jews then on the planet, compared to roughly 16% of the Soviets. And by the way, many of these Soviets were Jews — seven figures. At the intersection of arithmetic and moral philosophy, I’m thinking you carve out the Soviet Jews in comparing Hitler’s impact on “Russians” versus Jews. (I’m presuming Stone means all of the Soviet oppressed, not merely the ethnic Russians, hence “Russians” in quote marks.) That means, at the intersection of arithmetic and moral philosophy, Hitler was vastly more evil toward Jews than “Russians.” But let’s agree that simplistic arithmetic may not be a reliable guide to moral culpability.
Third, “Russians” were killed in droves in the course of a Nazi war of territorial aggression. “Russians” occupied a vast territory that Hitler wanted, and he hated their Communist ideology. Jews were killed, though they had no territory, they had no state, they had no recognized homeland, they had no uniform ideology (there were Jewish Zionists, Jewish assimilationists, Jewish socialists, Jewish Communists, Jewish nationalists, apolitical Jews, Jewish conservatives, Jewish liberals, Jewish unionists, Jewish industrialists, Jewish tradesmen, Jewish peasants, Jewish atheists, religious Jews, educated Jews, uneducated Jews, rich Jews, poor Jews) — they were Jews, and they suffered equally. To use numbers killed as a proxy for moral culpability ignores the difference between territorial/ideological warfare and ethnic genocide.
It is not a difference we can afford to blur. Genocides still happen.
And then Stone gets real about who he is. The “focus on the Holocaust” is because of the “Jewish domination of the media” and the Jewish “lobby in Washington.” And “Israel has f***** up United States foreign policy for years.” I’ve sought above to engage Stone’s notions with an interest in history, its preservation, its accurate rendering. Now we descend to crass anti-Semitic ranting.
“Jewish domination of the media,” to any 9-year-old participating in the raucous diversity of the Internet, is a joke. A man who would perpetuate this canard, even a man with a penchant for absurd conspiratorial theories, is either deranged or very cynical. And that nefarious Jewish lobby in Washington? Putting aside the fact that the “Jewish lobby” in Washington is fractured, that Jews overwhelmingly vote liberal and Democratic, if the “Jewish lobby” in Washington can be generalized, it is only in support of Israel’s basic right to exist. Is that a goal that “f***s up” American foreign policy?
Oliver Stone has cast himself, strangely, with the lot of anti-Semites who crave attention because they’re immersed in the Hollywood notion that controversy generates extra interest, which translates into greater demand for their latest product. It is cynical. It says you are stupid, but you’ll buy it. Don’t.
Kendrick Macdowell is a lawyer and writer in Washington DC.