Netflix’s Hitler and the Nazis

Berlinger felt this is the right time to retell this story for a younger generation as “a cautionary tale,” and on a global scale.

Today’s widespread ignorance about the Holocaust, and alarming rise of antisemitism and authoritarianism, inspired the director to create this chilling documentary series.

Joe Berlinger, the director/executive producer of the new Netflix documentary series, “Hitler and The Nazis: Evil on Trial”, was inspired, in part, to work on the project by a 2018 study from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, in which they discovered that two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is.

“It shocks me the degree to which people are unaware of or have forgotten this history,” said Berlinger. “One in 10 millennial responders thought the Holocaust was caused by the Jews. 50 percent of people couldn’t even name just one of the 40,000 concentration camps, including Auschwitz.”

Berlinger felt this is the right time to retell this story for a younger generation as “a cautionary tale,” and on a global scale.

“In America, we are in the midst of our own reckoning with democracy, with authoritarianism knocking at the door and a rise in antisemitism. Belief in democratic institutions, belief in government, belief in democracy are at critical stages, across all ideologies,” he asserted.

In America, we're currently experiencing a level of dehumanization and antisemitism that’s extreme by modern standards. I think it's at epidemic proportions.

“We've split into camps and villainised one another, but if people don't learn to talk with each other and to have a basic respect for one another, the very foundations of democracy will crumble. By dissecting what happened in Nazi Germany, hopefully what viewers will see is just how precious democracy is, and how easily it can be attacked from within, and how important it is to protect.”

He continued: “We are living in a country that's very polarised, where propaganda has replaced news, where we’ve villainised each other, where we fail to understand the common good. And that's exactly what happened in Nazi Germany.

In America, we're currently experiencing a level of dehumanisation and antisemitism that’s extreme by modern standards. I think it's at epidemic proportions.”

The documentary focuses specifically on the Eastern Front of WWII.

 “Western Front is the war most Americans know and understand, but it was not the main event for Hitler,” Berlinger noted. “The whole concept of Lebensraum (‘living space’) and his war of annihilation – the imperial impulses that led Germans to believe they deserved to expand to the East – they’re continuing today with Russia's desire to take over Ukraine, and rebuild the old version of the Russian Empire.”

Ukraine is where much of the war in the East took place, in which “the population was annihilated. When you see what’s going on today in the context of that history, you understand better their ferocity for digging in.”

Rise to power 

The series uses archival material, audio and footage of the Nuremberg trials and eyewitness testimony of one of the only American journalists there, William L. Shirer, who provided some of the era’s most vital coverage and wrote several books.

“These events took place in an era where we relied on reporters and journalists stationed in foreign countries to report the news to American audiences, and Shirer was in a unique position as one of the few American correspondents reporting from Germany during the crucial years of Hitler’s rise and the early years of the war.”

Berlinger said many of Shirer’s reports were censored in Germany, but “he had the courage to smuggle his diaries out at great personal risk – and then he started to tell the world through numerous books he published, including Berlin Diary and, most famously, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”

One of the episodes details how Hitler rises to power. Although his first try at overthrowing the government during the Beer Hall Putsch is not successful, he quickly is able to use the public persona curated during his subsequent trial and imprisonment to his advantage.

With conditions in the Weimar Republic declining rapidly, he emerges as a symbol of hope for a suffering public. This newfound identity, alongside the descent of the Weimar Republic’s parliamentary system, propels Hitler to rapidly rise through the ranks through manipulation.

But how was the public so susceptible to evil?

 “Germany on the brink of Nazi power, still licking its deep wounds from the first World War, felt disenfranchised, beaten down, and yearning for the nostalgia for the ‘old way’ of German life,” Berlinger told

“There was the increasing undertone throughout the country that Germans deserved a better, more superior lifestyle, which in turn, meant that ‘inferior’ non-Germans should be marginalized, cast out, and even eliminated,” said Berlinger.

He continued: “Hitler’s rise to power was effective because he emerged as an emblem of hope for this suffering public, a charismatic beacon of change and promise who enabled the German government to legally disenfranchise and destroy the Jewish people under the guise of bolstering national pride and newfound, recovered identity.”

Berlinger wants viewers to remember what William Shirer’s granddaughter shares in the series, something he would always tell them at the dinner table: “‘This could happen here.’ And the worst thing is complacency, because with complacency, this can happen.’”

Becoming a filmmaker

Growing up in Westchester County, Chappaqua, New York, as “a German Jew who's not really German, and not really a practicing Jew,” Berlinger’s path to filmmaking was due to World War II’s history and his fascination with the subject matter.

“When I was a teenager, I was exposed to some of the Holocaust liberation footage that's in the show. And like any young person who sees that footage, I was absolutely horrified. I am culturally and ethnically Jewish, but we were very secular at home. I'm also descended from Germans on my father's side and Poles on my mother’s side. But all of my forebears came to America in the 1850s and we had few Jewish or German traditions at home, nor did we lose family in the Holocaust.”

Berlinger became obsessed with the idea that had he been born in that era, he would have been rounded up and murdered.

“I wanted to understand how such evil could have ever taken place, to such a degree that I became a German major in college and fluent in the language. That led to an opportunity to work for an American ad agency in their Frankfurt office, where I found myself on TV commercial sets – that’s where I fell in love with filmmaking.”

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