Thingish Things

Review: The Architecture of Doom

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Apr• 05•12

The first time I heard about the Nazis was in the Spring of 1968 when I was five years old.  It was on the south side of 93rd Street between 5th and Madison Avenues in New York City. An Irish woman who had come to work for my family after my mother died, and whose husband had been killed by the Germans, I believe, at Dunkirk, leaned down and whispered to me, “You know, they put them them in ovens, Billy.”

It’s hard not to remember a sentence like that.

I didn’t know who it was that had been “put in ovens,” or if what I was being told was even true. But Ellen Plunkett, seeing my dubiousness, took me by the collar in the center of the sidewalk, and furtively said, as pedestrians passed by us, “The Germans did it.  They did it to the Jews. They burned them up. By the millions.”

I had already heard about the Germans. My father had been wounded twice during the War, and he sometimes made reference to it to my older brother and me before bedtime, when we invariably asked to see the shrapnel scar on his left leg. But this was something new, something incomprehensible.  I decided it could not be true.

As I got older, though, I listened extra intently whenever conversations in school or among grown ups arose about Germany and the Second World War. I read William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich at 12 or 13 when I couldn’t make it through Hardy Boys books. This was no fascination with things Nazi, but a genuine bewilderment over what happened in Germany between 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor and 1945 when he shot himself beneath the streets of Berlin. I needed to understand it. 

How does anyone get to the point where he would do what he did systematically — and convince an entire nation to follow along in the endeavor. I have read dozens of books on the subject over the years, and I must have seen more than 100 documentaries on it, but I have never come close to figuring that out.  

I know the history: World War I reparations, Weimar Republic, Soviet-backed Spartacus Brigades, hyper-inflation, etc.  But even with all that, how does a society go from sophistication and cosmopolitanism to separating children from mothers at Buchenwald and Dachau to be sent to gas chambers? It remains the most revolting question of all times.  

Last night, though, while poking around the documentary section of Netflix — gotta love Netflix — I stumbled across a 1991 German-language documentary called “The Architecture of Doom” that I think better explains the Nazi phenomenon than anything I have before read or seen. It centered on Hitler’s and the Nazis’ obsession with art and architecture and their maniacal interpretation of “purity,” in all things from literature to sculpture to fine art — to, ultimately, the human race. The narrator, in German, at one point informs the viewer: “The Nazis didn’t see themselves as a political movement, but as an aesthetic movement.”

That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. I had never heard the Nazi’s described that way.  But that viewpoint provides a glimpse into the madness of Adolf Hitler I had never considered before. Jews, Gypsies, Gays, Slavs, the mentally-infirm and so many others had to be destroyed not for political or historical reasons, but because they spoiled his view of the aesthetic ideal.  It was his job and the job of the Nazi Party, as he saw it, to root out everything he viewed as “decay.” Looking at the Nazi movement through the prism of art is even more chilling than viewing it through the prism of of politics, I learned last night.

The Architecture of Doom is a must-watch for anyone interested in what happened in Germany seven decades ago (all documentaries on the subject are.) It backs up its thesis with an extraordinary trove of material and historical footage. No documentary can claim the market on truth, but so much of what I watched last night rings authentic. 

With an Egyptian rocket landing in Israel today — and Iran poised to complete a nuclear weapon — the 1991 film is as relevant a documentary to watch as any ever made.  

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