A Mandate To Memory : Going From Generosity to Cynicism

<i> Marcel Ophuls was the director of the award-winning "The Sorrow and the Pity" (1970); his most recent film is "Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie."</i>

Whatever happened to the Marshall Plan? Whatever happened to the spirit that inspired millions of Americans, a little more than 40 years ago, to vote for candidates who advocated using U.S. taxpayer dollars to help nations devastated by war--to rescue people humiliated, crippled and poisoned by the most ruthless and cruel political ideology of all time?

Whatever happened to those citizens who, after devoting energies to building Flying Fortresses, then manning the crews that bombed German cities into surrender, proceeded to vote overwhelmingly to provide shelter, food and clothing not only to children of the victims of Nazi terror, but also to children of their aggressors? The idea, as long ago as World War I, was “to make the world safe for democracy.” Now it’s difficult to avoid putting quotation marks around that phrase, for fear of seeming naive.

And yet, in the aftermath of World War II, there seemed no need to hide behind the “L-word.” Between 1945 and 1950, before Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy orchestrated his hysterical backlash, “liberal” could be safely spelled out. An overwhelming majority of Americans considered it synonymous with the virtue this country still seemed to believe in: generosity. I use the Judeo-Christian term advisedly, to avoid the concept of “values,” that appears so degraded by spin doctors who advise presidential candidates to embrace their grandchildren at rallies while pleading for the death penalty and the manufacture of handguns.

After being away from the United States for more than five years, spent mostly making a film about the infamous Nazi war criminal, Klaus Barbie, I have returned to attend the opening. I have to admit that this great country, which rescued and adopted me in time of danger and mortal peril to my family, a country I pledged allegiance to without flag-waving, now scares me. Although I was already an adult in the days of McCarthy and the blacklist, and more than middle-aged at the time of the Kennedy assassinations, the secret bombing of Cambodia and the onslaught of Watergate, it scares me for the first time in my life.


Whatever happened to that wellspring of American generosity that made the Marshall Plan possible? In 1946, when I graduated from Hollywood High School and was sent as a GI to occupation duty in Japan, my recollection is that millions of fellow citizens still recognized their own ideal selves in Frank Capra’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” In that picture, Deeds (Gary Cooper) tries to give his inherited fortune away to hundreds of bankrupt farmers during the Depression. Accused of insanity by Wall Street shysters, our hero is pronounced by the representatives of American justice “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom.”

Is it sentimentality or the expression of a lost optimism that brings tears to my eyes when I rediscover that scene on late-night TV? Is it unrealistic to see a connection between that fictional courtroom drama and the Nuremberg trials--intended to punish the Nazi bigwigs and define a new concept of crimes against humanity for the future of all mankind?

With hindsight, many would agree with the late Field Marshal Hermann Goring--and with Klaus Barbie’s lawyer, Jaques Verges--that this was “victor’s justice,” a prime example of “Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.” But it is important to remember now--before the witnesses to these murderous events die or sink into senility--that the American heartland (at that time still aptly named) favored punishment and retribution for the Fascist leaders, but also boundless generosity for the vanquished people of Germany and Japan. Had there ever been, in all history, an entire nation, at the peak of its power, so big-hearted in victory?

It’s true that just a few years later, German generals were freed from jail to rearm Western Germany. It’s true that Gestapo criminals were set free and protected. It’s true that managers of the industrial giants--I.G. Farben, Krupp and Flick, who had built the labor camps around Auschwitz--were released to help run the German economy in a Cold War setting.


It’s true that as Americans were sending CARE packages to hungry children, Alfried Krupp’s and Friedrich Flick’s Wall Street allies--by then in high Administration positions--were shielding Barbie from criminal prosecution. The people responsible for these policies were powerful individuals: High Commissioner of Germany John J. McCloy, former Chase Manhattan Bank chairman, sometimes known as the Godfather of the American Establishment; Allen W. Dulles and Frank Wisner, founding fathers of the Central Intelligence Agency; Allen’s famous brother, John Foster Dulles, who served as secretary of state under Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Today, these individuals’ excuse for trying to transform the boundless generosity of the American people into cynical Realpolitik strategy is that they probably knew a thing or two about Uncle Joe, Yalta and the Gulag that the American public didn’t at the time.

Yet in those German ruins, among those CARE packages, naive de-Nazification officers were ordered by somebody or other to shield and employ Barbie and his many Gestapo friends. It’s there, I believe, that the worldwide infection of cynicism first spread--from the street wisdom of the vanquished, more interested in the survival value of black-market nylons than in the de-Nazification efforts of their conquerors.

Indeed, Mr. Deeds may have gone to Nuremberg for nothing. Now Richard M. Nixon turns out to be right: “Everybody does it.” When looking out for No. 1 has become the order of the day, when candidates have to hide any intention to use government as a tool to alleviate people’s suffering, it’s time to remember the Kristallnacht .

This is the 50th anniversary of those dark days when German neighbors were dragged from their houses and offices into the street, beaten ruthlessly, jeered at by Storm Troopers, made to crawl on their knees to inscribe “I am a dirty Jew” in white paint on the sidewalks, while hundreds of thousands of people they had gone to school with stood byand watched, passively or approvingly. From those days to the ultimate horror of the gas chambers for the feeble minded, the weak, the unprotected and the so-called inferior races, the itinerary was surprisingly logical and brief, just a half a decade.

Whatever happened to the elected Americans who voted for the Marshall Plan in good faith and without ulterior motives? Whatever happened to “the sanest man who ever walked into this courtroom?” Help!