Leo Hurwitz’s powerful 1948 WWII documentary, with its ironic title Strange Victory (Watch Here), is just as timely today as it was then. Because the film explores the inescapable question: “If we won, why do we look as if we lost? And, if Hitler died, why does his voice still pursue us through the spaces of America’s life?” It is a very strange victory indeed – when we successfully fought the violent effects of discrimination and persecution in Germany but came home to open expressions of hate in our own country. That hate is still here, as virulently as before. Why can’t we seem to solve it? Leo’s film gives us vital clues to hate’s tenacity as well as the purpose that hate of ‘the other’ in any society can serve.
Love for The Rights of Our Fellow Man?
Love for our fellow man is a human thing. “Leo Hurwitz makes us aware of our common humanity and our responsibility for what happens to our fellow beings in this world.” Ingela Romare, Swedish cinematographer, filmmaker, and actress tells us this, as she interviews Leo and introduces his film, Strange Victory. But if only we had that love in America now.
This responsibility for what happens to each other is something we shouldn’t forget. Yet sometimes we do. So, Leo’s “voice” in Strange Victory reminds us of the aftermath of WWII. The film begins with Joe, a veteran, too remembering: “danger in sunlight, a memory of not enough sleep; of not enough replacement; a memory of not enough and too much.”
Trauma When There’s Hate & Not Love
A flashback: War is trauma. Joe crawls on his belly holding a gun. Grenades explode. Medics tend fallen soldiers. A plane crashes; a man kisses a crying woman’s face; an old woman shivers, trudging through the snow; four women hold each other, walking through a war-torn, bombed-out city. Soldiers run across fields; through a black cloud of an exploded bomb.
And, there is more and more. Buildings in flames; too many buildings; a bridge; all coming apart. Collapsing into pieces. These are the effects of war. But, as brutal as war is, WWII had its reason. In no uncertain terms, our narrator tells us why:
“We attacked. This country and its allies attacked in the name of four freedoms: freedom from want; from fear; freedom to speak; to believe. We hit hard … In the name of four freedoms, we scourged the enemy in his homeland with more fire and fury than the world had ever seen. We closed in until we ringed him in his last fortress.” Yet, above all, what did we fight for? The fact is, we fought for our freedom from hate. But what happened in America?
Fighting Against Hate & Inequality (Overseas)
Hate is dangerous. All too often, hate grows out of a “presumed” differential between people. Some have to be up, and some down. It was because of Hitler’s hate for Jews that we closed in on his Nazism. And, Strange Victory’s narrator tells us just the kind of hate we fought in 1945 Berlin. What was it? “The heart of the idea that all men are created unequal.”
Yes, that’s it. Hate makes people feel superior. Some people, Hitler for example, need to hate. So, we fought his hate in Germany. Yet, even while doing so, we forgot hate still existed in America. Why don’t we fight it here?
We see America’s invasion of Berlin in Leo’s film images. American and allied soldiers run through the destroyed city with guns, dodging explosions. the rubble of a falling city surrounds an old woman, dressed in a black coat, frantic, running in terror. All because of Hitler; the enemy of human freedom. The enemy of differences. Our narrator continues:
Hunting Down A Disappeared Hitler
“Remember those games you played as a kid? Treasure Hunt? Button, Button, who’s got the button? A game of clues, they are playing it for real this time, looking for one man; that man. They moved from house to house, getting hotter … closer; the biggest manhunt in history.”
An American soldier holds a line-up of captured Nazi soldiers at gunpoint. And, we see, in the Chancellery, remnants of Hitler’s plotting. Left there in our full view is a huge globe: Hitler’s megalomaniac plans to take over the world:
“But we never found him; probably dead; he disappeared from the … world as he’d entered it in smoke and fire … like the devil. No eclipse of the sun ever made the earth darker than he made it.” Hitler’s face fills the screen: “In the Chancellery of the Reich, spring of 1945, he disappeared. That was yesterday. But why does yesterday wander through today like a ghost?”
But …The Ghost of Hate Isn’t Gone
Yesterday’s ghost, Strange Victory shows us, exists in the hypocrisy that lives on American soil. In film images, we soon see that hypocrisy in the not-so-subtle nooks and crannies of American life. We see it when we return home after WWII has been won. Even now, in America, sadly, that hypocrisy is even more blatant, violent, and loud.
In fact, even with the war over, Strange Victory reveals worried, war-weary faces. Worry runs through our contemporary life too. After WWII, a young mother carries a naked baby as she emerges up the steps of a bomb shelter, weighed down by the horror of war. Her slow steps are much older than her years. The narrator’s voice tells us the still-living truth:
“A fear runs through this country, a worrying … it spreads from face to face, a sickness of fear … we live like a man holding his breath against what may happen tomorrow. We feel haunted in broad daylight, sure of nothing but trouble.” War is terrifying. It creates insecurities.
But just as real and persistent, that trouble is here, outside of the actual war America fought. Strange Victory shows us the realities of that trouble: how tenacious racism and anti-Semitism are in everyday American life. We fought it abroad, but we live with it at home, hidden from those who choose not to see. It’s there, though, in Leo Hurwitz’s powerful images. And, it rages on now more virulent than ever.
The Shadow of Hate on America’s Soil
Sure, there were victory celebrations after we won WWII; happy reunions, and people waving the American flag. There was even dancing in the streets. Our narrator asks: “Think back, was there ever a hope that flared higher than mid-summer 1945?” Yet, this hope was, in such a large part, illusory.
Strange Victory looks at the shadow of hate in 1945 America through Leo’s humane eyes. We see “Nigger” written in chalk across a wall; a bloodied and beaten Black man held hostage by a smiling white man. And, with a disturbing emphasis, we witness shadows of the Klu Klux Klan.
At the end of World War II, America still had Lawrence Dennis advocating fascism in America. Gerald L. K. Smith of the pro-Nazi Silver Shirts. Homer Loomis and Emory Burke of the pro-Nazi group named Columbians in Atlanta, Georgia. Stickers were pasted on walls, screaming out: “Help Save America: Don’t Buy from Jews.” The film images in Strange Victory divulge it all:
Graffiti chalked on a wall: “Niggers Ruint This Town.” Boston, 1948: a temple window, with a Star of David, is shattered. Bayside, Long Island, 1944: Episcopal Church is defiled. Detroit, 1943 and Chicago, 1947: religious cemeteries are vandalized. There is a lynching. Hate sheets such as The Gentile News promote propaganda headlines: “Jewish Plot to take over the U.S.!”
We’re faced everywhere with discrimination and inequality. Perhaps we’ve forgotten that we push aside and marginalize some, beginning in nurseries where innocent babies are born.
Discrimination (A Strange “Birthright”)
In one powerful film sequence, Leo Hurwitz and Strange Victory take us into a hospital nursery. Innocent newborn babies; Black, white, Jewish, Catholic are bathed and fed, moving in those peaceful new baby stretches in a not-yet-known space; trusting the world is theirs. They don’t know hate is still happening in America – after our war overseas against hate.
Bigotry is already in that nursery. We hear “Nigger, Kike, Wop” … we hear a whisper: “Some of my best friends are Jews.” And, see what is stamped on their nursery cradles: WXP (White, Christian, Protestant), NXP (Negro, Christian, Protestant), WXC (White, Christian, Catholic), labeled at birth. Our narrator speaks about the realities of discrimination:
“If you are WXP, all things being equal, the best breaks will come your way. Some baby’s choices will be limited. If you are Jewish, you’re one of them. No matter how many times you’ll recite the Declaration of Independence, how many times you invoke the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, these are the facts you will live by … in some parts of the country, they’ll write it out on a sign: Colored Entrance. For Colored Only. White Only. Restricted, restricted, restricted. You’ll get to know that separation of people is a living fact.”
I experienced this separation in 1961 when I moved to Lake Oswego, Oregon. I was fourteen and Jewish. Until then I’d lived in Vancouver, Washington, in a multi-cultural neighborhood and racially diverse school system. Lake Oswego by contrast was entirely Caucasian; there were no Blacks. I soon heard that realtors were to “discourage Blacks” from buying property. And, the Country Club did not allow Jews.
Equal in War, But Not in Life
Bigotry didn’t exist in war, but was there to greet soldiers on return to American soil. While fighting, soldiers (Black, white, Jewish) are the same; friends, comrades, working side by side. There’s no inequality in war. Black soldiers gently cradle injured white comrades. White soldiers rush injured Black friends for help. After the war, things in America are different.
A talented Black pilot flies his plane home in victory, a hopeful smile on his face. But, when he applies for a job as a pilot at one airline after airline, he’s turned away because of his color. “In the airlines of post-war America, there are no Negro pilots, no co-pilots; no navigators: the old job mopping the floor in the men’s room is still open …” So, isn’t this a strange “victory” indeed?
We must remember the horrors of hate. And, Strange Victory leaves us with images of the starved and emaciated bodies of Jews in concentration camps; of Jewish mothers and children herded into a train or camp; a Jewish father and a Black mother greeting their newborn babies after the war. Leo reminds us, with Strange Victory’s oratory irony:
“Rest now … you’ve been born into the land of the winner … rest now baby, because nobody knows the trouble you’ll see.” We know and see that trouble magnified after Trump’s election. Yes, that trouble is quite clear in our America now. Hate lives here. We cannot rest Because what often exists in hate is the need to live a lie.
Hate & Self-Lies (“Some Are Created Lesser”)
And, Strange Victory’s message leads us to the text of Hitler’s hateful lie: “We had a new crime: the crime of killing a whole people by your own idea that you were better than they are.” On the screen, we see the image of a beaming Hitler, riding through the streets in a convertible, raising his hand in his Heil salute. We see Hitler’s face.
Listen. Because we now hear our narrator’s voice: “In the beginning is the word.” And, that word is: “A lie.” What is that lie? That some are created lesser than others. And, how do these self- lies fester and spread?
Next, we hear our narrator tell us:
“Before the lie is believed, there must be hopelessness and hunger. Find an easy target and blame him. Create a bogeyman. Make him big, and you’ve got something. The lie goes out in a one-way conversation from you to them and the voice has authority. The lie spreads and builds … terror in the streets. Hopelessness is good for it … because hopelessness is next door to hysteria.”
This was Hitler’s power. He blamed Jews for his problems; promoted Aryan (his) superiority; made Jews the inferior ones, the helpless ones. As a dictator, his subjects were dependent on his whims. And his whim was to get rid of the Jews and all they represented.
The Purpose of Hating The “Other”
Into the hated Jews, Hitler projected what he hated and rejected within himself. And, that was anything that threatened his inflated “confidence,” his need to be the best. If the Jews were smart, if they were industrious, if they were supposed to be chosen by God this threatened Hitler at the roots of his personal insecurity. What was that insecurity? His fear of being inferior or “small.”
To “protect” himself, Hitler’s had to be a powerful defense against any such awareness. In Strange Victory, we see images of his extreme personal buttress: a manic grandiosity, his overly buoyant smiles, his almost trancelike seduction of his equally jubilant comrades and soldiers.
Not so different from Trump, we see film-strip-photos of a well-fed, self-satisfied Hitler. The man with “everything” flaunts himself, in stark contrast with terrified prisoners, behind wire fences, naked and starving; people robbed of everything; reduced to nothing.
This is the purpose of Hitler-like hate. Hate the “other.” Reduce your insecurities to “nothing.”
By exterminating millions of Jews, Hitler and his willing comrades unconsciously believed they had reduced to nothing anything they hate in themselves. It was as if, in this brutal and irrevocable way, they could be rid of their feelings of smallness, helplessness, hopelessness, and inferiority. That “others” are inferior is the biggest self-lie. We see variations of that lie today.
What happens to those hated is the lie’s most dire consequence. Strange Victory reminds us.