Final Account

Wow.

Final Account is an incredible documentary, interviewing the last remaining Nazis. And these are not, ‘I had to be a Nazi to keep my job as a paralegal’ kinda Nazis. We’re talking Waffen SS, the Death’s Head squad. We’re talking camp guards, people who were right in the thick of it.

My first thought was, “Why are they not in jail?” You know, in that naive way of thinking you assist in the murder of millions of people, you know, there might be some punishment. But no, they’re all in their picket-fence houses, in the same towns and cities where they grew up and wore their uniform. They wave to their neighbours, and their neighbours wave back and say, “Hi Mister So-and-So”. Evil is so mundane.

Which is kinda the point of the Final Account. It always was mundane. These men weren’t born with marks on their head saying, “You will participate in one of the greatest evils to take place on European soil”. Nah, they were born and grew up in small towns and villages, and dreamed of being a knight or a cowboy or a soldier, and when they came of age, the way to be a glorious hero was to join the SS.

What’s interesting is the range of opinion and reflections of these last surviving few.

Some are completely unrepentant, totally defiant, nostalgic for the camaraderie and grandeur of their youth, proud of their achievements, of what made them part of elite forces. “No regrets,” says one. Another has kept all his badges. “The idea was correct,” he says.

But interestingly that doesn’t equate as directly as you’d think to holocaust denial. Yes, some of them outright deny it, some claim the numbers were exaggerated, some claim that it was kept so secret no one could have known to intervene until liberation exposed it. But your auld yin with the badges, someone who is still committed to the Nazi ideals, he says it was wrong. That the Jews should have been expelled only, that to kill them was unnecessarily cruel.

Which yeah, all these are only degrees of horrific, and some might say, who gives a fuck to what extent of antisemitism they would have stopped at? And yer man might have simply been lamenting that the holocaust justified German’s division and subsequent relegation among world powers, not the deaths of millions of people. So what does it matter?

The filmmaker, Luke Holland, his grandparents were killed by the Nazis, they died somewhere unknown in the death machine. And he spent 8 years sitting with these men, listening to them, gaining their trust, and providing a space of no judgement for them to speak freely. Why?

Because the past is speaking, and we need to listen. We live in a time where all across the world people are seeing the rise of the far-right, and the normalisation of talking about people who are ‘unworthy of life’. Back then the Lebensunwertes Leben weren’t worth concerning yourself about if they died, today it’s having ‘an underlying health condition’ which means the you are an acceptable loss. None of these issues have gone away, so we need to hear from those who reached the very crescendo of horror how they got there, and hopefully warn us of how to avoid it.

Some do feel ashamed, they speak about their experiences openly to young people, letting them know, don’t believe the denial, I was there, I saw it. It’s so little and far too late, but it’s all the amends they can make.

Some say honestly, it’s the greatest shame of my life, but if you put me back there and gave me my time over again, I still don’t know if I’d do any different. Because I didn’t know what to do then, and I don’t know if I’ve changed enough that I’d know what to do now. Some claim they were afraid that if they refused orders, they’d be shot too, although no one has ever heard of that actually happening. Would they be braver than their fear if put to the test again? They say they don’t know. They didn’t think they were capable of it the first time.

It’s amazing how many of them split hairs over who was a perpetrator. “If you volunteer,” says one. “But didn’t you put yourself forward to be SS?” asks the filmmaker. Aye, but that was different. “I was a soldier,” says another, “I fought on the front. How am I supposed to know what’s going on a home?” “Weren’t you in the Death’s Head Squad in the Ukraine?” asks the filmmaker. Even up to the death camp guards, who says, “I just stood guard.” Yes, I watched them beaten, yes I watched them killed, yes I watched them burned. But I wasn’t the one doing it.

Apparently 6 million people were murdered and absolutely no one was responsible for their deaths. All these stories people tell themselves, so that they can go on living with themselves.

One Austrian woman points out, when Hitler invaded, the first people rounded up and killed were anyone who had taken a stand politically against Nazism. So all that were left were people who didn’t have that kind of committed opposition to fascism. People who didn’t want to get involved in politics, just live their lives as comfortably as they could. People who didn’t really question the status quo. People who were not happy standing out.

Final Account is a testament to be handed down to the generations to come. Soon the last living memory will disappear, and we will no longer be able to interrogate or gain insights from our past. Those who operated, administered, and stood by as the Final Solution wiped Europe’s Jewry from the map, what they tell us is a warning from history. Maybe even, or especially, the lies. For almost a century to pass and to still be unable to face the horror of what you’ve done. To tell yourself a lie about who you are for so long, you now believe it yourself.

These people were quiet, unassuming, law-abiding citizens until the 1930s, then they were complicit in mass murder for a few years, then they were quiet, unassuming, law-abiding citizens for 8 decades. Look around now and understand the possibility for that, the capacity for that, is always there.

For last, I’ll finish with a quote from Kiran Desai:

“There they were, the most commonplace of them… the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”