Published in Black Radical Congress April 2001
It is not surprising that the company founded by Henry Ford, that premature Nazi, finds nothing odd with sponsoring Steven Speilberg's movie, "Schindler's List". Ford helped engineer the ideology and practice of fascism by publishing the anti-semitic Dearborn Independent and accepting Hitler's Iron Cross. The movie does but a little to rupture Ford's project.
It is indeed important to struggle toward an understanding of fascism, a term emptied of meaning in the vernacular's counterpart, "The Holocaust", a reference to a catastrophe that falls from the sky. "Schindler's List" is not helpful in that effort.
On 24 March 1994, "Schindler's List" was used by the popular television program, "60 Minutes", as proof that the holocaust indeed occurred (in rebuttal to "revisionist historians" who argue that the holocaust is a hoax). This was a new plane of stripping history from the public consciousness, fiction replacing reality which itself is made barren. The next day, newspapers lauded the film as a hopeful and accurate representation. Now, three years later, Speilberg and NBC join Ford in yet another disingenuous thrust.
"Schindler's List" is an adaption of a novel based broadly on historical events. But, like the treatment fascism usually receives within public schools (every student in New Jersey and California public schools, and many other states, is required to see it--thanks to Speilberg's scurrying for legislation), the film offers no understanding of how fascism came to power or how fascism was crushed. The movie avoids any mention of the resistance and the critical role communists played in its leadership. Within the vacuum of resistance, the film offers an anti-semitic vision of Jews. The only developed Jewish characters are swindlers, cheats, collaborators, connivers: stereotypes. Working class Jews, as in all of anti-semitism, are fleeting vapors.
The Soviet Red Army, which did in fact liberate "Schindler's Jews" (an ironic possessive adopted by the survivors themselves) is ridiculed through its representation as a solitary rider suggesting survivors travel "neither east nor west" on Hitler's surrender. Finally, as a solution to the holocaust, Schindler invites three beliefs: capitalism ("If only I had made more money I could have bought more of them"), religion (prayers for the dead), and passivity ("Schindler will care for us--for we are his property)--remarkably three of the cornerstones of fascism. So, we have fictionalized fascism replacing de-historicized fascism, both proposing action which could fuel fascist development.
Stepping away from the internal problems of the movie, it is clear the real Schindler was no angel of mercy. He was a Nazi profiteer. Not all of "Schindler's Jews" were survivors. In one sweep, 700 of them were sent to a death camp and killed. This created openings on the famous list. Desperate victims had to bribe their way onto it. The central belief of the survivors in the film, get on the list and get saved, is not true.
While Schindler's munitions factory was mostly dysfunctional, he simply purchased black market munitions and sold them to the Germans, hardly the act of sabotage presented in the film.
For "his" Jews, Schindler created not only substantial competition when collective resistance was key, but also a false sense of shelter which, in turn, separated people from potential allies and made effective mass resistance less possible. Schindler did not become a list-maker, an apparent ally of Jews, until after the battle of Stalingrad, the turning point of World War II when every thinking German knew defeat was at hand. Schindler did not begin to act in earnest until matters were even more desperate for the Nazis, mid-1944, after even Nazi Field-Marshall Rommel had committed suicide. At war's end, Schindler, disguised as a concentration camp victim and accompanied by friends, fled west--as did most war criminals--fearing arrest by the Soviets. He continued his dissolute life portrayed in the movie, made yearly trips to Israel to collect accolades and demand money, and died in 1974. At least some of "his" Jews felt the loss of another Nazi was no loss at all.
Fascism did not rise from gases and it was not defeated by Schindlers. Above all else, fascism rose from an unrestrained battle for profits coupled with racist, mystical ideology. That is why Ford was so enamored with it. Resistance to fascism and its defeat rose out of the very real determination of masses of people who believed they could join together, make huge sacrifices, but fight and win. The big lie about Jews being sub-human, the crux of all racism, can only be underlined by Speilberg's portrayal of the absence of Jewish resistance. All of history demonstrates that oppressed people will resist. Only something less than human would not. But there was resistance. Though the resistance did not obliterate the source of fascism, they did win. This effort is worth remembering. Schindler can only be a negative example. Rather than hope, "Schindler's List" offers the foundation of depression: anger turned inward. Real hope lies in critical thinking and collective action. The proper message of curricula about fascism is that people fought and won.
My job as a professor of international social studies takes me to classrooms all over the U.S. where, in even the best of them, children are learning about fascism and the Holocaust as dogmas, events that pop up from nowhere, not constructs of human relations. Students portray, in skits, speeches, and art, the belief that the Holocaust (how rarely you hear the word fascism) was a tragedy that could rise up again--from the mists--and in the best interpretations, that if resurrected, individuals must stop it. To them, nasty and distant new ideas, not ruthless material interests coupled with ancient mysticism and religion, created the Holocaust. This is an insubstantial misled analysis probably initiated by teachers who have only a curriculum guide, and Speilberg, as background in understanding anti-fascism.
Certainly it was crucial for individuals to comprehend and resist fascism, but individuals are only effective in collective groups steered by rational analysis. In the WWII era, in the war against fascism, those collectives were usually led by people who called themselves communists---centrally targeted by the millions during the Holocaust.
"Schindler's List" is the centerpiece of the U.S. curriculum on fascism. Safely left out of this curriculum, for the most part, is the role of North Americans like Ford, the Dulles family, Charles Coughlin, the popular Bund, and many others in the initial growth of fascism, the presence of real fascists in post war North American projects like the space program, and the remnants of fascist ideology appearing in veiled calls for the corporate state today. Fascism, for North American kids, is always elsewhere.
What Speilberg offers, in what amounts to this "E.T" of the Holocaust, is more irrationalism. This disarms those who might fight hardest should we see Holocausts in our future.
Those who seek a more rewarding portrayal of mass resistance to fascism
might want to rent "Escape from Sobibor" or read Yuri Suhl's "They Fought
Back." or John Weiss' , "Ideology of Death". Other educators might review
the critical debate inside the communist movement about the nature of fascism
as represented by R. Palme Dutt's "Fascism and Social Revolution", Georgi
Dimitrov's "United Front Against Fascism", and Trotsky's "Fascism: What
it is and How to Fight It". The BBC's "World at War" film series, each
about an hour long, is illuminating, particularly segments like "Stalingrad".
Public television has a documentary on Schindler made in 1994 by WPIX tv.
Moreover, teachers need to investigate, with students, the relationship
of current forms of fascism, life for Latin American peasants for example,
and the enormous privileges of a few in the U.S. In Michigan, teachers
might visit Greenfield Village and ask where the copies of the Dearborn
Independent, that treasured Iron Cross, or the Ford-supported "International
Jew", are kept. It was rude for Ford to sponsor "Schindler's List". No
teacher should feel rude for responding.
Dr. Rich Gibson
Coordinator of International and Social Studies Education
College of Education suite 267
Wayne State University
Detroit MI 48202