By Khaled Diab
Was Belgian television justified in pulling an episode of a cooking programme featuring Hitler's favourite dish?
Although I'm not particularly big on cookery programmes, we have been watching Plat Préféré, hosted by Flemish celebrity chef Jeroen Meus, which features the favourite dishes of famous people whose one common characteristic is that they all happen to be dead.
The episodes on Freddie Mercury and Salvador Dali were fascinating, not so much due to the food that was cooked, but more because of the intriguing insights they afforded into these iconic figures' lives.
Last week, we were surprised to learn that the following episode would feature not an artist or an actor but Adolf Hitler, one of history's most destructive figures and one of the most horrendous mass murderers the world has ever known. Although dismayed by the choice, I was looking forward to seeing how the programme would approach Europe's most-hated figure, and whether I would learn anything new about this most-analysed of political leaders.
Alas, I never got to find out because – faced with outrage from some Jewish, resistance and political prisoner groups – the Belgian television channel VRT decided to pull the episode which was due to air on Tuesday evening.
“Everyone who has lost a loved one to Nazi barbarity or the concentration camps felt unsettled by [VRT] dedicating space to this,” said Francois De Coster, president of the Union of Belgian Political Prisoners, last week. Michael Freilich of Antwerp's Joods Actueel, a Jewish community magazine, denounced the programme as “trivialising” Hitler and turning him into a “simple man of the people”, claiming that it sent “the wrong signal” to the younger generation.
But I wonder if the revelation that Hitler's favourite dish was trout with butter sauce would actually change any young person's views of the man's politics. In fact, the suggestion is an insult to young people's intelligence.
Is Freilich really suggesting that someone might switch off their TV after the show and think: “Although he started a world war and killed millions of people, Hitler ate trout, which makes him a regular bloke like us!” With the exception of neo-Nazis, who will look favourably on Hitler no matter what, I don't think this show will make anyone think better of the Nazi leader.
While I appreciate that any programme that deals with Hitler or the Holocaust is bound to trigger painful memories for those who suffered and their families, I do not accept that this programme trivialises his bloody legacy.
Of course, a case can be made that the inclusion of Hitler among all the artists and celebrities featured on the show was a bizarre decision, probably conceived as a ratings-grabber, given the endless public and media interest in the second world war and the Nazis. In fact, the broadcaster admitted to having made a poor call by featuring the Nazi dictator in “a series in which all other protagonists are famous in the positive sense of the word, such as Roald Dahl and Jacques Brel”.
Nevertheless, thanks to the effective bid to dictate what we can or cannot watch, viewers will never get the chance to make up their own minds about the appropriateness of the programme. But based on the trailer, it would appear that Jeroen Meus makes no attempts to whitewash history when he visits Hitler's Eagle's Nest hideaway in Southern Germany to cook the favourite meal of an “atrocious man”, as the chef described him.
“Speaking as someone who almost didn't exist because of Hitler, I don't see an issue with [a] television show discussing his favourite meal,” commented one perplexed culinary blogger. “As a Jew, I find that the young chef did nothing offensive at all, and can't understand the mindset of those who are raising a fuss,” agreed a poster.
The fuss stirred up by this programme reminds me, albeit it to a smaller scale, of the controversy sparked by the German film Der Untergang a few years ago because it explored Hitler's humaneness – such as his love of dogs and affection for Eva Braun – amid his madness.
But does exploring the person and personality of Hitler – and not depicting him exclusively as a dehumanised monster – actually belittle the memory of his millions of victims and give succour to extremists? At the time of Der Untergang, I found not: I emerged from the cinema just as horrified by his actions but with greater insight into the man behind them.
Besides, there have been literally thousands of books, TV documentaries and films that have explored the minutest details of his life and political career. Max, a film starring John Cusack, not only moves away from the Hitler-as-monster formula, but goes as far as to depict the young Adolf as an artist and his friendship with a Jewish art dealer.
The film speculates about what would have happened had the future Führer found more success as a painter and, hence, stayed out of politics. Is the implication that, had circumstance been different, Hitler may not have become a hateful, bitter and murderous tyrant also sending out the “wrong signal”?
It is my opinion that it is the people who gagged this essentially harmless cookery programme who are sending out the wrong signal by curbing freedom of expression and inquiry. As long as they do not represent a danger to others, everyone has a right to express themselves and, as I've argued before, even to offend.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 29 October 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest