He fought our fear, and the fear won The brutal politics
of war and television cost "Hitler" producer his job.
By Howard Rosenberg
The brutal politics of war -- and television -- have cost Ed Gernon his job.
How ironic that the executive producer of a coming CBS drama about the rise of Adolf Hitler -- whose iron fist crushed free expression -- would be fired for publicly likening the climate in America in advance of invading Iraq to the Germany that produced the Third Reich.
And how outrageous.
The U.S. is never scarier than when the fearful climate Gernon mentions inhibits Americans from publicly going against the grain and saying publicly what they think, in this case even as our troops and others risk their lives and die ostensibly to ensure, among other things, that Iraqis attain the freedom of expression denied them under Saddam Hussein.
The same freedom some would deny Gernon.
Made in a TV Guide article about the two-part "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," Gernon's Bush-era analogy may have been a stretch even for some opponents of the war in Iraq. Or perhaps not. But he had every right to state it without being shunned as a traitor to freedom -- which he isn't -- and getting thumbs down from his Alliance Atlantis bosses and from CBS, which issued a statement calling his remarks "insensitive and outright wrong."
Words that apply to his dismissal by Alliance Atlantis, which is making the miniseries for CBS, and slap-down by the network, which, reading between the lines, appears to be the guiding hand in Gernon's demise. To say nothing of inflammatory accounts in the New York Post -- both before and after the firing -- that distorted Gernon's comments and made him out to be the Benedict Arnold of prime time.
Gernon was sacked as an executive vice president by the Canadian production companyafter being quoted in an article explaining the essence of the Hitler drama, which dwells largely on conditions that made his ascent possible in the aftermath of World War I. Scheduled to air next month, the drama was filmed mostly in Prague and stars Robert Carlyle as Hitler.
Here is what Gernon, interviewed before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, told reporter Mark Lasswell about Germany and Hitler's route to infamy as shown in the CBS story:
"It basically boils down to an entire nation gripped by fear, who ultimately chose to give up their civil rights and plunged the whole nation into war. I can't think of a better time to examine this history than now."
Here is what Gernon said about Americans accepting President Bush's decision to launch a preemptive strike against Iraq aimed at toppling Hussein and stripping him of weapons of mass destruction:
"They will stand by and let it happen because of the fear of what will happen if they don't."
Lasswell writes that Gernon went on to say that a similar climate "absolutely" nourished Germany's endorsement of Hitler's extremism. "When an entire country becomes afraid for their sovereignty, for their safety," Gernon added, "they will embrace ideas and strategies and positions that they might not embrace otherwise."
Although these comments hardly threaten the republic -- and do not equate Bush with Hitler -- CBS responded as if Gernon had urged America to rise up and overthrow the president. It went on to say in its statement: Gernon's "personal opinions are not shared by CBS and misrepresent the network's motivation for broadcasting this film. It is very important that viewers understand that these views are not reflected in the tone or the content of the miniseries, which recounts the rise of Hitler to power and portrays him as the ruthless, maniacal force he was."
Which of Gernon's "views are not reflected in the tone or the content of the miniseries"? That fear drove public opinion in the devastated Germany that emerged from World War I? That German acquiescence allowed Hitler to plant himself firmly and then tighten his grip?
If anyone is expert on the tone and content of "Hitler: The Rise of Evil," it's Gernon, who more than anyone has shaped it since its controversial inception, when a first draft of the shooting script was loudly accused by Jewish activists of being soft on Hitler. That script, which Gernon himself later said was unintentionally "anti-Semitic," was scrapped, and the project revised to place less emphasis on Hitler's youth and more on the German environment that abetted his ascent.
But the bitter aftertaste lingers, and some Jews remain suspicious of what will appear next month, making CBS all the more nervous about further controversy being attached to Hitler's story. That includes antiwar comments at a time when Hussein has been dispatched and the overwhelming bulk of Americans support the U.S.-led war effort.
So Gernon takes the fall.
When I spoke with him in Prague in February, he made comments similar to those in TV Guide, but I omitted them from my own article on the CBS project for reasons of space.
I asked him then what he wanted viewers to take away from this story.
"Don't give up your vote," he said. "Don't ever give up your right to think, to feel, to have a voice. That's what this kind of leader does to you. There's a sense that each person would be better if they surrendered to this greater good."
He then related this TV story to war fervor then building. "We're on the verge of a war that alot of people are ambivalent about, and yet we're marching towards it, nonetheless. And we would sit smugly back and say history can't repeat itself. We don't have to have a crazed lunatic who is a monster for history to repeat itself."
Was he comparing burgeoning Hitlerism in the early 1930s to Bush's push for invading Iraq? "All I'm saying," he replied, "is that an enlightened society has a responsibility to govern itself intelligently and not be swept along by fear."
How could I have guessed, listening to him in a trailer on the Hitler set, that expressing similar feelings in another publication would get him fired? And that speaking his mind, while giving this Hitler story a topical framework, would backfire on him and send him packing.
In an industry swept along by fear.
Howard Rosenberg's column appears Mondays and Fridays.
He can be contacted at email@example.com.