Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture ‘how Bad Guys Get into Power’: Cbs Plans a Minseries on Hitler

August 14, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

“Prime Time for Hitler” headlined the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. “Swastikas for Sweeps” reported The New York Times. Daily Variety, Hollywood’s trade paper, noted “CBS Greenlights ‘Hitler.’ “

The three headlines referred to a recent announcement by the CBS-TV network that it would air a four-hour miniseries next year called “Young Hitler,” a title hastily revised to “Hitler: The Young Years,” and then to just plain “Hitler.”

Whatever the title, the miniseries will cover Hitler from the ages of 18 to 34 and will be broadcast during one of the annual “sweeps” periods, when television networks and stations air programs likely to garner the highest audience ratings.

For the time, the project has attracted mainly critical jeers, ranging from concerns by Holocaust scholars to gleeful jibes from competing television networks.

But Leslie Moonves, CBS president and CEO, and the network’s programming president, Nancy Tellem, are sticking to their guns.

“We know how the story ends, but this is how Hitler came to power,” said Moonves. “This is Hitler from a very early age in which people don’t know much of the story. This is a very timely subject about how bad guys get into power, and how it affects the rest of he world.”

CBS’s main line of defense is that the script for the docudrama is based on the acclaimed book “Hitler: 1899-1936 Hubris” by respected British historian Ian Kershaw.

This earnest explanation has only encouraged the detractors.

“I wouldn’t touch the subject with a 10-foot barge pole,” one rival network boss told Sally Ogle Davis and Ivor Davis, who wrote the extensive Jewish Journal article.

Another network head commented that “If they had come to me with this, I would have told them to turn around and leave.”

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd observed that the 18-34 age span of Hitler in the TV program corresponds directly with “the demographic sweet spot of network television. If there is one thing Hollywood executives understand it’s megalomania. And if there is one audience they crave more than any other, it’s teenagers and young adults.”

No cast for “Hitler” has been announced, but the buzz points to Ewan McGregor as a likely candidate for the title role.

Given the large numbers of Jewish executives and producers in American television, it is no surprise that the initiators of the project are Jewish.

Moonves says his grandmother’s family in Poland was all but wiped out in the Holocaust, and Tellem is the daughter of survivors.

The miniseries is being produced by Alliance Atlantic, whose CEO is Peter Sussman, who was raised in a Conservative Jewish congregation in Toronto.

The miniseries’ chief critics are also Jewish. Writer/producer Lionel Chetwynd, who created the documentary “The Man Who Captured Eichmann,” put his finger on one of the project’s chief difficulties.

“To do a young Hitler, you have to humanize him, and what are the ethical implications of that? The minute you bring in a good flesh-and-blood actor, he’s going to humanize him,” Chetwynd told the Davises.

Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum agrees.

“CBS is taking a monumental gamble because if it shows us Hitler’s humanity and makes him a sympathetic character, it’s a total outrage.

“If it makes him into a monster without us understanding how he became a monster, it allows us to say that Hitler was Hitler, he shared no humanity with us, so we don’t have to worry about him. There are a thousand ways they can make mistakes with this, but only one or two ways to get it right.”

Recommended from JTA