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My series Riefenstahl’s children, for which I imagined a generation whose right arms had undergone a kind of devolution, was inspired by my re-engagement with the little girl in Triumph of the Will (see post#62). The film is saturated with images of people – in and out of uniform, men and women, adults and children – jubilantly extending arm and hand for the Hitler salute – examples of communal rapture and exaltation which are unfathomable for someone who finds crowds difficult and can burst into tears when, after a theatre performance say, an audience rises and applauds as one.

Post-memory should lack sensory details. Yet for months I ‘felt’ the gesture every time I stretched my right arm out to reach, to wave, to slip into a sweater, as if it was a physical memory, part of my fabric.

After 1933 children learned the exact execution of the salute in kindergarden and first grade. They had to perform it, accompanied by enthusiastic enunciations of ‘Heil Hitler’, at the beginning and end of each school day and whenever an adult entered the classroom. (I heard from an acquaintance that her mother recalled how the (female) owner of a sweet-shop wouldn’t sell to kids unless they did the salute on entering the shop).

The other night, when sleep wouldn’t come, I watched parts of Triumph of the Will on YouTube, searching for the little girl whose wonky salute touched me years ago and has stayed on my mind. I won’t buy the DVD and finally thought to check if it can be viewed online. Of course it can, manifold! A train of worries hangs from this fact too…

I switched off the sound so I didn’t have to listen to rabid speeches or Volksmusik (so much is tainted in association), and peered at the faces of people lining the streets. There are scores of children stretching their arms diagonally upwards=towards the Führer who passes in an open car. At one point the camera is on a young mother who approaches his vehicle, carrying her toddler. Both salute. Smiling, she offers her child to the supposed father of the nation, to do with her/him what he will.

Watching intently, lest I miss her in a blink, I found the girl 18min33 secs in. You can see her for just 1.5sec (not 7.5sec as I mistakenly wrote in my earlier post). She uses her left arm to ‘salute’, maybe because she mirrors the gesture of an adult standing behind the camera, maybe because her right hand is otherwise occupied, holding the roll she chews on. Although blond and wearing a dirndl, she isn’t quite the perfect Aryan poster-girl: performing her duty hesitantly and with a sullen face she clearly reacts to off-camera coaxing (at college I analysed the video-footage frame by frame; on-line she just swishes past).

By 1934, the date of the Nuremberg rally, when the salute had entered every part of civilian life, my dad was eight years old, my mom not even a year.

This is just one instance of how nazi-shaped norms pervaded the everyday. There’s more to be said about the Hitler Youth replacing all other youth organisations and the re-writing of school curricula, but I’ll keep that for another time.

The way people relate to each other is mapped out at the point of encounter. When I grew up shaking hands was the done thing (oh my, curtsies too). Think of the closeness, intimacy even, of actually touching another’s hand. To see how much physical distance the Hitler salute creates I just got up to furtively raise my arm. In a real way you keep the other at bay, at arms’ length. There were those who were critical of the gesture, avoided it, found ways around it, made fun of it (dangerous, as they could be taken to court, and worse), and in that small space I breathe a little better.

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