Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds might look like an epic WWII fantasy, but the plot isn't as unrealistic as it might sound.
When Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds came out, it wasn't all praise and good reviews, mostly because of all the violence. It also sparked a series of negative comments saying that the movie was tasteless for portraying such a horrible episode in history as if it were an entertaining action film. One of the critics who was constantly quoted at the time was Daniel Mendelsohn’s, who claimed that "Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis." For him, the fact that this group of Jewish people went to extremes to end the Nazi's regime was putting them on the same level. But does it, really?
WWII and the Holocaust are probably the most documented events in the history of humanity. This isn’t only because it happened quite recently, at a time when information traveled relatively faster than in the past, but also because the world understood that the atrocities committed had to be exposed, so that something like this doesn’t happen ever again. However, in a way, mainly when it comes to the Holocaust, there’s a specific lens through which the subject is always tackled and that is from a passive perspective when it comes to the depiction of the victims (which happens with most tragedies in history).
So, I believe that what shocked the movie's detractors the most was the fact that the Jewish characters take an active role in the situation, something that's pretty unusual in the canon of movies and literature set during this horrible episode. However, putting aside the fact that in his movie the protagonists manage to kill the most influential Nazi leaders, including Hitler, the premise of the film isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. So, let’s take a look at the case of these real-life avengers who, like the Basterds, did “one thing and one thing only... killin' Nazis.”
Called the Nakam (which literally means revenge in Hebrew), or the Jewish Avengers, this small group was formed in Lithuania (formerly part of Poland) when the invasion of Western Europe started. This underground organization took psalm 94 from the Holy Scriptures as their motto to fight against the Nazi regime. In this psalm, God promises he will deal with the enemies of his people. And they also took the name from the phrase Dam Yehudi Nakam (“Jewish blood will be avenged”), which meant that they wanted to take justice in their own hands.
When the German Army reached Vilnius, Abba Kovner (the leader of the organization) and many other local Jewish citizens managed to escape, but they soon realized that the only way they could actually do something to help other Jewish people was to start a resistance group from within the newly-established Vilna Ghetto. During the first years of the invasion, Kovner and his followers founded the United Partisan Organization, which wanted an internal revolt to defeat their invaders. However, this didn’t work out as they expected, and when in 1943, Himmler gave the order that all the ghettos in Western Europe had to be evacuated and the prisoners sent to extermination camps, they decided to flee to the woods to avoid capture and continue their work.
Although their story isn’t as famous as that of other resistance groups, there are documents and testimonies from the population that give an account of their many activities fighting the Nazis, their most known being, of course, their goal to kill any German soldier who crossed their path. However, this was just one aspect of their movement. Their final goal was to stop the regime, so they went way further than just killing random officers wandering in the woods. They had very well-conceived strategies to impede their advances and plans.
When the war was over, they were shocked by the little justice that was being made by International authorities. For instance, only 24 high-ranking officers were tried during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945-1946. It’s estimated that more than 13 million men in Western Germany were associated with the Nazi regime and only a tiny percentage was properly tried and sentenced. Even today, there’s still this impression that the crimes committed during the war went unpunished despite all the information out there. This was a huge insult for the Nakam, who weren’t willing to leave things just like that.
After the war, they created a complex plan that kind of followed the scriptures’ "an eye for an eye" approach, which is understandable, though not really justifiable. They wanted to get revenge in the same way that the Nazis had exterminated, tortured, and massacred their people, through indiscriminate mass killings. Their plan was to poison millions of people in Germany’s five most populous cities: Munich, Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremberg, and Weimar. To achieve this, they infiltrated each city’s water filtration plants to learn how they worked, how water was distributed throughout the city, and so on. For months they prepared everything and studied each possible outcome of their plan; they even found a way to avoid those areas where allies were still stranded. So, what went wrong, fortunately? (I say fortunately because the world didn't need another mass extermination.)
Nakam's leader, Kovner, was only waiting for the support of influential people in the Jewish community. For that matter, he traveled to Palestine to meet Chaim Weizmann (who would later become the first president of the State of Israel) for his approval and even got the poison for his plans. However, Kovner allegedly didn’t really explain his scheme, but rather a Plan B that, though still cold-blooded, wasn’t as ruthless as the killing of millions of civilians. Long story short, on his way back to Europe, Kovner was arrested, and Plan A failed. So, what was their other plan? Poisoning the prisoners of an American POW camp known as Stalag 13. This camp had about 12,000 German prisoners, so it was clearly a great target for this group. After finding out that a small local bakery was the only one providing bread to the camp, they decided to infiltrate it, and after some time, they were able to poison with arsenic about 3,000 loaves of bread with enough poison to kill more than 10,000. The number of deaths is still unknown, but according to the news, more than 2,000 prisoners were affected.
It’s believed that the Nakam continued with their revenge quest up until the 1950s, although there isn’t any evidence. What is true is that the group was determined to avenge the horrors they and their people had experienced, and that this relatively small group of people was going to be responsible for an enormous massacre. So, how was Kovner arrested? He was allegedly stopped by Zionist Jews who believed that his message of violence and vengeance would only mess up their plans to found their own state.
Anyway, I believe that you can’t fight injustice and violence with more violence, as Nakam and many other secret organizations tried to do, but at the same time, these were people whose rights had been trampled on in unspeakable ways. Wouldn't you want to get revenge? Wouldn't you feel a terrible powerlessness if you saw the perpetrators getting away with it? Despite the atrocities committed against their community (and also others), mass violence shouldn't be the answer.
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