Jun 22, 2009

Hangmen Also Die

Reinhard Heydrich, the Reichsprotector for Czechoslovakia during WW II, was assassinated in 1942. Fritz Lang, working in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht (credited as Bert Brecht) wrote and directed this movie. It was released in April 1943. Two months later, in June, Hitler’s Madman, directed by Douglas Sirk would be released. The later version is more accurate with regard to actual history, though, if I recall correctly, it still gets some details wrong.

In the earlier film, Heydrich, played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, is assassinated at the start of the film. (HHvT is not as good looking as the real Heydrich. Any interested reader can check Wikipedia for biography and pictures.) The action then focuses on the efforts of the assassin to avoid capture. In this he is aided by a girl and her family. Walter Brennan, in a piece of anti-typecasting, plays the girl’s father, a professor at one of Prague’s universities. (He is actually convincing.) A series of incidents reveal that the underground is infiltrated by a Nazi collaborator. This quickly results in a plot being concocted to free hostages, eliminate the collaborator, and protect the assassin.

In an earlier post on Livy, I discussed the ethics of lying to protect the innocent. Here we have a different problem, lying to incriminate the guilty. The problems faced are:

  1. How to get rid of the collaborator without making themselves targets.
  2. How to free the hostages, or convince the Nazis that the hostages should be freed because the assassin has been found.
  3. How to protect the assassin.

The answer arrived at is to pin the murder on the collaborator. To do this they provide evidence that he was the killer. This involves a conspiracy on the part of multiple witnesses, and the planting of evidence.

Conspiracies are, in my opinion, inherently unstable. At some point it becomes in the interest of some of the parties to betray others, so the thing falls apart. Leaving that aside, however, the conspiracy in this case works.’’

Is it moral? I think Aquinas and Kant would both say that it was immoral. Aquinas would argue that the conspirator’s right to justice had been violated, and Kant would argue that the collaborator is being treated as a means rather than an end. He would probably also say that the collaborator’s use of others as a means does not justify their response.

As a practical matter, I would feel no compunction in getting rid of the guy. Of course, we’re dealing with my feelings within a movie, not my feelings or actions within the real world, and those can be very different things. Whereas in the instances cited in my discussion of Livy one bears false witness for one’s neighbor who is accused under an unjust regime, in this instance one bears false witness against one’s neighbor in order to protect someone who is accused under an unjust regime.

It should be noted that this film is entirely fictitious. Heydrich was not killed with a handgun. The assassins, and there were two of them, tried to use a Sten gun, which jammed, and then threw an explosive at his car. The assassins ultimately committed suicide within the confines of a church where they were hiding. The town of Lidice was destroyed in reprisal for the attack.

Feel free to add any comments.