Bill Clinton and the Schindler's List effect


The release of Spielberg's critically-acclaimed movie came at a telling moment during the Balkan Civil Wars.

by Allen Therisa in History

A lighter moment on the set of Schindler's List
A lighter moment on the set of Schindler's List

On 1 December 1993 President Bill Clinton, at the time giving a speech about AIDS, said to his audience, "I went to see Schindler's List...I implore every one of you to go see it." Clinton was speaking the morning after he had viewed Steven Spielberg's movie during an invitation-only screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

It is difficult today to appreciate the impact of Spielberg's movie version of Schindler's Ark on its release. Written by Australian novelist Thomas Keneally, the novel Schindler's Ark had become a Booker Prize-winner and was also awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction in 1983.

The novel tells the story of Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party who becomes an unlikely hero by saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. It follows actual people and events, with fictional dialogue and scenes added by the author where exact details are unclear.

Steven Spielberg's 1993 movie adaptation of Keneally's book was an immediate box office and critical success and was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, of which it would win seven, including Best Picture (in itself a major achievement for Spielberg), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score.

Coming off the back of his heavily criticised 1987 adaptation of J. G. Ballard's acclaimed 1984 novel Empire of the Sun, Spielberg seemed at the time to be particularly focused on delivering a cinematic masterpiece that would wow the critics, whilst winning the key award (Best Picture) which had been evading him throughout his hugely successful cinematic career.

Quality movie-making

This was not Spielberg's first stab at respectable, potentially award-winning moviemaking. That came with his 1985 adaptation of Alice Walker's even more critically-acclaimed novel The Colour Purple, which, in Spielberg's big-screen version saw the pictorial and humanistic elements from walker's much loved gothic masterpiece played up, whilst its more challenging psycho-sexual elements were very much played down. The result was a movie that sweeps and emotes but fails to affect the (critical) audience in a meaningful or lasting way.

This is a charge that cannot be levelled at Schindler's List, which would, after Spielberg's unconfident missteps six years earlier with Empire of the Sun, hit its target with critics, audiences and politicians alike in 1993.

The movie, for those who have not seen it, is a searing combination of the Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II, the lived reality of inmates of the concentration camps of Eastern Europe and the inhumanity of the German military forces (particularly the SS), as they embarked on the crazed violence involved in enacting the Final Solution.

Shot in stark black and white (somewhat in contrast to the lush colours of both Empire of the Sun and The Colour Purple), Schindler's List embraces, at its heart, an unflinching depiction of the violence unleashed on the Jews by the Nazis, the fatally compromised political morality that led to it, and how evil can manifest itself and be personified in the modern era. Watching Schindler's List today as on its release is a harrowing and challenging experience, something that Clinton touched upon after he viewed the movie in 1993.

Much commented upon at the time of its original release, is the portrayal in the movie by Ralph Fiennes of SS officer Amon Göth, who served as the Commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp in German-occupied Poland for most of the camp's existence.

Göth would be hanged after the war near the former campsite and Schindler's List depicts Göth's running of the Płaszów concentration camp and the authority he had over its inmates and his Nazi contemporaries.

Fiennes would go on to win a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the movie and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (losing out to Tommy Lee Jones for his role as US Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive). Fiennes gives a nuanced performance as Göth that comes close to derailing the moral narrative in Schindler's List and which easily dominates the performances of Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, playing Oskar Schindler and Schindler's Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern in the movie.

In Fiennes' portrayal of the man, Göth is presented as educated, charismatic and attractive, and as someone who has made peace with his genocidal responsibilities. It is a disturbing performance, bravely delivered, particularly within the thematic context of the movie.

What happens when reality intrudes

At the time that Clinton was viewing and responding to Schindler's List, the US government, together with the United Nations and the countries of the European Union, was struggling with an effective policy response to the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, particularly with what appeared at the time to be the roles of Serbia and Croatia is driving the violence that was shocking television viewers on an almost daily basis.

Driven by geopolitical forces which had arisen following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Balkan Civil Wars shocked Western intelligence and political elites in the early 1990s. The chaotic collapse of formerly Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, as well as the recent implosion of the Soviet Union itself (a situation soon to be made worse by the vicious economic impact of the "Shock Therapy" economic intervention in the post-Soviet economy), had all shaped Yugoslavia's descent into vicious civil war.

This war, particularly driven by the territorial ambitions of the charismatic Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, quickly presented itself to the West as a stark warning of what might lie ahead behind the unfreezing of history and the reawakening of long-subdued forces in (Eastern) Europe now suddenly released.

In the face of this challenge, the European Community (as it was re-titled in 1992), United Nations and the US had all struggled to bring these increasingly violent and chaotic forces under control, to avoid the direct application of external military force whilst doing so, and to apply effective diplomacy, economic sanctions and political pressure to bring the warring factions of the former Yugoslavia to the deal-making table.

When this strategy failed, direct military intervention would follow, with the NATO military Operation Deliberate Force commencing on 30 August 1995 and continuing until 20 September that year.

Operation Deliberate Force involved 400 aircraft and 5,000 personnel from 15 nations in direct military operations to undermine the military capability of the Army of Republika Srpska (or Bosnian Serb Army), which had threatened and attacked UN-designated "safe areas" in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the Srebrenica genocide and Markale massacres specifically precipitating this change in Western policy.

Two months later (and almost two years after Bill Clinton had watched Schindler's List) the Dayton Accords peace agreement was agreed upon near Dayton, Ohio on 21 November 1995 and formally signed in Paris, on 14 December 1995. It was these accords that effectively ended the Bosnian War, which had been raging for three and a half years. As a result of the Dayton Accords, the warring parties agreed, reluctantly on the part of some, to maintain the peace and to recognise a single sovereign state known as Bosnia and Herzegovina which would be composed of two parts; the mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska and mostly Croat-Bosniak-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Though this agreement has been much criticised for creating ineffective and unwieldy political structures, as well as entrenching the ethnic cleansing of the previous wars, it was a key staging post in forcing a broader settlement to the Balkan conflict and would lead eventually to Milošević being indicted in May 1999 by the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for crimes against humanity (in Kosovo).

Charges of violating the laws or customs of war, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as genocide in Bosnia, were added a year and a half later, whilst 161 other key political and military figures from the wars were also indicted by the Tribunal between 1997 and 2004.

The weight of history played a part in the process of bringing an end to the Balkan Civil Wars, as did the weakening of the Milošević government due to it becoming increasingly isolated on the world stage under the combined weight of political pressure and economic sanctions. But it was the decisive act of NATO forces launching air attacks in 1995 that finally broke the will of the Bosnian Serb military together with its supportive Serbian government, and ended the immediate bloodshed (though it would flare up again in Kosovo towards the end of the decade).

Coming round again

In 2022 the European arena is, once again in the throes of a violent expansionist military campaign, this time launched by a Russian leadership looking for greater strategic power and influence through territorial expansion and acquisition.

Challenged on the ground by a Ukrainian resistance that has proved able to put up formidable resistance and slow the advance of the Russian armed forces, the world is today experiencing a historical echo of the bloody battles last seen during the Balkan Civil Wars, which left cities devastated, civilian populations brutalised and the shocked international community scrambling into eventual coordinated action by what it was witnessing.

This time around, the international community has responded with greater effect and certainty than in the early 1990s after Yugoslavia collapsed and to greater immediate effect. Whether its various sanctions, supplying of military aid to Ukraine and the cutting off of the Russian financial and transport systems from the rest of the world has a longer-term strategic impact is yet to be seen. Also what is to be revealed is whether a military role for NATO forces (the much-discussed no-fly zone above Ukraine, for example) could end in a similar outcome to that seen in Bosnia in 1995.

What is clear, however, is that just as in the mid-1990s, when NATO and the US President Bill Clinton was initially sceptical of taking direct military action because of the risks involved and the reaction such a move might provoke, so western leaders today are facing a similarly nuanced, but this time nuclear-edged, dilemma in acting against the Russian Federation.

Today's Ukrainian invasion is not cast in overpowering moral-political terms, as the Balkan conflict came to be, partly because the Ukrainians have proven so resilient in slowing the advance of the Russian armed forces, much to the surprise of Putin's political and military leadership. In the coming weeks, and possibly months, the conflict may be resolved as a direct result of the Ukrainian military resistance, and an end game may be reached concerning Putin's territorial and related political ambitions.

Time will tell what the outcome of the Ukrainian invasion will be, regardless of the movies that Putin, Biden or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson happen to be watching or the moral weight they impose on their viewers.

Where President Bill Clinton was clearly influenced by Schindler's List at the end of 1993, in 2020 US potential President Joe Biden expressed a fondness for The King's Speech during that election that year. As for Vladimir Putin, six years earlier, he declared his favourite movie to be 1934's Chapaev, a popular Stalin-era Russian Civil War film about Vasily Chapaev, a charismatic Red Army commander.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has stated that his favourite movies include The Pink Panther, Dodgeball and The Godfather.

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