How We Look At Hitler

Recently, my roommate has introduced me to an Australian series by the name of Danger 5, a parody show mocking the camp and melodrama of 1960s spy and WWII shows.

I’m usually not a fan of the saying “it’s so bad it’s good,” but there’s really no denying that Danger 5 captures the aesthetic (or lack thereof) of the genre it’s mocking perfectly. Heck, I’d put money down that if you were to slip in an episode of Danger 5 in with Hogan’s Heroes, Mission: Impossible (yeah, it was a show first), and Matt Helm you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Like those shows, Danger 5 follows a pretty set formula. The international band of agents are briefed on some new ploy by the Axis to achieve world domination (such as using dinosaurs to invade Holland- I kid you not) and are ordered to infiltrate the Nazi headquarters and sabotage their diabolical plot.

…”and, as always, kill Hitler!

Hitler does appear in every episode, revealing his twisted plan to the members of the team who are inevitably captured, just before narrowly escaping as the rest of Danger 5 come riding to the rescue.

While Hitler makes an appearance every episode, he’s by no means always the chief antagonist, with other leading members of the Axis making appearances as well, such as Rommel, Hirohito, Mussolini, and Dr. Mengele.

It was Dr. Mengele’s appearance that threw me for a loop. Unlike Hilter, Mengele isn’t typically brought up in the more cartoonish or comedic depictions of the Nazis. Serving as the head “physician” (if he can be called that) of the Auschwitz concentration camp, Mengele is perhaps associated more closely with the Holocaust than even Hitler, with him being the one personally involved in the process and developing a reputation as a psychopath all his own after his sadistic experiments using human subjects were brought to light. All in all, Mengele was one sick scumbag- not usually someone you’d expect to be brought up as a caricature in a show. I’m not saying that I was offended by his appearance, but if I were in the writing room when the plot of the story was being drafted, I don’t know if I wouldn’t have questioned whether or not the whole thing would be in bad taste.

Which got me thinking: “Why’s Hitler the exception?”

I mean, we really don’t do this with any other evil figure. Not Pol Pot, not Leopold II, not Stalin. It seems that the closest we actually joking about and cartoonization is Napoleon, and “The Little Corporal”, egomaniacal ***hole that he was, can’t hold a candle to any of these evil scumbags.

I guess we might consider it to be a historical thing. We’re just continuing to present Hitler (and, to a lesser extent, Napoleon) as our ancestors depicted them. Propaganda techniques of the time reduced both of them to two-dimensional caricatures of themselves.

Fun Fact: Napoleon was actually above average height for his time.

That said, we applied the same cartoonish reduction to Hirohito and Mussolini, and yet we don’t depict them in the same way today (when we depict them at all). It’s got to be more than that.

Now at this point, you’re probably thinking “Gordon, you living scalpel of reason cutting away at the diseased and necrotic flesh of a world plagued by ignorance and apathy, why should we care? Hitler’s dead and his body’s long since been burned to ashes and scattered to the four corners of the earth (except for the fragment of his skull which is in the Moscow Archives)!”

It’s not about him so much as it is about us. It’s a question of legacy, which I’ve touched on a bit before. I’ve pointed out that while ugliness is an undeniable part of our history, we don’t need to be naming our streets or airports after bigots and McCarthyist bootlickers. At the same time, I’ve stated that I’d stand between a pile of copies of Mein Kampf and Atlas Shrugged and an angry mob trying to burn them. How we treat the past affects how we act in the present- and with Hitler (or rather, the image of Hitler) playing such a major role in modern culture, it’d be remiss not to grapple with this issue.

So let’s break it down.

I. “The Final Victory”

That’s the phrase my roommate used when I brought up the subject with him. This is the final nail in the coffin of Hitler’s legacy- damned for all eternity to live on as a pathetic, manic little goosestepping goon.

And it’s hard not to take satisfaction in that. At least, it’s hard for me– there’s certainly a flip side to this issue, and I don’t think it could be demonstrated better than by the recent news that the head of the Gestapo is believed to have been buried in a mass grave in a Jewish cemetery. While my initial reaction to that was one of satisfaction, the local Jewish community don’t seem to view this as poetic justice. A spokesman for the Central Council of Jews in Germany has stated that “…such a brutal Nazi sadist is buried in a Jewish cemetery of all places is a tasteless monstrosity. The memory of victims is being heavily trampled on.”

Which brings us the inverse treatment.

II. The Menace

Unless you were directly affected by the Nazi’s reign of terror, it’s easy to be dismissive of the true atrocities they committed. In the US (and, I presume, Canada), WWII is viewed as a righteous crusade. In Britain and France however, you can find graveyards and monuments dedicated to the fallen scattered across the countryside. The argument can be made that this “cartoonization” of Hitler and the Nazis downplays (or out-rightly ignores) the horror and depravity they committed upon the world. To make light of Hitler, essentially, is to make light of his victims. The venom and villainy of the Nazis, it can be argued, is what needs to be shown. They need to be depicted as the menace that they were. If not to drive home the full scope of what they did, then at least to galvanize the public into rage against the very real neo-Nazi groups on the rise around the world, rather than dismissal.

You can debate this perspective just as easily as you could debate the lampooning of the Nazis. Is the portrayal of them (and other evil groups) as being indescribable malicious really all that less cartoonish than portraying them as slapstick punching bags? It’s a discussion worth having. But so is…

III.  The Historical Figure

Some people might make the argument that the best way to depict Hitler is to not depict him. In order to avoid creating a false-image through either lampooning or denouncement, you could simply showcase the undeniable facts of the matter and let history speak for itself.

To show Hitler’s actions, his effects on the world he lived in (and after, for that matter), paints a more accurate and clear picture than either mocking or vilifying him. His existence as a figure off camera, they might say, speaks more about the man than any actual depiction or re-enactment ever could. And maybe there’s something to that, but I don’t think it quite hits the mark. You can’t offer up the cut and dry facts, but we’re left, I believe, with something really and truly integral to this whole issue:

IV. The Human

The “Banality of Evil” is a favored topic/dead horse of mine, and as much as I am a broken record when it comes to the subject, I really think it applies here perhaps better than anywhere else. I want you to take a look at this gif here, ripped from some old footage of Hitler in the last days of his reign.

He’s speaking to his girlfriend, Eva Braun, joking about how he should be filming her. The tumblr post from which this was taken has a discussion on evil worth checking out, but I’ll summarize my own spiel here.

Evil doesn’t come for you stalking on cloven hooves and brandishing a pitchfork. Evil doesn’t goosestep down the street. It doesn’t laugh at you from the darkness of a torture chamber. It’s not staring at you from behind barbed wire.

Evil doesn’t hide behind regular people it is regular people. It’s people who love their children and remember their secretaries’ birthdays. It’s people who’d go out of their way to give you a ride home or tell you to forget paying them back when they lend you a dollar.

You want an accurate picture of Hitler, then you can’t reduce him. You gotta take the good, the bad, and the crazy all wrapped into one package deal.

If it’s an accurate picture you want. Speaking for myself, I don’t feel that I’d be upset if thugs from Greek neo-Nazi movement “Golden Dawn” were to be portrayed as apish brutes. If the Westboro Baptist Church were to be depicted as fork-tongued monsters, I don’t think I’d complain either.

So let’s hear it from you guys- which depiction is the go-to? Do we overuse one lens? Why don’t we apply this to other monsters? Is propagandizing every actually good for us?

I look forward to your comments- don’t leave me hanging here.

2 responses to “How We Look At Hitler

  1. First of all, let me express my disappointment that you never used this gif anywhere. My inability to keep from criticizing your work aside, this was some really thought-provoking stuff.

    I can’t really talk a lot about Mussolini, but I think a large part of why Hirohito isn’t vilified in the same way today is because past depictions of him and the Japanese were incredibly, incredibly racist. Whereas Hitler has always been depicted as very evil to the point of monstrosity, the Japanese were shown to be actual subhuman animal-demons. I’d say that this is something people have tried to forget about as the years have gone by, distancing themselves from the past by refusing to bring it up again.

    Addressing “Why Hitler?” again, I’d say it’s because he’s such low-hanging fruit. The Nazis and their Führer are such an easy go-to when it comes to generic evil; there are literally no mental steps between the words “Hitler” and “Evil.” We continue to do it, I suppose, because it’s just been embedded in the public consciousness.

  2. Excellent thought-provoking post.

    I’m pretty comfortable with any depiction of Hitler, but since you’ve made me think about it, I guess I lean more toward the “Menace” viewpoint. I think there are a lot of potentially attractive tenants in Nazi philosophy (hence the reason there is STILL a Neo-Nazi movement), and if we don’t continue to inject obvious reminders of the worst end results of that philosophy, we won’t learn from history. And you know what they say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to do…

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