Those Wacky Nazis

Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.

waitingforvader-47b5a0bEver since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*, and as such, have been the go-to model for villains in fiction for 70 years. Countless books, movies, games, and comics use Nazis as villains, and even more feature villains overtly modeled on the Nazis in their appearance, methods, or ideology. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy to fill this role: Lucas didn’t model his Imperial officers’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.

Darth-Vader-and-Darth-Vader-Jr-CosplayToday, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is the media, not them, who have become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, don’t know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality. The influence this shift has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).

Fictional villains are abstract. No matter how immersive the story, we ultimately know it isn’t real and that gives us a comfortable distance from what’s happening (hence why movie villains often commit such over-the-top acts in order to create an emotional reaction, like blowing up entire planets). Since movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads, or the countless romanticized depictions of pirates that focus heavily on hats and eye makeup and only very vaguely on what they actually do.

10446208_325457630980277_6533266109160739346_oThis villainy-as-aesthetic attitude accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives. Most of these people are simple trolls in it for the shock value, but the boundary between them and genuine neo-Nazis is blurry, with the muddying cultural waters providing cover for a resurgence of actual white supremacy. Those who only use the aesthetic “ironically” for shock value can claim that they’re not causing any real-life harm…but then again, so can the real neo-Nazis, since they too were raised in a world where the actual repercussions of their actions are abstract, not concrete.

6-reasons-star-wars-kylo-ren-and-rey-are-soulmates-not-cousins-824178Nazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Rey and Kylo Ren. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. (ETA: The same goes for Broken Angels, the other novel featuring a romance between a Jew and a Nazi. This is getting out of hand.)

This shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.

So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.

*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.

**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?

Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin.


Posted on August 13, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. A very well-written and on-point article, Katz. Well done. 😀

  2. Alan Robertshaw

    Great article.

    As to your query about who were the pre-WW” ‘super villains’; that’s an interesting subject.

    Napoleon was of course demonised, but were the French generally? I think it’s possible. Over here in England there are two things that might be a vestigial folk memory of the dehumanising of the French troops generally.

    There’s the famous Hartlepool monkey hanging incident that you may find worth reading up on. There are also some folk festivals such as the Hal-An-Tow and Darkie Day in Cornwall that involve the symbolic murder of a French (or possible Armada era Spanish) soldier.

    In WW2 the Germans were often portrayed as the Huns or the Bosch and there were plenty of tales and media depictions of raped nuns and crucified soldiers. Our Royal family had to change its name (from Saxe Coberg De Gotha) to Windsor to avoid the connotations (even German Shepherds had to be renamed as Alsatians).

    We forget this now, but maybe because the real atrocities of the Nazis eclipsed the propaganda fantasies of previous wars.

  3. Good point. I always think of Napoleon as coming from an earlier era of “gentlemanly” warfare, but maybe that’s just because I’m American and we never actually fought him.

  4. katz: I didn’t even realize you had a blog; this is an awesome column to introduce me to your long-form writing. Gonna have to start reading this as often as I read WHTM, I think.

    During the era leading up to and during our entry into WWI, there was a lot of propaganda directed at German-Americans, too. German anarchists were often seen as plotting violent revolution (check out the Haymarket Square bombings sometime). My family went from Schmidt to Smith after my father’s grandmother was denied aid by the American Red Cross. And German-Americans who were identified as such were often force-marched through town and ordered to kiss the American flag, pledge an oath of allegiance, or other similar stunts, meant to simultaneously shame them for being foreign and warn them of violent possibilities of perceived disloyalty. Once war broke out, as Alan mentions, there were a lot of rumors about the Germans being ‘Huns’ who would hack off hands as trophies and whatnot.

    Those rumors, and the revelation that they were mostly lies (yes, there were wartime atrocities committed by both sides, but it wasn’t one-sided or as commonplace as was reported at the time) actually compounded the tragedy of the Holocaust–some of the earliest rumors leaked about Hitler’s “Final Solution” were discounted as just another round of the same. (Not by everyone, mind you–Theodore Seussel, better known as Doctor Seuss, was an editorial cartoonist during the war, and at least one of his comics showed Hitler and Chamberlain singing in a forest of hangman’s trees, with the legs hanging down all labeled ‘Jew’.)

    Found it:

    Actually, Seuss’ cartoons did tend to take a ‘Those Wacky Nazis’ approach–unsurprising, since he still was using his signature art style. Seeing Hitler as a mermaid…

  5. IIRC, before Nazis, Napoleon was indeed one of the favored villains. Before Napoleon… I think Genghis Khan and Mongol horde, Attila the Hun, and Vlad Tepes wasn’t regarded favorably by his neighbors either. Ivan the Terrible is also what gets evoked in my corner of the world, too, as “Ivan the Cruel”, translating his local moniker.

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