by Mindy Clegg
In the third Indiana Jones film, The Last Crusade (the one with Sean Connery), the adventurous archaeologist must race to find the Holy Grail, the cup Christ drank from at the last supper which was used to catch his blood during the crucifixion. According to Authurian legend, who ever shall drink from the cup will have eternal life. He’s not the only one seeking this mystical artifact. His competitors, the Nazis, hope to use the Grail to ensure a thousand year rule by their leader. In one memorable scene, now often deployed in animated gif form on social media, Dr. Jones infiltrates a Nuremberg style rally, noting to his companion, “Nazis! I hate these guys!” The film ends with a race to the Holy Grail, the Nazi heavy dying, but Jones failing to turn his Nazi love interest to the right side of history.
The franchise was created by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg, both of whom made a name for themselves taking film genres primarily from B-roll films (lower budget genre films) and making them into high budget summer blockbusters. The Indiana Jones trilogy is no exception. In these films, Spielberg married a tale of adventure and discovery with a fight against an obvious bad guy with little nuance—you know who is good and evil in these films. Nazis fit that role perfectly, providing two of the baddies for the four films (with a planned fifth in production). Nazis in fact often act as a stand-in for unmitigated evil in many films (in many cases cartoonishly, mustache twirling type evil) with little grounding in reality. The question becomes: is that a problem in shaping our understanding of Nazis (or fascism in general) as a historical phenomenon? I’d argue that indeed, our understanding of fascism has been somewhat obscured by our popular cultural views that use Nazis or fascists as stand-ins for pure evil, rather than emanating from some of the same underlying ideologies that animated racism, segregation, and colonialism among Western powers. As such, we’ve ignored its growth in recent years. This is a problem, as these ideologies pose a real threat to our political system, especially in our postmodern media landscape.
The appearance of Nazis in American mass culture began relatively early on, even prior to US involvement in the Second World War. Silent film star and comedian Charlie Chaplin made his first sound film The Great Dictator in 1940. He played both a persecuted Jewish man and the buffoonish dictator in the academy award winning comedy.
Later, Chaplin said in his 1964 biography that if he’d known the extent of the horrors of the Holocaust, he probably would not have made the film.1 Children’s entertainment also dealt with the axis powers at the time. There were plenty of cartoons mocking the Nazis and Italian fascists, with Looney Tunes putting out “What Price Porky” as early as 1938. There were many obviously racist depictions of the Japanese leaders as well, most notoriously the Bugs Bunny cartoon,“Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips”. Timely (later Marvel) Comics published Captain America in 1941. The very first cover depicted the Captain punching Hitler. Another example of how Nazis were depicted included a supervillain named Captain Nazi. The goal of these cultural interventions at the time was to drum up support for the war effort at home, as the United States took a “total war” approach to the conflict. But as these depictions carried on into the postwar period, it set the stage for how popular culture overall would depict Nazis later, not as real people who committed atrocities, but as evil incarnate with an ideology that no real American would embrace. This is despite the fact that the real Nazis embraced American style segregation and eugenics theory.2
The above mentioned Indiana Jones franchise is a great example of how Hollywood used Nazis. If a guy goosestepping in a uniform shows up, that’s your signal that evil is afoot. Nazis haven’t just popped up in action films like Indiana Jones. The horror genre had a go as well. Back when horror films were low budget, B-roll affairs, films like 1966’s The Frozen Dead used Nazis as the horrifying threat.
A decade later the 1977 low-budget Shock Waves had a Nazi (played by the excellent Peter Cushing!) creating zombie Nazis on a remote island.
A more recent and higher budget example of this Nazi-horror genre is Dead Snow, a 2009 comedy horror film out of Norway with frozen Nazi zombies attacking vacationing students.
There was a sequel in 2014, which adds resurrected Soviet POWs to the mix.
The recent send up of the “Nazi genre”, Iron Sky I and II had Nazis from the dark side of the moon and then from the center of the earth providing an existential threat to humanity’s survival.
They even managed to secure the Slovenian martial industrial band Laibach for the soundtrack, known for their deadpan satire of fascism, socialism, and nationalism.
The Iron Sky films depict the Nazis in a decidedly campy way, both incompetent and masterminds of evil. Much like Dead Snow, these are comedy-horror films that riff off the tropes of mid-century low budget horror films like Shock Waves, tongue firmly in cheek. Probably the most familiar classic American depiction of Nazis as cartoonishly incompetent was the 1960s sitcom Hogan’s Heroes which starred Bob Crane as the leader of Allied POWs. They use their status to spy on and aid the resistance against the Nazis. Set in a POW camp, the commandant of the camp, Col. Klink, and his henchmen Sgt. Schultz were hardly the picture of competency, as Hogan regularly outwits them to ensure the smooth passage of spies in and out of the camp.
It’s easy to understand why Nazis might be constantly invoked in popular culture as the epitome of evil. After all, the images that emerged out of the Nazi war machine and the death camps still haunt us to this day. Many still wrestle with how something like this could have happened, that an entire group of people would be targeted for death for merely existing. Their campaign very nearly did wipe out European Jewish life. Prior to the Second World War the majority of Jewish people lived in Europe, about 9.5 million of the global total of 16 million. At the end of the war, there were only about 3.8 million European Jews still alive. It is safe to say that almost all Ashkenazim living in Europe or the United States lost someone during those years, and often it was almost their entire family. Like other mass deaths (the Gulags, especially under Stalin, or during the Cultural Revolution in China) those numbers are hard to wrap your head around, much less the reasoning behind mass slaughter at this scale. Our minds instinctively wish to exile the organizers of such forms of state sponsored terror as inhuman and monstrous. Along with the scale, we simply can’t fathom that any right-thinking person would willingly participate in such an act of terror, because we hope we would not do so. If the people who did this were, in the phrasing of historian Christopher Browning, ordinary men, then what does that say about us ordinary people? So we compartmentalize Nazis as evil to soothe our fears of such widespread dehumanization and murder happening here.
But has that mindset proven to be problematic with regards to understanding larger historical political phenomenon that can end up down that same destructive and violent path? It seems so, given how reluctant some are to identify racist and authoritarian political ideologies in modern politics. Some of this stems from the “Sonderweg” problem in German historiography. The Sonderweg thesis, which translates to “special path,” argued that the Nazis were an outcome of a specific and unique German road to modernity that was far less liberal than its Western European neighbors, especially France and Britain. The aristocratic elite were far more powerful than in other European powers, meaning the middle class had far less democratic influence on German politics—there was no “bourgeois revolution” according to this historical argument, a key defining feature of the rise of a modern capitalist and democratic society. This “special path” gave rise to the Nazis who grew out of the elite authoritarian structures of the German past. More recent historians have pushed back on the Sonderweg thesis, most notably since the publication of David Blackbourn’s and Geoff Eley’s 1984 The Peculiarities of German History. They argue that Germany was less unique than others had previously argued and in fact, Britain and France deviated from the rest of Europe. More importantly, they argue that there is no correct or normal path to modernity and making Britain and France the models are deeply problematic. The late Detlev Peukert went further, arguing in his work that Germany’s development was generally speaking the same as the rest of Europe. In doing so, he tied the Holocaust not just to German history, but to larger forces in Western history, such as the rise of racism and eugenics to justify colonialism. The Holocaust itself emerged out of a constant drumbeat of dehumanization, something that can emerge in any modern society looking to maintain the status quo at the expense of a racial or ethnic minority.3
An important tangent to the Sonderweg debate as been the more specific discussion of the Holocaust itself. One of the most public debates about the nature of evil sprang from a series of articles written by political theorist Hannah Arendt. Herself a refugee from Nazi Germany, she wrote eloquent and still relevant works on the nature of totalitarian governments. In the 1960s, she covered the trial of Adolph Eichmann in Israel for the New Yorker magazine, which was later published a book. She deployed the term “banality of evil” to describe the man on trial. He insisted he had no special hatred for the Jewish people (to a court of Jewish people), but rather that he was merely following orders. Although she employed the word “evil” here, she insisted on the seeming ordinariness of Eichmann and others like him, the middle managers of the Holocaust. To Arendt, what made Eichmann truly horrific was not that he was pure evil personified, but that he was himself a relatively ordinary man or at least presented and thought of himself as such, just one that made it part of his business to facilitate the mass murder of other humans.4 Arendt’s argument about Eichmann caused no end of controversy (and is still hotly debated), as many find the concept of the “banality of evil” too upsetting to contemplate. If ordinary men and women can commit such atrocious acts, then almost any of us ordinary people might be willing to participate in them, a view which was supposedly confirmed with several postwar psychological experiments, such as the Standford Prison Experiement and Milgram Experiment.
It seems deeply disturbing to hear the argument that the Nazis were not the special, sociopathic monsters that we can safely toss in the dustbin of history without a more sophisticated analysis of them. By viewing the Nazis as a unique and unrepeatable form of easily recognizable evil, we comfort ourselves with our own sense of growth and progress as western societies. But given the number of people who made the Holocaust a reality, we must entertain the fact that ordinary people, motivated by fearmongering aimed at a dehumanizing a specific group of people, can commit horrendous acts against their fellow man. The tangential Sonderweg debate between Daniel Goldhagen and Christopher Browning might further help us understand the stakes in accurately understanding how crimes against humanity are not just a product of fanatical monsters, but might emerge from the hearts and minds of ordinary men. Historian Daniel Goldhagen is the son of a Holocaust survivor, Erich Goldhagen, who was interned at Czernowitz (today in Ukraine). After hearing a lecture by Saul Friedländer on the Holocaust as a student, Goldhagen, like many young historians, felt somewhat unsatisfied about the “why” question around the Holocaust. He was specifically unsatisfied that no one had really interrogated the question as to why ordinary Germans would willingly slaughter their Jewish neighbors. His ultimate conclusion came in the form of 1996’s Hitler’s Wiling Executioners. He argued that non-Jewish Germans were uniquely antisemitic, something he called “eliminationist antisemitism.” As such, when Hitler took power, it was not just his propaganda machine that was to blame, but all of the Germans participating were doing so because of something deep in German cultural character. One of the historians he was engaging with was Christopher Browning, who had written the book Ordinary Men in 1992. Both authors pulled from the papers of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, who had operated in Poland during the war. Browning had argued that it was not just antisemitism that was to blame for the participation of these men, who were often older and considered unfit for regular active duty on the front. Rather a number of factors were at play that are true in just about any society, not just in Germany. They were animated by career concerns, peer pressure, and patriotism, as well as antisemitism. This debate rested on whether or not what happened in Nazi Germany—an attempted eradication of an entire people—could happen again given the right circumstances. It should be noted that both men were writing and debating against the backdrop of at least two major acts of attempted genocide—in the Yugoslavian wars and in Rwanda.5
So who was right in this debate? Were Germans somehow more antisemitic than their European counterparts or can this sort of systemic violence against a minority emerge elsewhere in similar circumstances? Violence against Jewish Europeans was not a new phenomenon even if the Holocaust took it to a new and horrifying level. Antisemitism obviously played a central role, but Hitler was tapping into a long-standing European-wide prejudice against Ashkenazim Jews, not just a German mindset. Over the centuries, Jewish communities across Europe had been subjected to acts of violence and exclusion from the rest of European society, often scapegoated for problems faced by the larger community. [FN: See for example, David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998)] In the period prior to the World Wars, many Jews had already been fleeing state sponsored violence in the form of pogroms, to Western Europe, Palestine, and the United States. These were organized campaigns to deflect blame for internal state problems in countries such as Tsarist Russia and produced one of the most cited conspiracy theory forgeries in modern history, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.6 It’s also been well-established that it was not just Germans who participated in carrying out the Holocaust either, but locals (both ordinary people and Nazi aligned officials) across occupied Eastern Europe sometimes helped. Prior to and after the Holocaust, other groups were targeted for either acts of attempted genocide or ethnic cleansing (the Armenians in Turkey, Cham and ethnic Chinese in Cambodia, the Tutsi in Rwanda, Bosniaks in Yugoslavia, etc). Acts of genocidal violence are not unique to any one group in the modern era, but were certainly justified and normalized during the period of European colonialism. In Great Britain during the Irish Famine, the government made a decision to continue to export food from Ireland, despite the starving peasantry in Western Ireland, who were thought to be far less civilized—hence seen as expendable. The same policies were carried out in colonial India at the end of that century under the British empire.7 Yet rarely are these acts described as “genocidal” by most despite the racist rationalizations used to reach these policies. And the men charged with carrying these policies out were hardly considered inhuman monsters. We in fact often chalk it up to them “just doing their jobs,” the very same justification offered up by Eichmann.
But we must deal with the fact that often acts of violence are means of constructing society in a particular way and that the ideology that underpins these acts of violence has yet to be fully excised from the modern global body politic, as the ongoing violence in northern India against the Muslim minority attests. The language that underpins this sort of violence emerged here in the last presidential election cycle. When the current president began his campaign way back in 2015, his first major speech singled out undocumented immigrants from Latin America as a unique threat to the American way of life. Once in office, some of his first acts were to tighten up the borders to exclude particular people from immigration. A key figure in the Trump White House, Stephen Miller, has ties to white supremacists and frequently promotes white nationalist talking points. Yet not many people took this actual threat to democracy seriously once Trump got elected. In fact, many did not take Trump’s run seriously in the first place. Nor did many people assume that white supremacist groups could pose a threat in general, especially in their new, post-modern configuration found on the internet. This (somewhat) joking tweet probably sums this problem up nicely:
I'm old enough to remember when it was fashionable to dismiss Proud Boys as dorky LARPers with anti-PC opinions. Weird how today they look like a fascist militia with ties to the Trump campaign and carte blanche from the police. There is probably a lesson to be learned from that
— Kumars Salehi (@KumarsSalehi) August 23, 2020
But white supremacists did not just evaporate with the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s. While it became less polite to be a racist, we also stopped taking such groups seriously as a threat to people’s lives. The mass media that did not take such groups as a threat likely played a major role in us thinking of them as safely marginalized clowns to be ignored. Now people with sympathies to white supremacists’ world view hold powerful positions in the executive branch of our government. While this is not a new phenomenon in American history, the fact that it’s true once again should be troubling to all of us.
In the wake of the Second World War, people attempted to come to grips with the protracted violence they had just witnessed, experienced, and survived. Tens of millions of people were dead, a not insignificant number being non-combatants. Entire communities were wiped out. And certain ideologies had been roundly discredited—or so we believed. There was a new wave of people seeking to dismantle the structures of white supremacist violence that had led to the gas chambers. Colonized peoples began to demand freedom and equality all across the world, which Europeans began to reluctantly agree to do. New international bodies meant to keep the peace issued documents that would form our modern human rights regime, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We imagined that, once we could either moderate or end the authoritarian communist regimes, we could “end” history that comes from violent conflicts based on racism and antisemitism. But once the Soviet Union fell, virulent, racist nationalism started to rise up again. Since the end of the Cold War, right wing regimes have made serious inroads to power right around the world. This includes everything from the rise of religious groups that believe in the use of violence to reorder to the world to their liking (everything from groups like Al Qaeda to Christian groups who employ violence to end abortions) to the rise of more traditional right wing nationalism with close ties to Nazism. These have worked their way into the mainstream in part due to people not taking the signs seriously enough. Even now, many comedians and late-night talk show hosts regularly lampoon the current right-wing administration, which might undercut us taking what they do more seriously. Anyone waiting for the cartoonishly evil forms of fascism to emerge to oppose the current round of right wing politicians here (and abroad) are missing the point. They are, much like all of us, merely ordinary men, carrying out what they believe to be in the best interests of themselves and even the country. It doesn’t take eliminationist levels of hatred to support exclusion or second class citizenship for certain people. All it takes is believing in a particular ideology that for much of our modern history was mainstream thinking and for people to not take the existence of such ideologies seriously.
3 For some works on the Sonderweg issue, see works such as William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Germany, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), and Detlev Peukert, The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, (New York: Hill & Wang, 1992) among many others.
4 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963). See also Hannah Arendt, On the Origins of Totalitarianism, (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1951), among her many other works.
5 Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992) and Daniel Goldhagan, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996).