It’s pretty trite to point out that, if Hitler had accomplished his goals, there would be monuments to him, as there are to Napoleon. And it’s been observed many times that, after a few more decades, forgetfulness will bleach our vivid horror of Nazi crimes, and future students of history may feel free to biographize Hitler as a military strategist with character flaws, rather than as a monster. Despite our constant assurances that we will “never forget,” the way Hitler and the Nazi extermination project are portrayed in popular culture is already shifting, turning to new depictions that would not have been acceptable recently. It appears that Nazis are moving out of memory and into fantasy.
I am thinking, in particular, of movies. Until rather recently, most depictions of Nazis were dramas – usually highlighting the heroism of a few exceptional anti-Nazi resistors, rarely acknowledging the actual near-universal complicity within Germany and without.
We are currently witnessing the end of living memory of the Nazi genocide. Death camp survivors are aging. Most of the people who were imprisoned and tortured as adults are now dead, or in their last few years of life. Most of the remaining camp survivors were children during their periods of internment. Soon, first-person memories of the Shoah will be extinct.
And then, will Nazis move into the realm of unreality? Will they become mere boogiemen, to titillate and thrill impressionable children? It already seems we are headed that direction. There’s been much discussion of the degradation of political speech, now that the suddenly-acceptable Hitler Comparison has become so common that it’s a meme all by itself, and poorly playing the Hitler card has its own category of logical fallacy: reductio ad hitlerum, the fallacious assumption that an opinion is invalidated by the bare fact that Hitler shared it. Several mornings a week, I run a gauntlet of LaRouchites brandishing full-color signs depicting Obama with a Hitler-style mustache. So, apparently, most people still consider ‘Nazi’ an insult. But as they move into the realm of the fantastic, that, too will fade. Does anyone use ‘werewolf’ or ‘vampire’ or even ‘demon’ as an insult anymore?
I’ve watched several films lately in which Nazis appear as supernatural villains. In 1976, Marathon Man’s Nazi was a cruel and cunning dental torturer, (shudder!) but one moved by quite comprehendable human motivations – greed, self-preservation, and, finally, fear. The newer crop of nazi films feature a constellation of quasi-human hyphenated beings: Nazi zombies, Nazi ghosts, Nazi warlocks. In Dead Snow, the Nazis are the flesh-eating undead. In Outpost, they are a time-traveling spirit army. In Sheitan, they are barely-upright primitive devil-worshipping skullbashers. In the words of one zombie aficionado, “Nazi zombies are the ultimate bad guys. Completely unsympathetic. You can watch them get shot and put down without the slightest pang of guilt.”
But dehumanizing Nazis reduces their culpability and reducces our complicity. By rendering them evil monsters, rather than humans, they are made more distant, less like us, and we are made more innocent, less like them. When the capacity for staggering evil is born anew with each human, inflating our image of Nazi evil to the point of absurdity may not bode well for future vigilance.
(pic via Photobucket.)