So, there’s this book that came out recently called Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable.
The premise of the book is as follows: Hitler wakes up in modern-day Berlin, and hilarity (and political satire) ensues. Quotes on the book call it “a hilarious, yet poignant look at today’s world” and “thrillingly transgressive”; one reviewer compared the resurrected Hitler to Sacha Baron Cohen. Perhaps it is somewhat clear why I am uncomfortable, and no doubt that is part of the intent. But. But.
There’s something about this book that, to me, feels like part of a disturbing trend, possibly one that goes hand in hand with the disaster that is Kate Breslin’s romance novel For Such a Time – the one where a Jewish woman and a Nazi concentration camp guard fall in love and convert to Christianity, and that’s just one of the offensive things about the book. There seems to be an idea, floating around in the ether and gaining some traction, that Nazis are a vehicle to tell stories, whether satirical or romantical. Nazis, it seems, or Adolf Hitler in particular, are now sufficiently distant to be used to make a literary point – according to reviewers of Vermes novel, at the expense of “the ironic flippancy of the YouTube generation”.
(Yes, let’s use Hitler to mock millenials. That sounds great.)
All bitterness aside, I want to focus on the idea of cultural distance – the idea that Nazis are almost a cartoon villain, that Hitler is almost unreal, that specters of Naziism can now be invoked to make various points – about social media, in this case, or for dramatic effect, as I suspect in the case of the writer Knaussgard, who rather provocatively titled his books about his life Min Kamp. Nazis are of the past, this behavior suggests – still with enough power to shock, but far enough away that it is no longer dangerous to invoke the name for fear of being tarred by association.
This worries me, because it does not acknowledge a number of important facts. I have referenced before on this blog the rising wave of antisemitic and anti-Rromani sentiment (and violence) in Europe, but there is also the fact that neo-Nazis are still a group that is very much alive and active. And even beyond the stereotypical skinheads – white supremacy and other extreme right wing ideas continue to flourish. Bigotry and authoritarianism did not vanish from the world in 1945 – nor did the ideas that let the Nazi party rise to power and exterminate a wide swath of the population that did not suit their image of perfection. Acting as though Nazis are a villain comfortably distant from ourselves can all too easily breed complacency.
To bring up what may seem a more trivial debate – fights are continually waged in the Marvel fandom over whether or not Hydra is a Nazi organization. I have read meta recently that claimed that the thematic power of Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be diminished by calling Hydra Nazis, because the real message of that movie is that Hydra can be anyone, that it is not obvious, that it is insidious and banal and lurking in powerful and likeable politicians.
To me, this reading puts it the wrong way round. The power of Hydra, as a Nazi splinter group, is indeed that it can be found in the most respectable of characters. But Nazis need not necessarily proclaim themselves Nazis, may not speak with German accents and be unable to control their saluting arm. Nazis, in at least some sense, can be anyone. Some white supremacist groups encourage their members to take up respectable positions – lawyers, policemen, etc – literal Nazis can be anyone.
Some say that “throwing the word ‘Nazi’ around” trivializes the atrocities of World War 2. To a certain extent, this is true – “feminazi” and “grammar nazi” certainly do that. However, reminding people that the Nazi Party held beliefs about race not so far off from those of scientists in the United States at the time, and keeping in mind that Nazis in a very literal sense are still alive and well, does not trivialize anything.
Hitler as commentary on social media and YouTube, however, just might.