The Grateful Dead, traffic, Sarah Palin, Obamacare, Game of Thrones, Oasis, grammar Nazis, the Facebook IPO, the iPad—these are just a few of the endless list of topics about which Hitler has ranted in the famous parodies of the film Downfall.
Images of Hitler have also become used as popular memes, with text like “Wehrmacht bitches at?” and “Jew mad? Get Führerious!” imposed over photographs of the former dictator. The use of one of history’s most notorious villains in such a lighthearted manner is one of a plethora of issues that set off alarms for the historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld in his new book, Hi Hitler: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture.
Rosenfeld argues that in three major areas—academia, politics, and popular culture—the Nazis, Hitler, and the Holocaust have undergone a major process of normalization. This means that in our collective memory, that event and its perpetrators are less different, less of an abnormality in history, than previously agreed upon.
At first, Rosenfeld’s thesis seems to a merit a high dose of skepticism. While memes used by teens may treat the image of Hitler lightheartedly and while anti-Semitism has reared its head again in Europe, to the average person the Holocaust is still synonymous with the nadir of human depravity in the 20th century and its denial more associated with loons like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And yet, on page after page, referencing books, speeches, movies, and essays, Rosenfeld inexorably builds a thoroughly convincing case that something has shifted in both academia and in politics—that the Holocaust’s heretofore unquestioned status as the great sin of the 20th century (and by association, the Nazis’ status as the century’s greatest villains) is now far from a consensus.
In the scholarly world and in the global sphere of politics, the views of the Holocaust and the Nazis have changed as people have modified their views on World War II, genocide, and the demise of the Soviet Union.
For a variety of reasons, the last two decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in how World War II is perceived and portrayed. Once unironically depicted as “the good war” in which the Allied powers triumphed over the evil Axis powers, the war now has a far murkier reputation.
Part of that shift occurred in the scholarly world. Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World, Giles MacDonogh’s After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Max Hasting’s All Hell Let Loose, Michael Bess’s Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II, Jacques Pauwel’s The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War, Patrick Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler, and ‘The Unnecessary War,’ and Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke—these are just some of the major books, some better received than others, that have challenged the notion of the “good war.”
For some of these authors, the decision by the U.S. and Great Britain to team up with the Soviet Union posed a far greater disaster for humanity than did the Nazis. For others, like Buchanan, writing in the shadow of the Iraq War, World War II’s legacy was one of intervention and a cult of Churchill. Others sought to show how the Allies’ methods of war were similar in brutality to the Axis. And they have sought to undermine Allied moral standing by pointing out that in the U.S. there were also serious racial issues of segregation, Jim Crow, Native American reservations, Japanese internment camps, and in the USSR, the starving of kulaks by Stalin.
Whatever the reason, efforts to chip away at “the good war’s” reputation also, in Rosenfeld’s eye, had the effect of somewhat normalizing the Nazis. If the Allies were not much better, the reasoning goes, then how bad really were the Nazis?
Then there are the Germans themselves. Rosenfeld cites numerous examples in the spheres of academia, politics, and popular culture wherein Germans shed the role of ashamed citizens and now count themselves as victims of the Nazi regime and of the Soviet “liberation.”
The most fascinating part of the text is when Rosenfeld dives into how and why the Holocaust has lost the illustrious label of being unique, of being the genocide, and the very “apex of evil.”
One of the more significant shifts occurred when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Eastern European countries and their leaders, free from the yoke of Moscow, were eager to promote their narrative as double victims: of both the Nazis and the Soviets. In doing so, they not only glossed over their population’s complicity in Nazi crimes but also made what the Nazis did to the Jews less—for lack of a better word—exceptional.
One of the more significant books to also focused on the large-scale violence in Eastern Europe that affected more than just the Jews was Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. Snyder, according to Rosenfeld, subsumes the Holocaust within violence perpetrated by Nazis and Soviets of that period. For Snyder, Rosenfeld writes, “It was not the Nazis’ murder of six million Jews, but the murder of fourteen million people in the bloodlands that actually represented the ‘central event’ of ‘European history.’” Not only was Hitler being likened to another leader, but it was now questionable whether he was worse.
The Holocaust shed some of its “uniqueness” thanks to the development of genocide studies, which ironically probably owes its genesis to the Holocaust itself. Comparisons ended up being drawn, for example, between the history of the Native Americans and the Holocaust. According to Rosenfeld, the historian David Stannard has “argued that the genocide of Native Americans exceeded or matched that of the Holocaust both in the extent of the killing and the intent behind it.”
Others saw Holocaust memory as a barrier to modern day humanitarian intervention. Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the UN, wrote a 1999 essay titled, “To Suffer by Comparison.” In it Power addresses the issue of using the Holocaust to draw attention to genocides happening in the world today. “Once the Holocaust has become the frame through which we view other killings it can too easily become a ceiling beneath which all else goes,” she writes. “Once we realize today’s crimes are not exactly ‘like’ those of the Holocaust, we all too quickly soothe ourselves with the further notion that ‘the situation is not so bad after all.’”
The giant elephant in the room, of course, is the relationship between the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel. To some, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “if the State of Israel had been established in time, the Holocaust would not have taken place.” On the other end of the spectrum there is Holocaust-denier David Irving’s famous counterfactual claim: “Without Hitler, the State of Israel probably would not exist today, so to that extent he was probably the Jews’ greatest friend.” Others have directly linked the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust with Zionism, including Norman Finkelstein who, notes Rosenfeld, claimed that “unique suffering confers unique entitlement.” Regardless of whether or not one thinks it’s justified to invoke the Holocaust with regard to Israeli foreign policy, Israel’s polarizing position has weighed on the Holocaust’s legacy.
Political shifts, whether inspired by the Iraq War, post-Communist Eastern Europe, or the issue of Israel, have all changed the environment in which World War II and the singularity of the Nazis are viewed. So, too, has the enduring issue of modern genocide. What Rosenfeld makes clear is that the traditional moral frame through which World War II was viewed is in some ways gone.
Rosenfeld makes a convincing case that over more than half a century our views on the Holocaust and the Nazis have altered in the direction of complexity. What he has failed to do, however, is to convince us the image of Hitler has somehow softened because of its ubiquity in popular culture. “The inflated use of the Nazi legacy for tendentious purposes threatens to drain it of much of its historical distinctiveness and turn it into an empty signifier,” he writes. The operative word in that sentence, one might argue, is threatens.
Hitler’s ubiquity, even as a meme on the Internet, does not necessarily mean the Führer isn’t still seen as the 20th century’s biggest monster. Counterfactual “what if” historical movies may be tasteless and intellectually sophomoric—but they don’t necessarily signal cultural backsliding with regard to Hitler’s personal legacy. Nor am I convinced that just because pretty much every world leader has been called Hitler at some point means that people consider Hitler a mainstream figure. To the contrary, surely the referencing of Hitler suggests the exact opposite—that people are still using him as the epitome of evil incarnate.