In recent years, Adolf Hitler’s name and image have become omnipresent, deployed to make all kinds of points. President Obama’s opponents have compared him to the Fuhrer in so many ways that the juxtaposition has lost its shock value. Movies like “Inglorious Basterds” and “Iron Sky” imagine alternate histories in which Hitler pays for his crimes, or a group of Nazis escape to live on the moon. In 2005, Britain’s Prince Harry wore a swastika armband to a costume party (a move he later publicly regretted); in 2014, singer Nicki Minaj used the trappings of Nazism as window dressing for a music video.
While these flippant invocations of the Third Reich tend to meet with public outrage (or at least eye-rolling), the flood of Nazi references seems unstoppable. In a new book, “Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture” (Cambridge University Press), historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld argues that this trend should give us pause. Rosenfeld gathers hundreds of examples of Hitler “normalization” from intellectual and popular culture, from novels to movies to Internet memes.
Rosenfeld, a professor at Fairfield University, writes that in the decades right after the end of the war, Americans took a moralistic attitude in remembering the Reich. But since the turn of the 21st century, he says, we have developed new ways of referencing that history that diminish the horrific actualities of the Holocaust.
“I think the drift these days is toward cynicism, tongue-in-cheek, satire,” Rosenfeld says, “and it’s leading a lot of people to throw the baby out with the bath water, saying ‘Screw history, it’s too complicated...there may be some real substance somewhere, but I don’t want to cut through all of this stuff to get to it, so I’ll just kind of dwell on the surface.’ ” This, Rosenfeld says, can be dangerous: “We can’t be complacent about the past.”
The book’s striking title comes from Web culture, where people make memes from photos of the Fuhrer captioned with the phrase “Hi Hitler,” mocking the historically ignorant and Hitler’s pretensions at the same time. Ideas asked Rosenfeld to talk more about satire, Nazi movies, and Hitler’s weird afterlife on the Web. He spoke with Ideas by phone from his office in Fairfield, Conn., and from Puerto Rico. This interview has been edited and condensed.
IDEAS: What prompted you—a historian who studies Nazism and the Holocaust—to write a book that talks so much about contemporary culture?
ROSENFELD: In the process of doing Google searches on Hitler, I kept getting a lot of image results that were startling...bizarre. Mashups of Hitler and Kentucky Fried Chicken...websites like Cats That Look Like Hitler, or Things That Look Like Hitler, which finds Hitler faces in inanimate objects....I got into that subculture on the Internet just doing what normal people do. When you’re searching for information about Hitler and the Nazi period, you turn up a lot of stuff that’s high-quality and substantial, along with a lot of dreck.
IDEAS: These memes are such ephemeral bits of Internet culture. What’s the harm?
ROSENFELD: When young people...try to find information about history, they’re getting search results that are sort of defined by parody....You’re getting documentary photos at the same time as you’re getting these mashup images. The cover of the book is a famous documentary image [of Hitler rehearsing oratorical gestures] doing double-duty as something that’s documenting the past and satirizing the past, Disco Hitler....People will defend themselves saying, “We’re mocking Hitler, cutting him down to size,” and that’s the “Can’t you take a joke?” defense. But I think when you see the proliferation of these images on the Web...it seems like that’s the reigning discourse....When you approach history from that same ironic perspective, there’s a place for it, but for people who are growing up on the Internet it may have a dulling effect, where the whole moral issue never gets broached.
IDEAS: There was Hitler humor when Hitler was alive. How is Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 movie “The Great Dictator,” which poked fun at somebody who took himself so seriously, distinct from what’s happening now?
ROSENFELD: While Hitler was alive, until the very end of the war, people knew he was a bad character, but they had no idea of the extent and uniqueness of the crimes that his regime perpetrated....Once the news of the concentration camps sank in, there was a sense that, “Wow, maybe all these satirical ways we’re portraying him were inappropriate.”...Even Chaplin himself, in his autobiography, said that if he had known about the concentration camps and the extent of the crimes there at the time he made “The Great Dictator” he wouldn’t have made it. Now fast-forward 70-odd years, and you’re in a very different context where the Holocaust has become so well known...that there’s even talk of Holocaust fatigue in some circles. So Hitler’s fair game now.
IDEAS: Aestheticization—the invocation of Hitler’s image completely out of context—is rampant on the Internet. Why do you think this is?
ROSENFELD: I coin a phrase in the book, The Law of Ironic Hitlerization, which basically says in order to gain attention on the Internet, the easiest thing to do is to Hitlerize something, by affixing the Hitler mustache or the parted hair on the side of your head or a swastika armband on anything. And it’s seen as tasteless and gratuitous, and taboo breaking, but you’re automatically going to get thousands of people giving clicks to your site....The more we focus on the imagery, the more we’re losing sight of what he was really all about and what the Nazis were all about, and as a historian that’s what I would prefer people to fixate on.
I do think it’s a natural outgrowth of the passage of time, and the inevitable tendency to depart from very strict, moralistic representations, which ultimately for creative people are seen as restrictive.
IDEAS: You cite some Hitler memes that are explicitly hateful toward Jews. Do you think there’s anti-Semitism at the heart of this normalization?
ROSENFELD: The normalization process can just be about humor and people wanting a good laugh and copying everyone else. But I think it does matter what country you are talking about. For Germany, the land of the perpetrator, so to speak, if they’re laughing at Hitler maybe it’s a bit more worrisome than if Americans or British who helped defeat Hitler are laughing at Hitler.
IDEAS: Do you think there is anything that can, or should, be done to reverse these trends?
ROSENFELD: Of course people can intervene and protest....But in a way, any interventions are destined to be difficult, because no one, for free speech reasons, is ever going to limit what you can do with Hitler, unless you’re literally threatening somebody directly. He’s going to continue to become normalized in all kinds of ways. I guess the question is, what are the limits of normalization? There may be none, unless it’s just sheer exhaustion.
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.