CW: Nazism, fascism
Let me start with a slightly embarrassing story about myself. A few years ago, I headed back to the rinky-dink northern town I was raised in for the Christmas holidays. I was searching through my old toys, school work and books when I came across a children’s illustrated book on World War Two. I remembered flicking through this book endlessly as a child. The painted images of the storming of the Normandy beaches, the Spitfires’ dogfights over the channel, and the hopeless, terrifying prisoners in blue and black stripes behind barbed wire fences all climbed from my subconscious in recognition.
What I hadn’t remembered is how many swastikas I had drawn all over the pages in crayon. I shuddered that I had so mindlessly repeated this image over and over. The thought of a child using their inherent passion for creative expression to create this symbol of hate frightened me. The fact that that child was me ashamed me.
Now, I should point out that I am not, nor have I ever been a Nazi. I’m happily on the punch side of the punching a Nazi conundrum. In this book – whose mere existence alone become increasingly baffling the more I thought about it – I had also drawn the Union Flag, Old Glory and attempted the hammer and sickle (although I had apparently struggled with this one), and I’m almost certain I was trying to recreate the animated section of the intro to Dad’s Army rather than promote an ethno-state. What I did realise though, is that I might have been obsessed with Nazis, perhaps even more so than our society appears to be.
As a society, we are clearly obsessed with Nazis.
As a society, we are clearly obsessed with Nazis. No one political group appears more in our fiction and arts than the Nazi. They’re in our cinema and literature; either as the historic fascist movement the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or as some thinly veiled allegory. They’ve infiltrated our philosophy through Godwin’s Law, becoming both the nadir of societal morality and the zero sum equation of online debate, and apparently they now monitor the way in which we use grammar. Stalinist Russia was equally if not more horrific than the Nazi Germany, there are modern tyrants that challenge the Third Reich’s shitty throne but none have had the same cultural impact as the Nazi. Sure Communists popped up for a while in American cinema as the go-to bad guys, and generic middle-eastern terrorists are occupying that spot at the moment, but the ubiquity of the Nazi in fiction still dominates.
Outside of the literal or allegorical representations, fictional Nazis break down into two categories. The first is the”Nazis”- pronounced naht-sees – and the second is what I refer to as the “Nazies” – pronounced nah-zees or if you’re northern, as I am, nah-zehs – which is much funnier.
The “Nazi”, is essentially identical to their real world counterparts. Often these characters are despicably evil as their actions are deliberate and considered choices. Usually, their goals are defined by their own character rather than their opposing heroes. They have a purposeful agency for evil. These are the type of characters that appear in Marathon Man, The Apt Pupil and American History X.
They are an artistic shorthand inspired by the real world imagery and motif of Nazis to express the concept of a “baddie”.
The “Nazies”, however, are your faceless, uniformed, two dimensional, disposable and useful punch bags. The Rocketeer, Indiana Jones and Captain America all fight “Nazies”. They represent simple good-versus-evil dichotomy. “Nazies” don’t really need to believe they are right, like most villains in fiction, they aren’t so uniquely defined. They only have to believe in the opposite of whatever the protagonist believes. They are an artistic shorthand inspired by the real world imagery and motif of Nazis to express the concept of a “baddie”.
Not all representations of “Nazis” or “Nazies” feature the same qualities (except for one that I’ll get to). Identifying Nazi in fiction doesn’t require historical, political, and economic nuances. Rather, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter “I know it when I see it”. The debate about whether real life far-right groups should be called Nazis or not feels hollow for just this reason. Nazis are so prevalent in our fiction, we’re subconsciously trained to spot them and know that they’re bad.
Now I guess that doesn’t apply to real life Nazis (or whatever name they want to call themselves) as presumably they see the “Nazi” or “Nazie” and don’t identify those characters as bad. Because they’re Nazis themselves, they identify with moral reasoning of the “Nazi”. Or, like the “Nazie”, see them as without independent agency; the victims of everyone they meet wanting to beat them silly. The variation of Nazis in fiction allows them to ignore what they see on the screen. Real life is more complex – no one is an unfathomable villain, no-one is a drone with zero intentionality.
Art imitates life, and life imitates art. In both, the Nazis lose.
But what they ignore in doing so is the universal constant of Nazis in fiction: they lose. They always lose. Even in the stories where they win, eventually they lose. Art imitates life, and life imitates art. In both, the Nazis lose. That is the Nazis one defining characteristic. If you fix your colours to the mast of the losing side, then you have a perpetual and purposely fabricated reason to claim to be marginalized and attacked. It’s the self-fulfilling prophecy of loss.
It may be a cliché, but good does always prevail – that’s why it’s so clichéd, because it’s ALWAYS the final result. Perhaps that’s why Nazism became so omnipresent in fiction and moral arguments. Nazis can lie to themselves as much as they want and build conspiracies to defend their real life losses and the endless depiction of their literary ones, but deep down there was never a more multifaceted but certain evil as Nazism. As a society, we want to see evil repelled, trampled and defeated and we best express that through the stories and the art we create. And there is no better example of an evil we can, have and will repel, trample and defeat than the Nazi.
Featured image © New York World-Telegram & Sun [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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