There is a striking contrast for the historian between how popular culture portrays National Socialism and how the historians present it. In popular culture, the portrayal is uniformly negative, to the point that National Socialism becomes a wholly incomprehensible phenomenon. At the same time, Nazi aesthetics and themes – whether or not these are framed within a noble struggle against Nazism – continue to enjoy widespread popular appeal. This is evident in the copious output of TV documentaries and Hollywood films dealing with World War II.
It is also evident in European and in particular francophone comics. Go into any European comic book store and Nazi iconography and themes feature in and on many of the books. Indeed, Nazism may well be the single most common topic, even among comic books not primarily dealing with history. Here is a sampling:
Dutch comic “The Kennedy Files: The Man Who Wanted to Be President,” on Joseph P. Kennedy’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, including his antiwar efforts, fascist sympathies, and criticism of the Jews.
Bruxelles 43: A look at ordinary life in German-occupied Belgium viewed through the eyes of a young girl.
Sixth volume in the “Children of the Résistance” series.
Promotional material for the Nazi superhero “der Ritter Germania,” part of the Block 109 comic series featuring an alternate timeline in which Nazis battle zombies.
Nazi furries portrayed in the Spanish noir detective series Blacksad.
Bruxelles 43 and Les Dossiers Kennedy make a serious effort to portray a sense of day-to-day normalcy and be historically accurate. The general tendency however is to have Nazis as generic go-to bad guys. As one might expect, most of these comic book artists are stronger on striking imagery than on history
This is particularly the case in the Block 109 series, which abounds in both evocative aesthetics and sadistic cartoon Nazis. Life and government in the Third Reich is imagined as a perpetual Night of the Long Knives-Kristallnacht-Auschwitz. Even military buddies are shown slaughtering each other at sociopathic random.
Paradoxically, the evils of Nazism serve as a pretext for artists to express their own sadistic tendencies. Cruel and sadistic revenge fantasies are a common theme, perhaps most famously portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s popular 2009 film Inglourious Basterds.
Even the popular culture sometimes comments humorously on the Nazi-/Judeo-centrism of much of our cultural output. Seth MacFarlane’s American Dad! had this to say on the surest way to win an Oscar:
Or consider the following scene from the excellent French spoof spy thriller OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies in which our dashing hero is interrogated by Nazis:
Agent OSS 117: “I won’t tell you anything, Moeller. The Third Reich and Nazi ideology have always left me . . . skeptical.”
Gerhard Moeller: “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Isn’t it funny that Nazis always play the bad guys? It’s 1955! Can we have a second chance already? Thank you.”
And the classic scene in the Cohen brothers’ The Big Lebowski:
The historians – while virtually all acknowledging the great scale of Nazi atrocities in Poland and the Soviet Union – are also willing to take a more holistic view of the Hitlerian experience. Each historian, from his or her particular angle and area of expertise, is willing to go beyond demonological caricature and thus actually understand why National-Socialism was appealing to so many and why the Third Reich was so powerful.
Consider American historian Claudia Koonz’ 2005 The Nazi Conscience, which emphasizes that the appeal of National-Socialism was in being morally demanding. Harvard University Press presents the book as follows:
The Nazi conscience is not an oxymoron. In fact, the perpetrators of genocide had a powerful sense of right and wrong, based on civic values that exalted the moral righteousness of the ethnic community and denounced outsiders.
Claudia Koonz’s latest work reveals how racial popularizers developed the infrastructure and rationale for genocide during the so-called normal years before World War II. Her careful reading of the voluminous Nazi writings on race traces the transformation of longtime Nazis’ vulgar anti-Semitism into a racial ideology that seemed credible to the vast majority of ordinary Germans who never joined the Nazi Party. Challenging conventional assumptions about Hitler, Koonz locates the source of his charisma not in his summons to hate, but in his appeal to the collective virtue of his people, the Volk.
This is the paradox, actually not particularly surprising in evolutionary terms, of National Socialism: simultaneously inspiring great altruistic idealism among the people and great ruthlessness towards ethnic outsiders. A recent book on foreign tourists in the Third Reich similarly emphasizes how many travellers were impressed by the idealism and activism they found, particularly among young people.
Or consider Clarkson University professor Sheila Weiss’ The Nazi Symbiosis: Human Genetics and Politics in the Third Reich, which is at pains to dispel facile stereotypes about “Nazi pseudoscience”:
Moreover, in discussing the actual science pursued by these human geneticists, the book will reinforce the efforts of other scholars who have tried to dispel a second myth common among the nonspecialist: that eugenics and racial anthropology, two essential subspecialties under the rubric of human heredity in the first half of the twentieth century, were “pseudoscientific” pursuits. Whatever one might think about them today, both were internationally respected and practiced by world-renowned human geneticists for most of the first half of the twentieth century. As the first chapter will make clear, neither eugenics nor racial anthropology was a Nazi invention. Both flourished inside and outside of Germany prior to the advent of the Third Reich. . . .
Moreover, Germany was unique, even among fascist countries, in functioning as a “racial state”—a nation where the criterion for citizenship was determined by race and heredity. National Socialist Germany approached a biocracy, that is, a government where biomedical ideals and biomedical professionals were central for the regime in both word and deed. (pp. 8-9)
A “biocracy” in which actual life scientists were “central for the regime in both word and deed”! No wonder the racialist American patriot Charles Lindbergh, who had been enthralled by Plato’s visionary Republic, also found much to admire in the Third Reich. (Lindbergh’s friend Alexis Carrel, the Nobel Prize-winning French surgeon and biologist had similar dreams of a world governed and breeding according to the discoveries of life scientists. As a Frenchman, Carrel was much more alarmed by the National-Socialists’ extreme ethnic chauvinism however.)
Indeed, there is a common pattern among historians of the Third Reich. Often, their first book will have a highly moralistic tone and will be dedicated to pointing and shaming. This is an easy exercise: simply document how some apparently respectable figure(s) in fact collaborated with the Nazis, had sympathies, or shared their ideas. More generally, a historian may simply show how said figure(s) followed a moral code deemed reprehensible by the oh-so-elevated standards of the Current Year.
Once that is out of the way, the historian will by the time of their second book have developed more compassion and will rather attempt to show these human beings’ logic and viewpoint, as well as their sincerity and achievements. In short, the historian will not only denounce the abuses and mistakes but also try to give credit where it is in fact due.
Consider Robert Proctor’s books on medical professionals in the Third Reich. The description of evocatively-titled The Nazi War on Cancer describes such an evolution:
Collaboration in the Holocaust. Murderous and torturous medical experiments. The “euthanasia” of hundreds of thousands of people with mental or physical disabilities. Widespread sterilization of “the unfit.” Nazi doctors committed these and countless other atrocities as part of Hitler’s warped quest to create a German master race. Robert Proctor recently made the explosive discovery, however, that Nazi Germany was also decades ahead of other countries in promoting health reforms that we today regard as progressive and socially responsible. Most startling, Nazi scientists were the first to definitively link lung cancer and cigarette smoking. Proctor explores the controversial and troubling questions that such findings raise: Were the Nazis more complex morally than we thought? Can good science come from an evil regime? What might this reveal about health activism in our own society? Proctor argues that we must view Hitler’s Germany more subtly than we have in the past. But he also concludes that the Nazis’ forward-looking health activism ultimately came from the same twisted root as their medical crimes: the ideal of a sanitary racial utopia reserved exclusively for pure and healthy Germans.
Author of an earlier groundbreaking work on Nazi medical horrors, Proctor began this book after discovering documents showing that the Nazis conducted the most aggressive antismoking campaign in modern history. Further research revealed that Hitler’s government passed a wide range of public health measures, including restrictions on asbestos, radiation, pesticides, and food dyes. Nazi health officials introduced strict occupational health and safety standards, and promoted such foods as whole-grain bread and soybeans. These policies went hand in hand with health propaganda that, for example, idealized the Führer’s body and his nonsmoking, vegetarian lifestyle. Proctor shows that cancer also became an important social metaphor, as the Nazis portrayed Jews and other “enemies of the Volk” as tumors that must be eliminated from the German body politic.
The French historian Johann Chapoutot also provides an example of this. Chapoutot’s works essentially paraphrase and summarize the Nazis’ vast ideological and intellectual literature. His first work – Greeks, Romans, Germans – documents how Hitler and the National-Socialists were enthralled by Greco-Roman antiquity and sought to model their aesthetics and politics on the Ancients, particularly Hellenic art, Plato, and Sparta. The tone of the book is often disparaging.
By contrast, Chapoutot’s next book on Nazi ideology as such, The Law of Blood (which I have reviewed for The Occidental Observer), is scrupulously objective and documents the innumerable ways that Germany’s lawyers, doctors, scientists, and philosophers sought to ground the theory and practice of government in biological human nature. Chapoutot is at pains to point out that the output of official ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg was sophisticated and coherent, and by no means an endless vomit of worthless gibberish. With detached objectivity, Chapoutot argues that the Third Reich’s biocentric ideology was a necessary, but by no means sufficient, precondition for the extermination of the Jews.
One can find innumerable other books in this vein: on the Nazis’ pioneering environmental and animal welfare programs, on the formidable philosophical foundations of the German critique of liberal democracy, on the Germans’ grand development plans for Northern Europe, on Hitler’s aesthetics, on Hitler’s decidedly un-demonic youth (on which see my review of Brigitte Hamann’s excellent book on the subject), and much else.
In general, I encourage the curious reader to go directly to the documents themselves, insofar as he can have access to them: browse a few issues of Signal, watch footage from the 1930s and 40s (while the videos are still online . . .), read Jeremy Noakes’ excellent series of collected documents on the National-Socialist movement and government, and, while you are at it, also look at a photo album or two of the often gruesome warfare on the Eastern Front.
Ultimately, National Socialism drew on deep-rooted longings and impulses within the human soul: aggressive masculinity and tribalism, but also a will to health, idealism, and a spirit of self-sacrifice. In fact, the Hitlerian experience suggests that these traits, whether considered positively or negatively, cannot so easily be separated.
In our popular culture and intellectual discourse, there is little serious engagement with the Darwinian biological realities underpinning National-Socialist ideology or with the failings of parliamentary democracy, which led many people in the interwar years, even mainstream figures like the godfather of the EU Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, to pine for a different system of government.
Today, we live in an era of profound incoherence and hypocrisy. On the one hand, Darwinism is celebrated as an antidote to religious ignorance. The rapidly-developing fields of evolutionary psychology and, especially, behavioral genetics are proving the importance of heredity and the reality of sex differences. But these have virtually no impact on policymaking, to the chagrin of men like the geneticist Robert Plomin or the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker (who popularized the critique of the “blank slate” model of human psychology). Instead, equal outcomes, the denial of sex differences, and race-denial are the order of the day. Given these egalitarian assumptions, the perennial failure to achieve equality leads to resentment and frustration. A scapegoat then must and is easily found: White men and Western culture are, of course, to blame.
What’s more, much like in the 1920s, our societies are suffering from increasingly severe forms of democratic entropy, mitigated by more-or-less severe and hypocritical elite authoritarianism. Social media has made our media, cultural, and ideological landscape more pluralistic. In theory, our liberal-democratic elites should be welcoming this, but in fact they are now discovering that this pluralism – predictably – makes it difficult to impose their liberal, egalitarian, anti-borders, and climate-focused agenda.
Many demoliberals are rediscovering the original Socratic critique of democracy grounded in expertise, even as they still claim to loath “authoritarian” systems of government. Their solution? To hypocritically tighten official and unofficial censorship by governments and social media. Ideological conformity within elite institutions is being tightened in general and becoming outright suffocating.
While I cannot say where our societies are ultimately going, I can say the tensions and hypocrisies will steadily grow as ethno-social inequalities and fragmentation get more severe. We like to hope that one day, there will be a breaking point after which some candor will reign, with scientific truth and the frank exercise of authority being the order of the day. There are signs.