Jewish Author Worried About Losing Control of the “Nazi Narrative”
THE GRATEFUL DEAD, Sarah Palin, Obamacare, Game of Thrones, 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?
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