A controversial web tool was brought to my attention recently. This website offers a short video which you can modify to suit your needs. The scenario features a Hitler character and some backup SS men and auxiliary staff in an office where Hitler sits at his desk and rages in German. He gestures to a map while his staff quivers in the background. On hearing some controversial information Hitler orders everyone who is not “with him” to leave the room. Some do leave and then stand on the other side of the door listening in fear and trepidation as Hitler rants on. Since the German is unintelligible to most viewers you add your own words onto this theatrical scenario as subtitles.
During the last few weeks, local activists have used this site for their own purposes. First there was a video where farmed salmon were said to be living in concentration camps for fish and Hitler was compared to the salmon farmers who have been covering up numerous diseases that run rampant in the open net pens and infect wild salmon. Then a local bicycle group created another video where Hitler was very angry about the barriers created for bicycle lanes in downtown Vancouver and he rails against the time lost driving his fancy new car.
I repeatedly received both these videos from my email lists and Facebook friends as they went viral. Statements such as “Funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time,” “You’ve got to see this,” and “Hilarious” kept popping up from people I consider thoughtful and intelligent.
For me the word content of the videos could be considered clever and funny. But the overlay of this on these images is not. As far as I am concerned Hitler and the Nazis never should have been the subject of comedy and this is still true today. So I felt the distinct need to respond and say there are too many reasons not to use Hitler as parody. Some responders justified their reactions. “There are hundreds of these videos out there.” “Hitler is gone and we are here so it is okay to use.” “We need comedy when times are tough.”
The whole exercise of receiving these videos from respected friends and associates and then hoping they would not go more viral after I tried calmly to express my point of view—which of course was impossible—left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I hadn’t really asked to be reminded of Hitler but there he was in my email inbox and Facebook Wall complete with comments. It seemed I was one of a very few people who was more disturbed than impressed although I later found out my own comments started others questioning these videos and they lauded me secretly for my “bravery” in expressing my opinion. The upshot of this whole unpleasant experience was that it got me thinking more deeply about why Hitler and Nazi caricatures still elicit such a strong response in us.
To shed some light on my reaction, first let me explain the more emotional reasons about why I found this comparison so distasteful. I happen to know a fair number of people who were direct victims of Nazi Germany through my association with the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Even though the Second World War ended over 65 years ago, many of these victims—and their offspring—still live among us. After all, they didn’t call it a world war for nothing. There are Holocaust survivors today who spend a great deal of energy educating the public—especially students—about their experiences. There are German people who have had to live with decades of guilt over what their ancestors did. There are Allied soldiers who were deeply affected by serving in the war and there are family members who lost loved ones who were soldiers and civilians. Trauma is intergenerational so it will be awhile before there are no longer people among us with a strong personal memory of this event.
I was imagining that these victims should not be subjected to quick comparisons between the perpetrators of their suffering and a sound bite of information on fish farms or bicycle lanes. But images of Hitler and Nazis are easy to caricature. It seems we are at the point in history where we are just far enough away in time that people feel they are okay as casual comedy. Of course this is not the first time Hitler and the Nazis have been used outside the realm of history. But with the Hitler Attacks website the whole world has been offered a forum to use and abuse images of history’s henchmen whenever they feel angry, frustrated, or even just clever.
Would we feel comfortable superimposing these same discussions over images of trauma as they relate to Rwandan, Sudanese, Bosnian, or Vietnamese genocides? Or—closer to home—on atrocities suffered by children in the Indian residential schools? Certainly this would not be tolerated in intelligent circles because it is too recent and raw. Never mind that the comparisons wouldn’t be so easy to characterize as the perpetrators are not as familiar. So what then makes it right then to use images of people who committed mass atrocities seven decades ago?
When seemingly intelligent people use a vehicle such as this to express their difficult feelings for struggles they have it shows a clear lack of compassion for victims and an ignorance of the knowledge that these victims are still among us. Rehashed images of Hitler and the Nazis lose their value—if they have any value at all—when there are endless repetitions. It is convenient to use these familiar images but also it shows a creative laziness. Honestly—is this the best we can do?
Web tools such as Hitler Attacks and the reaction of its viewers say a great deal about how much we have or have not reconciled our own human history. During the Second World War many Germans—a supposedly civilized and progressive group of people—created monsters who wreaked terrible havoc on the lives of millions of people. And yet today we use these scenarios as parody, post them on YouTube, and laugh hysterically. What exactly do we find so funny? What deeper and stronger themes do this topic brings up? Of course this is a large discussion but it is worth offering a taste.
When analyzing what is unsavoury here, we have to consider different orders of magnitude. Those who wage war against industrial food production—such as fish farming and the misuse and waste of fossil fuels by automobiles—are intensely passionate about these very important subjects and very frustrated that their concerns are not given the adequate attention they deserve.
But their causes are actually cheapened when they seek to compare them to the Second World War—a watershed moment in history—when there was a massive destruction of lives, land, and property. That is not to say the cause of one difficult event does not stem from the same massive dysfunctional mindset of the other. It is to say that their scale cannot be compared and to do this makes a mockery of both.
We should instead spend more clear time discussing the history of man and his treatment of the Earth he lives on and the communities of people he lives with. Dictators still rise today and we struggle to squash them—both in our own societies and others. Why is it that after we succeed in slaying these dragons—at great cost—do we continue to degrade the Earth and terrorize each other? Or carelessly use these figures as parody? This for me is the bigger question worth asking.
We cannot become too complacent and allow such images to be used carelessly. It makes inappropriate comedy of tragic recent history and we cannot afford to do that. Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Now, more than ever—as the Internet offers us endless possibilities—we should be mindful of this.
Celia Brauer does volunteer work for the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.