Prophesied to last a millennium, Adolf Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich lasted only 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. Scripted to end—if it ever ended—in the melancholy grandeur of triumphal arches wreathed in ivy, its tawdry finale turned out to be a self-inflicted bullet in Der Fuhrer’s brain, as Soviet tanks rumbled into Berlin. The Third Reich’s only memorials are the death camps that scream its guilt from every stone, and the odd, unmarked grave of evil dreams: here, a buried mound of rubble (the Reich Chancellery); there, a weed-tufted field (the Nuremberg stadium, where the party rallies were held). Even Hitler’s remains were not laid to rest in the pharaonic crypt he envisioned for himself, a Holy Sepulchre for the Nazi death cult. Poetic justice ordered a more appropriate fate: Hitler’s corpse was shoveled unceremoniously into a shell hole outside the Fuhrerbunker, in a lull between bombings.
(The following is an extended dance remix of an essay that appeared in Vogues Hommes International, spring/summer 03, pps. 252-255, under the title “Fascinating Fascism 2.0.” Now that the copyright has reverted to me, I thought I’d republish it here, in expanded form, for those who missed it the first time around. Auto-plagiarism Alert: the Rick Poynor quote that appears here, taken from an interview done for this article, also resurfaces in “Deconstructing Harry,” written for this site. Chandler called this sort of thing ‘cannibalism’—which means I’m in good company, at least.)
Yet, Nazi Germany won’t stay buried. In the United States, at least, the Chaplin-mustached murderer of millions and his Thousand-Year Reich live on—in newspaper headlines, pop culture, the mass imagination. Examine that spiky EEG of American culture, The New York Times, and you’ll find dozens, sometimes hundreds, of stories in a single year alone that relate, in one way or another, to Nazi Germany. Every Sunday’s Book Review seems to include at least one book like the historian Michael Beschloss’s best-seller, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945; each day’s headlines seem to trumpet another German company’s admission that it profited from slave labor during wartime, another Holocaust denier outed, another silver-haired, lawn-mowing grandpa next door exposed as a Nazi war criminal. The satellite dish of our media unconscious is still receiving the ghostly images of a horror show that stopped transmitting a half-century ago.
Which would be appropriate, in light of the Nazis’ proto-postmodern intuition that filmed images, not firsthand experience, are what endures, in a media culture. Witness their love affair with the cinema, from Leni Riefenstahl’s creepily effective use of moving images to move the masses in Triumph of the Will to the Nazis’ obsessive documentation of their genocidal handiwork (brilliantly used as exhibits for the prosecution by Alain Resnais in Night and Fog) to Eva Braun’s fondness for home-moviemaking to Hitler’s boundless appetite for movies, usually one or two a night, mostly “light entertainment, love, and society films” (Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich) and, more revealingly, footage of the sadistically slow strangulation of the conspirators who attempted to assassinate him, which he watched “down to the last twitches of the condemned” (Joachim Fest, Hitler). “Those Nazis had a thing for movies,” quips a character in Don DeLillo’s Running Dog (1978), a novel about the black-market intrigues swirling around “the century’s ultimate piece of decadence”—a fictional movie shot in the Fuhrerbunker during Hitler’s last days. “They put everything on film. Executions, even, at his personal request. Film was essential to the Nazi era. Myth, dreams, memory.”
And film is where our myths, dreams, and memories of the Reich That Will Not Die are endlessly replayed. Strange attractors in the chaos of human history, Hitler and the Holocaust confound all efforts to make sense of them. Even so, two recent movies attest to our unending attempts to understand do just that: Max, the Dutch director Menno Meyjes’s portrait of the Fuhrer as an angry young boho and artist manque, and The Pianist, Roman Polanski’s tale of a Polish-Jewish virtuoso who survives the brutality and degradation of the Warsaw ghetto to play another day. Of course, they’re only the latest bids, in our long exit from the 20th century, to mine meaning from the hellpit of the Holocaust—or, less loftily, append a Hollywood ending to the unspeakable, as in Schindler’s List, Triumph of the Spirit, The Truce, and Life Is Beautiful.
Meanwhile, on the small screen, World War II—a reassuringly Manichean struggle between good and evil, in our age of videotaped beheadings and Abu Ghraib torture porn—is fought and re-fought on cable-TV shows such as The History Channel, waggishly dubbed the “Hitler Channel,” in recognition of its seemingly all-Nazi, all-the-time programming. The satirical webzine Bizcotti.com wasn’t far from the truth when it ran a parodic item headlined “History Channel Goes To All-Hitler Format.” According to Bizcotti, executives sporting red-and-black armbands adorned with a “Teutonic version of the History Channel’s ‘H'” announced that “in addition to the usual slew of documentaries about WW II Germany and the life, death, and machinations of Adolf Hitler,” the channel was developing “Cooking with the Fuhrer,” “Hitler’s Top 10 Funky-Fresh Videos,” and the “madcap sitcom “Keeping Up with the Himmlers.'” To quote Jack Gladney, the professor of Hitler studies in DeLillo’s novel White Noise (1985), “He’s always on. We couldn’t have television without him.”
Closer to the bottom of the cultural slagheap, the straight-to-video market thrives on Hitleriana, juiced up with “historical recreations.” The shelves of my local video store sag under the weight of titles such as Hitler’s Home Movies, a blurry, low-budget exercise in exploitation whose absence of any narration—in fact, any sound whatsoever—or even titles lends it a weirdly pornographic air. Volume 5 (!) of the series begins abruptly, in the middle of a non-narrative whose jerky, hand-held camerawork and cinema verite plotlessness would make it the envy of undergraduate auteurs everywhere: anonymous children toddle jerkily around the Fuhrer’s Bavarian hideaway, watched over by genial SS guards; women (Eva Braun among them?) frolic in swimsuits. But where’s Adolf? Like those shrouded, trussed-up models in fetish magazines, their invisibility the source of their erotic power, the Fuhrer’s absent presence haunts this chaste pornography. Grabbing a copy, I ask the woman at the register if I get a discount for being the first person to rent it in years. “Oh, you’d be surprised,” she says, with the unflappable deadpan of the career video clerk. “There’s a lot of interest in this stuff.”
Indeed there is, if eBay is an index of our obsessions. Checked recently, the “collectibles” section of the American version of the auction website was awash in Nazi memorabilia. Up for auction were Hitler Youth backpacks, a Nazi officer’s photo albums, a pair of size 42 clogs made in “the largest forced labor shoe factory in occupied Europe,” and enough “genuine” Nazi-era Hitler-head stamps to mail some deserving Holocaust denier a mountain of SS daggers and concentration-camp armbands.
But what’s it all about? Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking essay “Fascinating Fascism” (1974), a meditation on the eros-and-thanatos frisson of all those chisel-faced Aryans in their death’s-head insignias and black uniforms, isn’t much help in explaining media dream life in the early oughts. The eroticizing of the swagger stick and the jackboot was a product of the pleasure-dungeon demimonde in the days before AIDS. Our conjuration of the Third Reich has more to do with the sudden realization that the last living Holocaust survivors are dying—as are their Nazi tormentors, a development that spurred the record-breaking acceleration, in 2002, of U.S. Justice Department prosecutions of Americans suspected of Nazi war crimes.
Then, too, there is the sheer, staggering enormity of Nazi evil, a black hole in the cosmos of intellectual discourse that we are only now beginning to reckon with, through pop myth and scholarship.
“If we ask why Nazism feeds the imagination more than, say, the horrors of Stalinism, or other dictatorships, then we can recall that no other dictatorship spawned both a world war and a major genocide—in fact, the worst genocide in history,” says Professor Ian Kershaw, author of an acclaimed multi-volume biography of Hitler, in an e-mail interview. “Mussolini, Franco, even Stalin seem therefore to be more understandable products of their own societies and state systems, whereas the riddle of how such a devastating doctrine of inhumanity and regime of breathtaking brutality and destruction could arise in a modern, economically advanced, and culturally sophisticated country like Germany (with its many similarities to our own societies) prompts unceasing interest and enquiry.”
Thus, there may be less irony than meets the eye in our tendency to replay flickering Third Reich newsreels on our mental movie screens at a time when cloned sheep and pigs with human genes are science fact and bacterial computing and molecular robotics seem just around the bend. “Hitler’s contemporaries—Baldwin, Chamberlain, Herbert Hoover—seem pathetically fusty figures, with their frock coats and wing collars,” wrote the sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard in 1969. “By comparison, Hitler is completely up to date, and would be equally at home in the ’60s as in the ’20s. Certainly, Nazi society seems strangely prophetic of our own—the same maximizing of violence and sensation, the same alphabets of unreason and the fictionalizing of experience.”
The mass psychosis that swept through Germany in the ’30s nags at us because ’30s Germany was perhaps the first truly modern, mass-media society, in many ways scarily like ours; if it happened there, it could happen here, the logic goes. The Holocaust was the nightmare offspring of the Machine Age and a Wagnerian mysticism whose virulent anti-semitism may have been of its moment, but whose murderous anti-modernism is always with us, making blood brothers of Ted “Unabomber” Kaczynski, Osama bin Laden, and every other mad bomber who wants to Fight the Future.
Then, too, our hypercapitalist age—when politics has been annexed by advertising, nations hire image consultants, and war fever is fanned by P.R. firms—is especially susceptible to the mesmeric power of what might flippantly be called Nazi “branding.” In a culture seduced by surface, the brutalist Deco of Nazi architecture and design becomes one more historical style to rip, mix, and burn. “This material engages us not only because of what it represents to the popular mind—the specter of absolute evil—but because it does so with a stylish command of imagery that has never been surpassed,” says the design critic Rick Poynor, author of Obey the Giant: Life in the Image World, in an e-mail interview. “The devil has the best tunes and the Nazis have the best uniforms, insignia and banners, and a ‘logo,’ the swastika, of incomparable power. (No wonder books on corporate identity can never resist including it; next thing you know, they’ll be calling it a ‘brand.’)”
Instructive to remember, at such a moment, the original “No Logo” refusenik Karl Marx’s admonition that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce—to which one might add: and finally, as brand. “Fascism—I hate to say it, but it’s sexy,” said a magazine editor quoted in a 2000 New York Times article about the passing fad, in couture, for gladiatorial breastplates, military uniforms, and other fascist chic.
The moral weightlessness required to see fascism as sexy is a sublime obscenity, especially in a world where the ethnic cleansing, eugenic rhetoric, and apocalyptic politics of the Nazis have come back to haunt us. But that’s the danger of playing with loaded images: The boots gleam, the death’s-heads wink; we’ll try them on, we think—just for fun, only for a minute, when no one’s looking. They fit like a dream, and before we know it, we’re acting the part.