Popular Culture on Nazi Germany
by Robert S. Wistrich
Saul Friedlander. Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 141 pages.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld. Imagining Hitler. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. 121 pages.
Forty years after its collapse, the Third Reich still remains not only a major point of reference for contemporary history but also, to quote Saul Friedlander, "an unassimilated and unassimilable and yet changing reality." The nature of this changing reality and its aesthetic re-elaboration in contemporary films, novels, and other artifacts of high and low culture, is the theme of these two recent studies, which overlap and complement each other in their analyses and conclusions to a remarkable degree. The division of labor, in this particular case, is at first sight somewhat surprising. Friedlander, a well-known historian of Nazism, has chosen to cast aside conventional historical analysis and look at current reflections of the Hitler period in the works of such disparate artists and intellectuals as Syberberg, Fassbinder, Visconti, Joachim Fest, George Steiner, and Michel Tournier. Alvin Rosenfeld, a literary critic, on the other hand, has donned the mantle of the historian concerned with truth and the facts of the case to denounce the irresponsible fictionalizing of the Holocaust. Taken together, both works, though investigating different cross-sections of contemporary culture, constitute a sharp indictment of current tendencies to aestheticise Nazism and by implication to neutralize its criminal character. Of the two essays, Rosenfeld's critique is the more forceful, direct, and uncompromising in its polemical drive. He confronts head-on the myth- making machine of the entertainment industry and its rehabilitation (whether wittingly or unwittingly) of Hitler, arguing that what was regarded a generation ago as "a historical and moral scandal of unprecedented proportions is today a source of light-hearted amusement, popular distraction, pornographic indulgence and antisernitic slander."
If Rosenfeld's main focus is the reappearance of Hitler in our midst as a kind of folk- and culture hero, Friedlander. is more concerned with what he calls the "new discourse" developed by a number of leading film-makers and writers in trying to penetrate to the core of Nazism. The two phenomena are clearly linked, but analysis of high culture as against the vagaries of the popular imagination, must necessarily proceed on different levels. Moreover, Friedlander, unlike Rosenfeld, does not begin from the assumption that fiction writers or film-makers have no right to take liberties with history, nor does he regard all contemporary "reflections" of Nazism as irresponsible distortions of fact that must be unequivocally condemned. His approach is more subtle, tolerant, and at the same time, more obscure. Thus it is not always clear whether he regards the "new discourse" as a serious and in some ways laudable attempt to increase our understanding of Nazism, or rather as a new and dangerous yielding to the components of magic and myth on which it originally thrived. Friedlander, appears at times to suggest that the work of contemporary West German film-makers like Fassbinder and especially Hans- Jurgen Syberberg has profoundly enhanced our grasp of the hold that Nazism exercised over millions, a phenomenon the explanation of which lies less in the realm of explicit ideology than "in the power of emotions, images and phantasms"; at other times he draws back from this possibility and suggests that the "new discourse" may have overstepped the bounds of moral decency. However, Friedlander's sense of malaise and unease often strikes this reviewer as too low-key and understated. For example, in a long footnote he quotes from an interview with Syberberg in the summer of 1980, when the film-maker asserted:
To make money with Hitler is not Nazism, but it is something similar. Hitler always said, "they [the Jews] make money of everything." People now make money out of the ashes of Auschwitz. How Goebbels would laugh! Of course, why not make money out of Auschwitz? Even a lot of Jews in Israel say, "Why not? We are living in a free-enterprise system. We make money with everything. Why not with Auschwitz? But what an idea! I can't. May be I am too German.
Friedlander. declares himself puzzled by this pap, though he does note in passing that in Hitler, a Film from Germany, Syberberg shifts our attention from the horror and the pain of the Holocaust "to voluptuous anguish and ravishing images, images one would like to see going on forever." With all due respect to the cinematic talents of the West German director, it seems to me that here, as in a number of other passages, Friedlander. is rather too reticent in his criticism.
Imagining Hitler, which admittedly deals with a far inferior order of art," is much more explicit and uninhibited in its exposure of the whitewashing of Nazism. It is particularly devastating in its denunciation of the pornokitsch that has developed around the figure of the Fiihrer and the obsession with Hitler's sexual inclinations that has preoccupied even respected historians like Werner Maser and Robert G. Waite. Friedlander. too, touches on this theme in the more rarefied context of such powerful films as Lacombe Lucien and Night Porter, which on the level of high culture provide some kind of counterpoint to the uses of Nazism as an inspiration for mass pornography. Rosenfeld's approach strikes me as more effective, however, in its exposure of the ways in which the political context of Nazi racism and the Holocaust has been gradually blurred, trivialized, and debased, dissolving by the late 1970s into a kind of sado-masochistic charade.
Both authors convincingly show, in their respective ways, the clear trend toward normalizing and exorcising the past which characterizes the attitude of contemporary Western culture toward the horror of the Holocaust. Friedlander, in his analysis of some of Fassbinder's films (especially Lili Marleen) illustrates, for example, the inversion of images that places Jews on the same level as Nazis and identifies them with the forces of capitalism and hence as the incarnation of evil. Reflections of Nazism documents the "more and more frequent display of a Hitler who is Everyman himself wrapped in kitsch . . . , " an image of ordinariness also encouraged by the historical writings of Albert Speer and David Irving. Rosenfeld sees this "normalization" in more sinister terms not only as an attempt to evade the monstrous dimensions of the Third Reich but as a concerted effort to invert its significance and turn its crimes against the Jews. No wonder, he therefore writes, that the so-called "revisionists" (who deny that Hitler's gas chambers ever existed) now feel that the time is ripe freely to propagate "the most poisonous lies about Hitler's crimes against the Jews."
The difference between the two books is more evident in their respective treatments of George Steiner's novel (subsequently transferred to the stage, where it provoked a scandal) entitled The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. In this parodistic fantasy George Steiner went further than any of his predecessors in the "inversion of signs"-with Hitler emerging as a disciple of the Jews and Nazism as an imitation of Judaic Old Testament theories of the "chosen people." Friedlander's discussion of this pernicious if provocative work of fiction is somewhat brief, cautious, and in my view unnecessarily respectful. True, there is a gentle reminder that a text has its inevitable echoes and its own logic, whatever the author's intentions. Moreover, we are warned that the Steinerian eloquence of the fictional Hitler "may reach deeply into those murky labyrinths of present-day fantasies about Nazism or the Jews," where it will presumably feed on existing prejudices. But this is a somewhat pallid objection in the social and cultural context in which Steiner's fantasy aroused such an echo-a context convincingly established by Alvin Rosenfeld. For The Portage to San Cristobal of A. H. did not emerge in a historical vacuum-and here it is ironic that the literary critic rather than the historian should have to point out this obvious fact. It belongs among other things to a climate of opinion that surrounded the Lebanon war with "a screen of metaphors appropriated from the Third Reich," which was only too eager to equate Nazism with Zionism, to "judaize" Hitler and to dejudaize the Holocaust, and which encouraged such blatant frauds as the so-called "Hitler Diaries." Steiner's work could only have achieved the resonance it did in a situation where the fictive and the fantastical. had begun to overwhelm the historical in the treatment of Hitler and the Holocaust. A stage-Hitler who exonerates Nazism by establishing its "Judaic" credentials and who tries to justify his crimes by blaming his Jewish victims would not have been acceptable without a long process of culturally conditioned amnesia. Nor could he have claimed to be the inspiration of the State of Israel (with so little fear of contradiction) without the sustained offensive to blacken and defame Zionism that has built up since 1967. Rosenfeld observes the similarity here between some of the fictional Hitler's utterances and the work of the neo-Nazi apologist Hennecke Kardel, author of Adolf Hitler-Begrunder Israels (1974), where the allegedly "halfJewish" Fiihrer is depicted as the architect of the modem Jewish State, along with his "Jewish-Zionist" henchmen Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Hans Frank, and Alfred Rosenberg. It is this nexus that allows him to claim that the appeal of Steiner's Hitler is that of "cleverly formulated Nazi apologetics in combination with stridently anti- semitic invective. . . "-a conclusion that seems to me eminently justified. That one should hear "the ghost of Hitler cackle triumphantly" (at the expense of the Jews) in the work of a cosmopolitan Jewish polymath and self-styled humanist is indeed sad testimony to the times we live in.
Where Friedlander. above all sees ambiguity and malaise in the "new discourse," Rosenfeld observes ". . . a yielding to those peculiar fantasies of criminality and corruption originally generated by Nazism and incarnated in the figure of Adolf Hitler." But both authors seem to agree that current images of Nazism across different levels of culture do reveal a willed forgetfulness and a "mythologizing memory" at work, which has little resemblance to historical fact. Friedlander. more inclined to respect the autonomy of art, finds a partial justification for this mythologizing in the rediscovery of the psychological dimension in Nazism by contemporary film-makers and writers. Rosenfeld, on the other hand, stresses the anti-Jewish implications of the new myth-makers. The emergence of a sanitized image of Hitler, humanized and personalized, in which there are "no references to the ghettos and extermination camps and hardly even a hint of the anti-Jewish persecutions that preceded them" is one aspect of the dangers inherent in the new popular fiction. Perhaps even more sinister than the domestication of Hitler is the negative image of the Jew as assassin, avenger, and vicious predator in this same literature. The inversion of hunter and hunted, with implacable Jews pursuing wanted Nazis or the emergence of a Nazi/Jewish doppelganger (Nazi and Jew as interchangeable types), is carefully documented. The Israeli Jew in particular, according to Rosenfeld, is increasingly portrayed as having adopted the mentality and violent behavior of his erstwhile persecutors.
Not everyone will agree with Rosenfeld's analysis of Ira Levin's The Boys from Brazil, or his demolition of William Styron's Sophie's Choice from this perspective. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dispute his point that in the figure of Nathan Landau, Styron has presented a demonic, carnal Jew of homicidal tendencies who victimizes a Polish Catholic survivor of the Holocaust. Again, the reversal of stereotypes, while not illegitimate in itself, is disturbing in its implications, especially when it becomes an outright distortion of historical events. Rosenfeld pursued this theme in an article in Midstream several years ago, and he makes a strong case, though by no means a foolproof one, concerning the moral obligations of writers dealing with the Holocaust. Rosenfeld's onslaught on D. M. Thomas's highly praised novel The White Hotel for its "pornography of violence" and plagiarism, also appeared in an earlier version in the SWC Annual, and no doubt many critics will take issue with it. What I think is indisputable is the evidence he has assembled to demonstrate that at the level of both sophisticated fiction and smut literature a revision has occurred in which the horrors of Nazism have been transmuted and privatized into morbid games of sex and power, into a kind of erotic dance of death.
Along with this trend, we have witnessed in recent years the growing relativization of the Holocaust as a historical event (Hiroshima, Dresden, Vietnam, Cambodia and latterly Beirut are only a few examples of parallels frequently drawn) or else its open transposition and manipulation against the Jews. The depiction of Israel's war against the PLO in terms of the Nazi Final Solution is the most obvious instance of this lattter type of exorcism. One way or the other, the ghost of the Nazi Fiihrer continues to haunt the battlefields of the Middle East, and Rosenfeld is surely right to evoke this recent background in his discussion of stereotypes in popular culture. Yet one feels that the format of his book (a series of short essays, in the main already published elsewhere in slightly different versions) is inadequate to the seriousness of the theme. Much the same could be said of Friedlander's work, which remains largely impressionistic and fragmentary in its conclusions. Yet within the limits of the genre, both these texts have made an important contribution to elucidating current trends in the portrayal of Nazism at the level of mass culture. The picture that emerges is not very encouraging. Hitler and Nazism remain objects of fascination for all kinds of unhealthy reasons. In popular fiction the Fiihrer is increasingly de-nazified and humanized, sometimes even emerging as a "regular guy," normal, amiable, and even engaging. As historical memory dissolves, Nazism becomes steadily detached from the experience of the war years and of mass murder. For commercial and even political reasons the new fictioneers find, moreover, a ready-made market for their mythologizing. Along with the creeping rehabilitation of Hitler within Western mass culture, a concurrent re-imagining of the Jew has also taken place. This new image, by and large unflattering, can equally be regarded as a "reflection of Nazism," though its roots are much deeper and have their origin at the very heart of Christendom. Thus the contemporary ramifications of "imagining Hitler" are a forceful reminder of the plasticity and also the fateful influence of a past that has yet to be overcome.
Simon Wiesenthal Center-Museum of Tolerance Library & Archives
For more information contact us at (310) 772-7605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
We are located at 1399 S. Roxbury Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90035, 3rd Floor