The Third Reich. We defeated them in 1945, so why do the Nazis refuse to die – and why are we bringing them back from the grave? If you need proof of this, just take a look at some of the popular media of today:
The Man in the High Castle – Amazon‘s TV adaptation of a Philip K. Dick alternate history novel where the Axis won.
Wolfenstein: The New Order – first-person shooter where you blast your way through a world where the Nazis won.
Look Who’s Back – German bestseller where Hitler appears in 2011 and becomes a YouTube sensation. The film adaptation topped the box office charts in Germany when it came out in October.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg: next year will see the BBC’s adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB hit our screens; Nazi Zombies continues to be Call of Duty‘s most popular game type and there’s a whole host of jackbooted B-Movie horror villains clogging up the bargain bin in Nazisploitation flicks such as Dead Snow, Iron Sky, Frankenstein’s Army and… Kung Fury.
Why does this film exist?
What makes Nazis such popular villains? Well, it could be argued that World War II was the last “great” war between two large forces. Since then we’ve had the Cold War – which never went hot due to the threat of global nuclear annihilation – and a string of conflicts in the Middle East that we either never truly won or are still stuck in today. War just isn’t that simple any more.
Apart from 13 year old kids who think “Hitler was right” is an edgy unique joke, most of the world can agree that the Nazi regime were pretty much evil bastards, which makes them perfect as video game bullet-sponges or horror movie monster victims; players feel largely guiltless mowing down hordes of them, and using them in place of a modern enemy avoids allegations of racism or insensitivity towards world events.
This is especially true now that most of the generation who were involved in World War II are no longer with us; those days seem further away now, the horrors and memories less immediate, the crimes of the Reich less real to the world at large. Hitler and the Nazis have passed from history into myth, and we only remember them as larger-than-life caricatures. That’s why it’s so easy now to imagine them as Wolfenstein-style cyborgs, zombies, or kung fu masters.
Yet the abundance of Nazi villains isn’t always about black and white morality or avoiding diplomatic incidents. The best works of the genre act as a mirror to society. Look Who’s Back isn’t just a slice-of-life comedy about Hitler, it’s a satire on the xenophobia hiding just under the surface of modern Germany.
When Man in the High Castle shows us a world where the Axis won, it shows how propaganda and coercion can make Americans into model Nazis. By dressing the familiar with swastikas and Hitler portraits it helps the audience make the connection between that world and our own.
“Drag on the state”…sound familiar?
The Nazi victory scenario plays on our anxieties about the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia in the form of organisations like Britain First, Pegida, or the KKK. It strikes a chord in a world where a growing number of people think all Muslims are evil, or that refugees should be sent back to the country where they’re being massacred.
Instead of asking “What if Hitler won?” these works are really asking “What if hatred never lost?”; what if, despite the blood spilled in the war, the public trials of war criminals and the repeated mantra of “never again”, the spectre of Nazism is growing anew within our politicians, our friends, and within our own minds?