Why are we still fascinated by Hitler?

Posted by Dr John Jewell

Ten years ago, Ian Kershaw, author of several books on Nazi Germany, wrote on the 70th anniversary of the Nazi leader’ s rise to power : ‘it seems as if scarcely a day goes by without Hitler and the Nazis in one way or another – in newspapers, films, books, on radio and television – entering into our public consciousness.’

Now, in 2013, I’m increasingly aware that this situation is even more pronounced.  A full decade after Kershaw’s assertion (which doesn’t even mention the internet) it seems that the peculiar British fascination with the Fuhrer and Nazi culture continues to flourish.

Late summer saw a glut of stories and I report here only a few of the many that have caught my eye.  In August the Daily Mirror told us of the discovery of ‘the must-have toy for kids in Nazi Germany’.

These Adolf Hitler play figures with an adjustable arm for seig heil salutes have now been sold at auction in Bristol. The Daily Telegraph told us about the Nazi’s sinister ‘bride schools’: documents recently discovered in Germany’s federal archive telling of a cluster of training academies set up by the Nazis to educate women, many of them teenagers, to be suitable wives.

In September, professional controversialist, Russell Brand, appeared in the newspapers for being thrown out of the GQ awards for highlighting that Hugo Boss, the event’s sponsor, had links to the Third Reich. Brand said: ‘If anyone knows a bit about history and fashion, you know it was Hugo Boss who made uniforms for the Nazis‘………But they looked f***ing fantastic, let’s face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality.’

And just this week Channel 4 has begun yet another series documenting the rise of Hitler which conveniently enough coincides with the death of the Nazi leader’s final bodyguard, Rochus Misch, reported by most newspapers and the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23989454

So why is there is so much coverage and why do we, as a nation, seem to relish stories about Hitler and Nazi Germany? The answer to the first part of the question seems pretty straightforward – there is simply so much material available upon which to draw. Unlike the regimes of Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao Tse-tung , the Nazi’s left behind troves of documentary evidence depicting the nature of their rule – filmic, photographic and written. To this day, as the above report about the ‘bride schools’ illustrates, further categorical proof of the depravity and strangeness of their time in power continues to emerge.

The defeat of Hitler and the liberation of Europe from tyranny represents a golden period in British history. In times of hardship or austerity we can look back at a time when the reputation and capability of Britain on the world’s stage was tangible and effective.  The war against Nazi Germany was simple to understand for the populace in the sense that the battle was against an identifiable evil intent on invasion and subjugation. The war needed to be fought and the country came together in a variety of shared experiences, from rationing and conscription to the threat of the Luftwaffe. Generally speaking, the war united people of all classes and Hitler, with his curious, ludicrous appearance and behaviour was clearly the anti Briton, the savage threat to our civilisation. The embodiment of iniquity.

So reading about the Hitler toys and the swastikas on Christmas trees not only highlights the degeneracy of the Nazi’s it also reinforces our sense of superiority about the strangeness of foreigners and Germans in particular. We can implicitly relive the victory of 1945 whilst marveling at how an industrial, educated democratic country such as Germany allowed itself to be so completely corrupted in 12 short years.

And Hitler is a recognisable reference point for all generations.  Other tyrants simply don’t have that recognition factor. The Second World War and the victory over Nazism as a golden period of British history is taught as a matter of course as part of GCSE and A level history. In 2006 there were concerns over school’s ‘Nazi obsessions’  and there is the view, popular amongst university admissions tutors, that there is significant over emphasis on the Nazi’s.

Niall Fergusson, history professor and television personality wrote in 2010 (Requires registration):  ‘according to 2006 exam data, 51 per cent of GCSE candidates and a staggering 80 per cent of A-level candidates study the history of the Third Reich.’ All this means that when a new article appears, a new film, or a new book there is already a collective shared knowledge of the subject matter which fits into an easily understandable narrative framework.  There is no need to provide detailed context because we have been living with Nazism and its personalities pretty much constantly for the past 70 years.

But the relationship that we have with Hitler, Nazism and fascism is multi dimensional. On the one hand we can recognise the need to combat the rise of neo fascism and the need to communicate the horrors of the holocaust. On the other, we can open the Daily Mail and laugh at a house in Swansea which looks like Hitler‘complete with naff side parting’.

The World Wide Web is awash with cats that resemble the Fuhrer  and at the moment the world is in the midst of deliberations about whether or not to militarily punish President Assad of Syria for his alleged use of chemical weapons. But if you are to claim the moral high ground and establish a foreign leader as despotic and deranged, If you want to emphasise the full horror of leader and regime, it’s best to compare said leader to Adolf Hitler. This is what US Secretary of State, John Kerry has done. On September 8th Kerry said, in times of war the only people who have used them [chemical weapons] are Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Until Bacha el Assad.’  This is a provably untrue statement, but it serves a purpose: it moves Assad into the premier league of recent history’s evil tyrants. No one is as readily identifiable as wicked as Hitler is.

Representations of the Nazis and Nazism takes many forms but principally Hitler is recognisable as the most evil man in history and as a figure of fun. We can abhor the horrific philosophy and actions and laugh at the ridiculousness of his appearance and manner. The ‘culture industries’ have successfully recycled these twin themes again and again over the years due to a surfeit of material and because there is an audience there to appreciate twin themes without conflating the issues.