Even the most perfect system breaks down. Tomáš Sedláček

Hitler’s long shadow

We should learn to deal differently with our Nazi past, for the perpetrators of the time were human beings like you and me. That does not mean, however, that we can’t continue arguing about the Führer.

Hitler sells. Whether on a magazine cover, in a movie plot or as a subject of satire: Seventy years after his demise, the “Führer” still manages to send shivers down the spines of audiences worldwide. The black-and-white footage flickering across movie and TV screens shows the Germany of our grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ time – a country so distant that we are no longer able to imagine it, but that we nevertheless long to comprehend.

Luckily, the Third Reich is long gone. And yet its relics continue to loom large. For months, there has been a public debate over whether an annotated version of Hitler’s racist and ranting autobiography, Mein Kampf, should again be published in Germany, where it is currently stuck in legal limbo. There is a deeply rooted fear that yet another demon may rise, that those words that caused calamity during Hitler’s reign may again bring harm to the world.

Can we portray Hitler in a playful way?

We Germans are all but done with Hitler – and I don’t mean that in a purely academic or historical manner. When the German comic satirist Walter Moers released his comic “Adolf, die Nazi-Sau” which translates roughly as “Adolf, the Nazi Pig”, the public was baffled. People feared that the way the comic portrayed Hitler was playing down the danger that the dictator still poses. Andreas Mühe’s photo series “Obersalzberg”, which depicts men in Nazi uniforms urinating in the iconic surroundings of Hitler’s favorite vacation retreat, also sparked a debate about how we should approach the Nazi legacy. Is it all right to do so in a playful way?

The question is a valid one. If you want to satirize something, you first have to come to grips with it. This is becoming increasingly tricky, since today’s younger generations can no longer relate to their country’s Nazi past and the Holocaust. The eyewitnesses of Germany’s darkest period are slowly passing away, and with them, the memory of this great catastrophe is gradually fading. History books are becoming the only source of information available to today’s youth – not a particularly appealing one.

If direct or personal memory fades, then Adolf Hitler is reduced to the figure with ridiculous gesturing and the nasal voice that almost begs for imitation. Adolf Hitler and Charlie Chaplin – wherein lies the difference? Who’s mocking whom?

Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, our culture of remembrance faces an enormous challenge. When Timur Vermes’ book Look Who’s Back – a fictional account about Hitler waking up in contemporary Berlin and trying to propagate his ideas in the digital age – hit the shelves in Germany, it was sold at a cover price of €19.33. Is that an allusion all buyers still understand? It is legitimate to ask whether the year 1933, the year in which the Nazis took power, can still serve as more than a mere marketing gag.

They were ordinary human beings

Today, Hitler both deters and amuses. De-demonizing the specters of the past would do our relation to our Nazi past some good: After all, the perpetrators that performed those horrible deeds were no demons; rather, they were human beings like you and me – ordinary people from next door, not messengers from hell.

Back then, people considered Adolf Hitler a political messiah. Their descendants tried to relativize this in two directions: Hitler as demon or Hitler as the man who brought Germany the Autobahn and eliminated unemployment – a man with a somewhat laudable track record.

What does Hitler mean to us today? We are still a long way from agreeing about him.

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