Literally the Worst: On Talking Less about Hitler

For decades Adolf Hitler and his Nazis have been considered fodder for comedy baddies, lazy political comparison and Oscar-bait tearjerkers. It’s time to introduce nuance and sensitivity into the way we discuss those who committed racial atrocities

Feature by Rae Bennett | 05 Feb 2018
  • Hitler

Humanity has seen its fair share of disaster over the last few years. The earth’s slowly burning to a crisp, or exploding into bomb cyclones, depending on where you live. Britain’s going into self-destruct. Whale babies are dying from plastic poisoning. David Bowie is still dead. But as if these fresh new horrors weren’t enough, history has once again started to rear its ugly head, to the tune of an ominous goose-step.

In August last year, when the Free World’s new overlord stood at his podium and referred to people on the neo-Nazi side of the Charlottesville incident as “fine people,” the faint stink of fascism began to waft through the air. Many people on social media began to wonder if the Commander-in-Chief might be halfway to growing a toothbrush moustache. Lists of parallels between Trump and Hitler began to circulate on the internet, only for the president to turn around and compare the actions of US intelligence agencies to life in Nazi Germany himself.

At around the same time that Americans were busy crying ‘Hitler’ at each other, comparisons to 1940s Germany plagued the UK’s own Brexit saga. Take, for example Boris Johnson’s inflammatory comments comparing attempts to unify Europe under a single government to the aims of of Hitler, just by “different methods.” Eight decades on from the Second World War, and we just can’t seem to stop drawing up disproportionate comparisons.

Crying ‘Nazi’ and Godwin’s Law

This compulsive Nazi name-calling isn’t a new phenomenon. Recent events may have brought Third Reich terminology back to the fore, but for decades, Hitler and the Nazis have been a catch-all comparison for anything that is ‘literally the worst’. It’s the go-to ‘bad thing’ for people who want to discredit other ‘bad things’.

You may have heard of Godwin’s Law, which states that in every internet debate, “sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds.” Essentially, a calm discussion in the comments of a video about how to make vegan waffles will eventually end in some internet troll keyboard-yelling that ‘HITLER WAS A VEGETARIAN TOO’, at which point, according to Mike Godwin, the debate is no longer worth having. (For the record, the creator of the law suspended his own rule when it came to the Charlottesville white supremacists, declaring "by all means, compare these shitheads to Nazis.") But the comparison gets bandied around for more trivial stuff than politics; the word ‘Nazi’ also tends to be synonymous with ‘person who is pernickety about things’: Grammar Nazi, cleanliness Nazi, Feminazi (as a Jewish feminist, I particularly hate that last one).

Hitler in Popular Culture

The world’s apparent obsession with Hitler doesn’t just appear in debate and political rhetoric, but all over popular culture as well. He’s provided an endless fount of inspiration for writers who need cartoon villains for their stories. You’ll find him in every medium under the sun: TV, movies, music, games, literature. Ultra-violent thrill fest Preacher, originally a comic book, depicted a tricksy Hitler scheming his way out of Hell. The recent revival of sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf included a reformed Hitler with all his evil genes removed having a guitar jam with Craig Charles. He’s popped up in Misfits, Call of Duty, Doctor Who, a Kate Bush song, internet memes galore, and thousands of hypothetical questions about time travel.

Many of these works are brilliant, and it's undoubtedly vital to make art about traumatic events, even just to serve as a reminder. But it’s easy to slip from thought-provoking exploration to something far less meaningful. I’ll always chuckle at that legendary Extras episode when Kate Winslet notes that anyone who makes a Holocaust film has “Oscars coming out of their arses”, but the truth behind that joke stings. After all, in an ironic plot twist three years later Kate Winslet did win her first Oscar for The Reader, a film with the central question: ‘do Nazis have feelings too?’

Nazi Germany has, in some profound and frightening ways, become a sort of commodified brand of ultimate sadness and badness. Take Simon Amstell’s recent mockumentary Carnage, which made the case for veganism by including a scene in which visitors were given a tour around an eerily Auschwitz-like abattoir. Regardless of your meat-based morality, the parallel drawn here leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Many viewers and critics interpreted the scene similarly, perhaps due to pervasive comparisons between race-based atrocities and 'speciesism' in more militant vegan discourse. If we’re comfortable with using a concentration camp as a generic symbol for an ‘all-round bad place’, it surely isn’t long before we begin comparing systematic genocide to farming; humans to cows.

Diluting a tragedy

The fact is, the more Hitler pops up on our TV screens and in our books and music, the more he starts to become a crafted image; simply a character or the token bad guy. But as much as we all wish he was fictional, the truth is that the ongoing effect that Hitler and the Nazis had on our world remains devastating and all-consuming.

Whether or not they were directly affected by the Holocaust, all the Jews on Earth (and many other groups besides) live under the shadow of its legacy. This is not the kind of trauma that dies with a generation; it weaves itself into our culture and our history in unexpected and inescapable ways. It doesn’t feel great to be bombarded with spluttering, fake-mustachioed, comedy depictions of the man responsible for the deaths of your family members every time you switch on your telly – especially now, with a fresh rise of white supremacism in the West, and the fact that anti-Semitism continues to loom over Jewish communities.

So, what’s the answer here? Must we ditch the Nazi chat from political debate and discussion? Is it time to stop trotting Hitler out for our entertainment, and spending money on watching his reign of terror play out again and again? And what is the effect when he appears in light-hearted sitcoms with a comedy German accent? Does it serve to mock and deride him, or does it diminish the real, tangible impact his actions had?

Perhaps it’s useful, through our politics and our popular culture, to keep people like Hitler visible, so that their devastation and trauma is never forgotten. But whether it’s appropriate and necessary to mention or portray him comes down to sensitivity, common sense, and nuance – the latter of which has often absented itself from popular discourse in recent years.

Too often, in the name of money-making or discrediting a political opponent, snap decisions are made without much thought about their impact. We’re living in terrifying times, and now more than ever is the moment to learn what we can from history. We must keep talking, keep writing, keep analysing and interpreting. Keep creating art that doesn’t let humanity forget what happened. Just remember that what we’re dealing with is history. Not a story, not a fable, not a metaphor or a symbol or a tool. Respect for the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants must always come first.