By Maartje Abbenhuis & Sara Buttsworth

While it is all too easy and comfortable to indulge in our Nazi fascination to demonise our enemies, maybe we should still the media chaos just for a moment and reflect. Who are you calling a Nazi? And why?

From the very beginning of Russia’s recent invasion of the Ukraine, our media feeds have been filled with references to the Second World War and Nazi Germany. Vladimir Putin is our era’s Adolf Hitler. Russia’s assault on Ukraine is akin to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939. Such analogies feel satisfying and seem useful. They set moral boundaries around what is happening in Ukraine and provide an accessible set of references to understand events and to whom to assign blame for the suffering.

Importantly, the Russian state has also mobilised its own version of the Nazi trope to justify its military activities. Its propaganda draws upon Soviet Russia’s heroic involvement in the Second World War, Russians’ own righteous war against fascist Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. In these depictions, the Ukraine today is ruled by a fascist government, which represses its own people. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine thus aim at freeing the country from the yoke of fascism. Nevermind the fact that President Volodomyr Zelesky is the grandson of Holocaust survivors or that his grandfather fought in the Soviet Red Army against Nazi Germany.

Demonising one’s rivals and enemies in times of war is nothing new. During the First World War, for example, Germany was typecast by its enemies and neutrals alike as a barbaric state led by the delusional war-monger Kaiser Wilhelm II. The propaganda of war is rarely restrained.

But it is important to recognise that just as Zelensky is no Nazi, Putin is not Hitler. Those watching in horror as this war unfolds are justified in despising Putin. However, typecasting the Russian President as Hitler is not only ahistorical, it also hinders us from coming to an understanding of the complexities of the current conflict. It may even harm international attempts at finding enduring solutions to bringing the war and its suffering to a close. Afterall, how can we actually deal with another Hitler? Surely, only the complete surrender and annihilation of that enemy will do? And in the context of our nuclear-armed world, the prospect of annihilating Russia is as terrifying as it is unviable.

The mobilisation of the Nazi trope is also not very original. Still, the hyperactive world of social media has created an optimal environment for it to thrive. We readily doomscroll through memes and tweets and unsubstantiated claims, whose very fragmentary nature defies nuanced and sensitive engagement. Celebrities and politicians, our relatives, neighbours, and colleagues bandy about opinions with reckless abandon. It has become all too easy for someone to accuse New Zealand’s Prime Minister of being a Nazi in light of her country’s COVID-19 policies, or Canada’s Prime Minister for that matter. Anti-vaxxers flaunt Star of David badges to assert they are being persecuted like the Jews of Europe were in the 1930s and 1940s, while alt-right influencers denounce all social democrats and liberals as Nazis. After all, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) has the word ‘socialist’ in its party name. By indulging in these Nazi comparisons, these commentators are not invoking actual history. Rather, they weave an illusion of historical veracity, mobilising what feels ‘true’ above what is accurate.

More than a decade ago, as teachers of a popular history course, ‘Nazi Germany and its Legacies’, at Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland, we were already concerned about the enormous amount of Nazi content in the public sphere. Every year, our classrooms fill with students all too eager to engage with (and sometimes voyeuristically examine) the evil that was the Nazi past. As one scholar puts it, they want to ‘feel the horror’. Few of them come to the course actually wanting to understand Adolf Hitler or the members of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party as human beings, capable of making complex decisions and acting on violent impulses, prejudices and opportunities. Many prefer to understand them as stylised comic-book villains, as cartoons clad in immaculate uniforms and shiny jack boots polished to a mirror-like sheen.

We use our course to teach these students that studying history is important because it encourages understanding of people as people and to mobilise not only critical thinking but critical questioning and empathy, even when it comes to highly exploitative, violent and soul-destroying environments, actions and situations. We ask them to consider how and why acknowledging Adolf Hitler and members of the NSDAP as human beings is difficult and suggest that it is because doing so goes against everything most of us are brought up to understand and value.

Our concerns about the prevalence of simplified narratives of the Nazi past and the Holocaust among our students and in popular culture and public life led us to co-author an edited collection entitled Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture (2010). In this book, we argue that the term ‘Nazi’ has become a free-floating signifier of moral decrepitude which is often used with as little thought as that given to the posting of photos on social media. References to the ‘evil Nazi’ and Adolf Hitler as the devil incarnate – as monsters without humanity – are not only omnipresent and readily accessible but also endlessly fascinating.

In western societies, we continuously indulge our Nazi fascination. We rarely question the veracity of the Von Trapp family’s actual story of escape from Nazi-ruled Austria in the Sound of Music, while we happily sing along to its jaunty tunes. We laugh uproariously at an over-the-top camp Hitler in the various productions of The Producers, failing to ask why we are laughing at a head of state responsible for the genocide of millions. We easily facilitate our own violent urges by invoking the ‘right to revenge’ when happily mowing down stereotyped Nazis in Wolfenstein, which remains the most popular first-person ‘shoot ‘em up’ franchise in the history of computer gaming. Meanwhile, indulgently sentimentalised Holocaust tragedies line our bookshelves and film collections, all helping to substantiate our gut reaction that Nazis were the embodiment of pure evil. In the process, we effectively ‘pajamify’ the experiences of actual Holocaust victims. Through this univeralising process, the importance of their histories is undermined.

Such ahistorical disassociations and the misuse of the complex realities of the past come with costs. They breed misunderstandings about the past and enable equally simplistic and wrong-footed explanations for the complicated realities of our present. As our book argues, in entertaining historical dementia and slippage in these ways, we run the risk of indulging outrage at the expense of building empathy, historical nuance and critical reflection. As such, if there is a lesson to be learnt from the Nazi past (and we are both wary of making any such claim), it is that the most likely consequence of moments when outrage swamps empathy is only more suffering and exploitation. So while it is all too easy and comfortable to indulge in our Nazi fascination to demonise our enemies, maybe we should still the media chaos just for a moment and reflect. Who are you calling a Nazi? And why? Who are they calling a Nazi? And why?

Maartje Abbenhuis is a Professor in History at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in European history, 1815-1918. Her new book Global War, Global Catastrophe: Neutrals, Belligerents and the Transformations of the First World War is out now.

Sara Buttsworth is a Senior Tutor in History at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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