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Illustration by JR Fleming

How Hitler Conquered History

He’s our go-to historical analogy. Has something been lost as a result?

Alec Opperman
Aug 29, 2019 · 8 min read

By Alec Opperman and Jeanette Moreland

That Adolf Hitler is a focal point for political rhetoric is taken for granted in the United States. There’s an internet law about it, and drawing stubby mustaches on pictures of the president has been an American pastime since at least George W. Bush. Whether any of these comparisons are apt or misguided is beside the point. Hitler is a favorite talking point for pundits of all political persuasions, and the question we’re here to ask is: why?

Hitler’s image, or rather, the hatred of that image, has become more than just a guiding force in politics. Vice even called Hitler “The Biggest Pop Star of Them All.”

The easy answer would be, “because he killed a bunch of people, stupid.”

But the larger question is: does political discourse naturally congeal around one monolithic figure of evil? And is this one-stop shop for describing political evil stunting our understanding of the world?

How Hitler Conquered America

During World War II, in conjunction with the Office of War Information, Hollywood made scores of patriotic pro-war movies and television programs to help the war effort.

After the war, the media churned out a few Hitler-related films and television shows, but the real floodgates of Hitler content opened in the 1980s.

On television, historian Ian Kershaw locates the release of the 1979 docu-drama titled simply “Holocaust” as the moment that signaled a flood of Holocaust content. Often these films served a dual role. On one end, they brought awareness to the public about historical tragedies. And on the other, they brought in money.

And then A&E happened. As Mark Schone wrote in Salon in 1997:

“Ever since D-Day, Nazis have been a shortcut to box office — and now cable TV — success. Years ago, The Discovery Channel and A&E discovered they could juice up their ratings with heavy doses of Hitler. By the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in 1991, the two networks combined aired at least six hours of military programming in prime time weekly — so much so that TV Guide, in 1992, derided the cable twins as collectively forming ‘The Hitler Channel.’”

But, sensing that their audience had führer fatigue, the networks eventually retired him. A&E, however, didn’t give up, and spun off the History Channel in 1995. Schone notes that the young network aired “as many as 40 hours of World War II programming weekly, and sometimes as many as 12 hours in a single day.” The decision was largely cynical. War content attracted a good demographic for advertisers: affluent, white males from ages 24–54.

This strategy eventually ran its course, and Hitler content was pushed to the periphery of History’s schedule, as the network found success in other shows. But even if production of films and television related to Hitler, the Holocaust, or World War II has waned, they still constitute a major cultural pillar for Americans.

Still, Hitler’s rise to historical omnipotence can’t be traced exclusively to Hollywood’s Holocaust-industrial complex. There are less contrived forces at work: specifically, the way we as a culture deal with and talk about history. And to better understand this, we have to ask: before there was “Hitler,” how did people describe Hitler?

Who was Hitler Before Hitler?

It turns out, the job of putting Hitler into historical context was initially a bit messy. It’s not like

a bunch of newsrooms got together and decided that he was the new Genghis Khan.

Instead, the opposite happened: the public struggled to come up with an apt historical analogy for the German Chancellor. If today we can just dismiss someone as “Hitler 2.0,” in 1933 it wasn’t quite as simple. Before Hitler became the catch-all term for “evil dictator,” people had to shop around and consider all of history’s tyrants and criminals.

Historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld details the litany of analogies used as writers struggled to describe Nazism. When the Reichstag was set on fire in 1933, the New York Times compared Hitler to Nero, who set fire to Rome.After Hitler seized power, people began comparing him to other political figures, like Napoleon, sometimes favorably.

For Rosenfeld, the most common analogy was the French Revolution and Robespierre — with the political purging and all. When Hitler tried to “assert control over Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches,” he was compared to Henry VIII, who made the Church of England withdraw from papal control so he could get a divorce. After war broke out, analogies shifted to historical conquerors: Philip of Macedon, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and more of Napoleon.

These analogies are diverse and draw from many different historical contexts. They helped people make sense of the world and decide how to react to it. But the usefulness of these analogies is up for debate. Depending on who you ask, comparing someone to Julius Caesar or Adolf Hitler is either a necessary way for humans to parse complicated information and make sense of the world, or a useless exercise in drawing cherry-picked similarities to spin a compelling narrative. In the case of Hitler, trying to understand his spin on dictatorship by comparing him to his historical predecessors may have always been an exercise in futility.

As Hannah Arendt argued, 20th-century totalitarianism stands apart from the horrific crimes of the past by their sheer novelty: the complete liquidation of the modern state and freedom in favor of unflinching loyalty to the party, married with a penchant for mass murder and imperialism. Say what you will of Robespierre or Philip of Macedon; they were no Adolf Hitlers. They had no death camps, nor Panzers, nor radio, nor film.

Because these analogies seemed like a poor fit for the specifics of the Third Reich, writers fled to the realm of theology, to the devil himself. “In the process,” Rosenfeld writes, “Hitler was transformed into Western civilization’s new archetype of evil.” Whereas, pre-World War II, writers drew from a diverse range of religious and political figures to define “evil,” the failure of these figures to describe 20th-century totalitarianism birthed a monopoly on the matter. Hitler became for political evil what Amazon became for books. Every other figure had to close up shop. As a result, in modern day politics, we have nowhere else to turn.

This has had some questionable results in modern history. A favorite political analogy of world leaders is the Munich Agreement: a concession of France and England to let Hitler annex part of Czechoslovakia in order to maintain peace. It has since become shorthand for appeasing dictators. As Tom Shachtman writes in Foreign Policy, the analogy has been used by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, John Kerry to argue for strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and by both Bush presidents in regards to war with Saddam Hussein. Of his decision to “pour troops into Vietnam,” Lyndon Johnson later wrote, “Everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I’d be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I’d be giving a big fat reward to aggression.”

It doesn’t take a whole lot of critical thinking to realize that Germany, which could have plausibly conquered all of Europe and defeated America in an all-out war, is not the same as any of these examples. The problem with the Hitler analogy is that it doesn’t afford any nuance. Hitler as a symbol of evil offers no shades of gray and encourages us to make a one-dimensional political calculus.

It’s not just that Hitler has cornered the market on political evil. He even once dictated the terms by which we can describe history. As Rosenfeld notes, Hitler’s crimes were projected into the past. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, was called “an ancient Hitler,” as was Pharaoh Thutmose III. Virginia Governor William Berkeley was called a “seventeenth-century Hitler’ whose ‘cruelty [had] brought on Bacon’s Rebellion.” Hitler, once called the Napoleon of his day, now had the upper hand, as Napoleon was now relegated to just the Hitler of the 18th century. There was even a book called Hitler through the Ages, which claimed that every historical age had its own Hitler. And “Hitlerize” became a verb in the United States, lobbied by people on the left and the right to describe the perception that the other side was taking over democratic institutions.

All that said, analogies like these, even of the Hitler variety, can be helpful. Because analogies help render complex subjects intelligible through simplification, Rosenfeld notes, they have been praised as “vital” analytical tools that help people “make sense of the world.”

But there’s also a trap with analogies. Rosenfeld argues that they “are essentially ‘cognitive shortcuts’; they are substitutes for, rather than expressions of, detailed analysis. Their simplicity, however, makes them tempting for both producers and consumers. Academic theorists often identify the ‘repetition’ of historical events in order to create ‘elegant laws and generalizations.’ The general public, meanwhile, prefers ‘brief, uncomplicated, and racy formulations’ to those that are more complicated. As a result, analogies can ‘short circuit critical reflection’ and lead to ‘superficial thinking.’”

While these simplifications exist across political discourse, it doesn’t take much to draw a line to social media, where similar analogies run rampant through memes, tweets, etc.

So, in a world where Adolf Hitler is the de facto monster of all monsters, other lessons from history seem to be easily passed over. If one wants to better understand fascism, it makes as much sense to also learn from Benito Mussolini or Francisco Franco. If one wants to understand totalitarianism, one can also turn to Joseph Stalin. And then there’s the historical context which drove Nazism, which gets washed away by our myopic focus on Hitler as some historical anomaly. Concentration camps were used by both the Spanish and the British well before National Socialism, Jim Crow-era laws inspired Nazi jurists, and some of the biggest drivers of the eugenics movement were Americans. The point is: Hitler’s monopoly over our discourse on evil is unproductive in a world that requires complex thought to tackle complex issues.

While Hitler’s crimes certainly warrant a careful examination so that they may never happen again, the centrality of Hitler in conversation goes above and beyond, often obscuring other things we would also like to never happen again.

Kershaw notes, “This has happened with no other 20th-century dictator — not with Mussolini, Franco, Mao, Pol Pot, even Stalin. However nasty their regimes, however vicious their repression, however horrific their inhumanity, they leave little mark on our present-day consciousness.”

Left to languish in the public consciousness are other crimes against humanity. There’s the transatlantic slave trade, which killed millions in transit alone. There’s mass murder committed by the likes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo. And then there’s Rwanda, Indonesia, and a litany of other world tragedies.

We have to ask if we’re forgetting the other lessons history has to offer. That’s not to say Hitler doesn’t have an important place in the public consciousness. As neofascist groups gain prominence around the globe, like Greece’s Golden Dawn, comparisons to the anti-democratic and xenophobic populism of Hitler may be appropriate. But it’s equally important to see how these groups diverge historically, how these modern movements have developed and evolved, and what other historical connections they draw from. Calling a dangerous leader “Hitler” is easy; understanding them is much harder.

This article is adapted from a Wisecrack video, which you can watch here.

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