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Conversation with Prof. Gavriel Rosenfeld

Author of Hi Hitler! explores the ‘normalization’ of the Nazi era

By Cindy Mindell

FAIRFIELD – Since “The Great Dictator”, Hitler and the Nazis have been fodder for all manner of public consumption across the world’s cultural and political landscapes. For much of the post-war period, the Nazi era has been viewed moralistically as an exceptional period of history intrinsically different from all others. But since the turn of the millennium, this view has been challenged by a powerful wave of normalization.

This flux is the subject of Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture, the latest work of Fairfield University Professor of History, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld. A scholar of history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, Rosenfeld chronicles this critical international trend by examining the shifting representation of the Nazi past in contemporary western intellectual and cultural life. Focusing on works of historical scholarship, popular novels, counterfactual histories, feature films, and Internet websites, he identifies notable changes in the depiction of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the figure of Adolf Hitler himself.

Rosenfeld spoke with the Ledger about his findings and why they matter.

Q: How did you develop an interest in this topic?

A: In the last 10 to 15 years, since the turn of the millennium, what I’d started to notice, especially in the most overt sense – what we call “Internet” culture or subculture – is the fact that the kinds of images that were proliferating about Hitler in particular, but of other Nazi figures and Nazi iconography like swastikas and so forth, were increasingly tongue-in-cheek, satirical, aiming to arrive at a punchline as opposed to any moral lesson.

Right now we see a transformation of memory going on, from what used to be pretty clearly moralistic in terms of viewing the Nazi past for moral lessons about good and evil, right and wrong, to a more irreverent approach or revisionist approach to the past – not all of which is bad, but which bears watching in terms of what its consequences are.

Q: Do you see this normalization trend coming from Jewish sources as well?

A: Jews consider themselves the guardians of this idea that Holocaust or the Nazi period has to be viewed from a sacrosanct perspective. One of the more controversial things that Elie Wiesel said is that this is a topic that we have to just treat with silence, from a perspective of reverence, because what the survivors experienced, we as those who didn’t go through it could never understand and therefore the proper response is not to commercialize or aestheticize or trivialize in any way. That’s all well and good at some rhetorical level but at the level of explanation and understanding, it won’t really do. I would say that Jews have historically been the people to defend moralizing views of the Nazi period, ones that at least retain a moral focus on all the events, as opposed to a focus that might just play it for laughs.

That being said, there certainly have been discussions about who is allowed to laugh at the Nazi past, who is allowed to treat it from a more unconventional aesthetic perspective. When Mel Brooks directed the film “The Producers” in the ‘60s and the recent Broadway revival, a lot of people were up in arms about that, but, of course, given his perspective and his background as an American Jew, he was insulated from some of the criticisms. That wouldn’t have been available to German filmmakers. Some of the plays and films dealing with this period in Germany have been ones that take liberties with how the topic is represented and has been characterized by a lot of humor. It’s also notable that the directors of these films have oftentimes been Jews or have been working with Jewish material. It’s still a dicey proposition: who’s allowed to laugh at this, who’s allowed to make fun of it, and who has proprietary ownership of the topic? Generally speaking, Jews are still the ones trying to maintain a traditional perspective.

In a world where lots of people are abusing Holocaust terminology and throwing it around and accusing people inside and outside of Israel of behaving like fascists or Nazis or Hitler himself, certainly we as Jews wouldn’t want to allow those kinds of accusations to go unrefuted because that then allows all kinds of attacks to potentially be directed at Jews in the ways that would try to dehumanize them or otherwise make them “open season,” so to speak.

Q: Why are you concerned with the normalization of the Nazi legacy?

A: There are four types of “normalization:” the first form I call “organic normalization.” It simply suggests that over time, the memories of people who lived through certain events fade away as those people die off and are replaced, generationally speaking, by younger people who never lived through certain experiences. So, if you looked at the aggregate “memory” of any society, you’ll find that, over time, it’s composed more and more of young people who have no personal stake necessarily in maintaining a moralistic view of the past. It’s a natural phenomenon, a byproduct of societies advancing through time.

But there are three other kinds of normalization that are intentional and oftentimes reflect or mask deliberate attempts to accelerate the process of normalization. I call those “relativization” on the one hand, “universalization” on the other, and “aestheticization.” All of them more or less are attempting to make unexceptional a certain past – depriving it of its uniqueness; sort of flattening what makes it distinct and making it resemble every other past. Why we should pay attention to it more than any other is ultimately the goal of those promoting the process of normalization.

A classic example is Germans in the 1980s, who were on the conservative wing of the political spectrum and were trying to refashion a positive sense of national identity for Germany when it was still divided. Many people, like Helmut Kohl, the chancellor at the time, were hoping to maintain the German people’s eagerness to reunify Germany. For that to happen, he believed, a positive sense of historical identity needed to exist, one that wasn’t saddled with the shame of Auschwitz. He and some historians at the time were interested in promoting the view that the Holocaust, while it may have been bad, wasn’t so different from the Cambodian genocide or the Armenian genocide. If everything becomes flattened, the Germans have no particular reason to deal with their past because all societies have things in their closets that they’re ashamed of.

The fact of the matter is that we do have to normalize the way we view the past, in some respects, in order to ever understand it. Until the turn of the millennium, most films that dealt with the Nazi period and Hitler in particular treated him from a fairly demonic perspective; he was viewed as evil. In the last 15 years or so, there’s been a very pronounced effort to try and humanize the portrayal of Hitler in order to really get at the core of what he was all about as a human being. Truly, if we want to understand him as a person, we can’t just create this other-worldly, demonic view of him because then he’s really outside of human understanding and we’ll never really grasp him at all. At the same time, if we do humanize him and we show that he was capable of human emotions and love and humor and so forth, as some of these films portray him, then maybe we’ll get to the point where we’re understanding him but we’re losing sight of his evil. If we humanize him too much, we’ll end up potentially excusing him because we understand him. If we demonize him too much, maybe we’ll never understand him. I’m interested in people maintaining a balanced perspective, so to call attention to some of the drawbacks while acknowledging the existence of some merits has been my task in this book.

The Internet above all is the medium that really focuses on Hitler as a completely decontextualized, dehistoricized figure. We can draw a Hitler mustache on anything or a swastika on anything and start laughing at it. When Hitler himself is photoshopped into the form of various other characters, we get into some really bizarre phenomena: catsthatlooklikehitler.com or thingsthatlooklikehitler.com or “Hipster Hitler” or “Six Degrees of Hitler” – it’s a cottage industry of people exploiting his image to get attention but we’re far away from any historical lesson.

Q: Should we be concerned?

A: As more of us get our information from the Web, we need to be concerned about this. The Internet is a river with lots of tributaries flowing into it. Some of the tributaries are perfectly healthy and the water’s unpolluted and other tributaries are full of toxic waste. When we go on Google or Bing or Yahoo! and type in “Hitler” or “Holocaust” or “Nazis” and do an image search, you’ll get legitimate representations and images, together with completely fraudulent, satirical, nonsensical ones. For younger Web users or people with no historical background, it may be a while until they can get their bearings.

I’m certainly not interested in squelching people’s creativity, but I think we need to be aware of the costs of this new medium. At the same time, it’s not just this medium – that’s just the most glaringly obvious way in which we’re seeing normalization. This is part of a larger cultural trend. It’s certainly most prevalent in the West but even in non-Western cultures – in Asia and the Middle East, of course – you see all kinds of people playing fast and loose with this legacy as well.

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