Our attitude toward Nazis is changing, and not for the better.
Ever since World War II, Nazis have occupied a unique niche as the West’s universal standard for evil*, and as such, have been the go-to model for villains in fiction for 70 years. Countless books, movies, games, and comics use Nazis as villains, and even more feature villains overtly modeled on the Nazis in their appearance, methods, or ideology. Even during the Cold War, Communists never quite had the requisite degree of absolute soulless villainy to fill this role: Lucas didn’t model his Imperial officers’ outfits on the Red Army, for instance, and Indiana Jones wouldn’t go up against Communists until 2008.
Today, Nazis are still treated as the embodiment of absolute evil. But as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, it is the media, not them, who have become the primary voice influencing how we understand them. Most people today, especially young people, don’t know any Holocaust survivors personally. But we’ve all seen countless movies with Nazi villains, many of them in sci-fi or other settings strongly divorced from historical reality. The influence this shift has on our culture is subtle. After all, when Nazis show up in movies, they’re the villains almost without exception. But there’s a difference between a movie villain, however evil, and a real-life mass murderer who killed millions of actual people. There’s a growing attitude that views Nazis as evil, but evil like Darth Vader. And it’s acceptable to like and even admire and emulate a movie villain (for instance, through cosplay).
Fictional villains are abstract. No matter how immersive the story, we ultimately know it isn’t real and that gives us a comfortable distance from what’s happening (hence why movie villains often commit such over-the-top acts in order to create an emotional reaction, like blowing up entire planets). Since movie villains harm no one in real life, they’re in a sense more of an aesthetic choice or a statement of one’s attitude, an attitude which some people, often a lot of people, identify with. The villain is often a movie’s most memorable character. Villains are clever, they’re stylish, they don’t play by the rules, and they always have a plan. It’s easy to see why this style, divorced from any actual misdeeds, can be appealing, as in Tom Hiddleston’s Jaguar ads, or the countless romanticized depictions of pirates that focus heavily on hats and eye makeup and only very vaguely on what they actually do.
This villainy-as-aesthetic attitude accounts for the resurgence of overt Nazi imagery and language on the internet in communities like GamerGate, which has a mascot who is—you guessed it—a literal Nazi. And also an anime schoolgirl. (No, for you sweet summer children who have never heard of GamerGate, I am not making any of that up.) They see themselves as movie villains and therefore identify with Nazis, who have been presented to them as movie villains all their lives. Most of these people are simple trolls in it for the shock value, but the boundary between them and genuine neo-Nazis is blurry, with the muddying cultural waters providing cover for a resurgence of actual white supremacy. Those who only use the aesthetic “ironically” for shock value can claim that they’re not causing any real-life harm…but then again, so can the real neo-Nazis, since they too were raised in a world where the actual repercussions of their actions are abstract, not concrete.
Nazis as movie villains also account for the otherwise-inexplicable Case of the Nazi Romance Novel For Such a Time. Casting a real-life concentration camp commandant as not only redeemable but romantically desirable would be both impossible and obviously reprehensible. But how about a movie Nazi? Kate Breslin isn’t writing a romance about a real Nazi and a real Jew; she’s writing the equivalent of a fanfic about Rey and Kylo Ren. And Aric’s redemption at the end is not forgiveness for killing thousands of real people, but redemption in the sense of Darth Vader at the end of Return of the Jedi. Anyway, that strikes me as both the most plausible and the most generous interpretation. (ETA: The same goes for Broken Angels, the other novel featuring a romance between a Jew and a Nazi. This is getting out of hand.)
This shift in cultural attitudes is not harmless. This abstraction of Nazis from real to fictional both provides cover for real-life white supremacist movements and blunts our reaction to the actual historical atrocities**. As a fiction writer, it’s difficult to figure out the most constructive reaction. It’s a Catch-22: Any depiction of Nazis in fiction, however careful, inherently reinforces the problem, but ignoring them clearly doesn’t help, either.
So for now, I’ll simply urge everyone to remember that, however many movies they appear in, the Nazis were real people who committed real atrocities, and this is something we can’t afford to forget.
*I’m curious about who, if anyone, occupied this niche before World War II. None of the players in World War I had the necessary nefariousness, nor did earlier conquerors like Napoleon, who always had a streak of the admirable, even from his enemies’ perspective.
**Coupled with the extremely high profile of the Holocaust relative to other historical atrocities, there’s an even more insidious possible consequence: The abstraction of genocide itself into a quasi-fictional concept. According to the media, only Nazis commit genocide, and Nazis are movie villains; therefore, genocide could pass from a real, recurrent, and critically important problem into the same sort of threat as a villain taking over the world. After all, when was the last time you read a book or watched a movie about, say, the Hutus and Tutsis?
Title comes from the TVTropes page about Nazis, another good example of diluting them into a stock type defined by their appearance and mannerisms. Star Wars is the property of Disney. Darth Vader cosplay found here (Darth Vader is, of course, the property of Disney). GamerGate Nazi mascot found on Reddit, obviously. For Such a Time is the property of Kate Breslin.