|You know you want to cheer.
I couldn't sleep last night so I stayed up to watch an old episode of Lois & Clark
on the Hub (one of those high numbered obscure channels.) Let me say this right off the bat, that show has not aged well. In fact, I would wager to say that I could relate better to George Reeves as Superman than Dean Cain, but that's besides the point. The episode was titled "Super Mann." It told the tale of three young (read: attractive) German members of the Nazi party that were put into suspended animation in 1942, and placed under Metropolis, (because where else would you put your Nazi TV Dinners,) and set to awaken fifty years later, 1992. Once awakened they joined an extensive secret Nazi network already set in place by members of the 3rd Reich who fled into the US before the war's end. This covert network consisted of powerful, rich, and famous people who were sent to pave the way for their frozen Aryan saviors.
The plot of the episode basically established that the Nazis had been working in secret as senators, high ranking military officials, businessmen, and celebrities since the late 1940's to subvert American values and start a 4th Reich. Through their media connections, politics, and high-profile power, this new secret Nazi party was gaining followers and changing people's minds. Now that's some pretty heavy stuff for a mid-90's romance-sitcom based around the serendipitous happenstance of what happens when one person is Teri Hatcher the other person is Dean Cain pretending to be an actor. Sufficed to say I was intrigued. Here seemed an opportunity to do a really intricate and nuanced story about Superman suddenly having to face a foe he could not fight with brute strength, public opinion. Then I realized I was watching Lois & Clark, and instead of a nuanced and well explored story line, the episode ended with the head Nazi golden boy stepping onto stage in a nation-wide broadcast, a swastika behind him, to announce that three nuclear warheads were buried under three major US cities. If the President did not.... blah blah blah blah...
The story set up seemed to be leading to a plot that had a chance to invoke the type of feelings and horror that happened in 1930's Germany. I was hoping to see an episode where one charismatic and influential leader was depicted swinging public opinion away from sanity toward savagery and eugenics, with Superman caught in the middle, and helpless to fight the rising tide of irrationality. Instead, the carefully placed and meticulous plan of this network of Nazi spies (who had spent the last fifty years working toward secret domination of America,) turned out to be nothing but a hackneyed "nation-for-ransom" plot they probably stole from Lex Luthor's trash bin. In the end, the whole episode ended with Superman showing up, punching some Nazis in the face, and everyone cheering... but I am digressing.
|Nazi Super Science... For those times when regular
super science just isn't evil enough.
All of this leads me to my first point on the benefits of Nazis: Everyone wants to punch a Nazi in the face. What I mean to say is that Nazis make the best villains. Why do you think it is that Captain America and Indiana Jones have kept so much appeal over the years?... They punch Nazis. When you're looking for a villain you really cannot do any better than a megalomaniacal quasi-military group that has its sights set on world domination, has a fanatical belief in racial purity, an almost zealot-like conviction in their own rightness, and even the occasional obsession with the occult and super sciences. Better yet, they aren't even fictional. The only close second we really have is Communists and on spectrum of villainy the Commies rate maybe a 4.5. (I mean really it's all become kind of a gray issue since that wall fell.) Nazis, on the other hand rate the full 10, if not more. I defy you to watch a parade of black uniformed officers march down the street and give the Hitler salute and not feel a chill go up your spine.
That brings me to the next benefit of Nazis: We're so much better than they are. I mean that in every possible way, of course, morally, militarily, sexually etc. When you see Superman, Captain America, Indiana Jones, and the hundreds of other American heroes sock it to Hitler and his boys you can't but feel a little thrill. Its like in that one moment we feel more like Americans than ever before. It is kind of reassurance of who we are. I mean we may not be the greatest, but at least we're not Nazis. That reminds me of a scene in the Rocketeer where, when the gangsters find out he and his men have been, working for a Nazi spy and they immediately turn on him saying something akin to "we may be criminals, but we're Americans." In a way, defeating a Nazi confirms for us our own identity, not only as Americans, but as a morally upstanding people, even if we are sometimes criminals.
As with so many other things the way we see Nazis often says more about ourselves than anything. (I know this is a weird topic, but stick with me on this one.) For instance, American stories tend to look at Nazis more as the "other." Basically, they are the enemy, they will always be the enemy, because they are evil. However, the British view on Nazis tends to focus less on them as physical enemies and more on the dangers of their ideology. Take as an example V for Vendetta. The British have an acute awareness that "but for the flip of a coin" the UK could have easily become a fascist state of its own. Thus, to our friends across the pond the rise of an internal Nazi-like government seems to be a much more terrifying prospect than an actual army of invading Nazis (because they already faced that and kicked their collected goose-stepping asses). As an American, a fascist Nazi-esque government taking hold on its own seems almost ridiculous. At the very least it probably would not last for long, because we have this image of ourselves as freedom fighters. We like to believe that we would immediately revolt or fight back against anything that would so drastically restrict our freedom. So we tend to use the idea of physical Nazi invasion as opposed to possibility of such a government arising on its own. Our psyche just does not allow us to see the later of the choices as a possibility, and the former allows us a glimpse (what we perceive as) better days.
This leads me to my next point, Nazis allow us to be relive the Golden Age of America. There is a reason we call them the "Greatest Generation," and that is because they fought Nazis. This also brings me back to my last point, because when you really look at America before World War II, you see a lot of things that may not have been the "greatest." The practice of eugenics, the belief in the supremacy of the white race, rampant prejudice against Jewish people, those were not singularly Nazi ideals. The Germans may have crystallized them all and did them far better than everyone else, but before the war, Hitler had a lot of support in Europe, Britain, and even America. Then that all changed.
I am toying with the idea that modern American morality may be (at least partially) based off the the concept that Nazism was so heinous that we did our best to reject everything we saw as even remotely close to the policies of the 3rd Reich. I'm not saying it was perfect, but in a lot of ways America sort of woke up. You may not be aware, but in the late 30's early 40's, it was legal in many states
to practice a form of forced sterilization for anyone suspected of mental defects or retardation. Even the great Alexander Graham Bell was considered one of the first modern and largest advocates for eugenics.
|The Nazi Party... Still just as stupid,
but now it comes in bite-size.
Fast forward to after the war and suddenly we have a country who has now witnessed the horrors and atrocities that are the logical end of the ideas of racial purity. It's like that moment when someone takes your joke as truth and does something terrifyingly unbelievable. It's a cold water wake up call in the face, and (despite what we like to believe) there must always be a moment of doubt when you have to think, "That could have been us." Yet, by 1942 the Nazi part is the most evil thing in the world, and America begins a realignment to be the good that opposes that evil. It is part of the American self-image that Americans are the good guys and Nazis are the bad guys. We became the Anti-Nazis, and similar to how you cannot define light without comparing it to dark, maybe you can't fully define American without defining Nazi. I am not saying we are the only country that did this, nor am I saying that is a bad thing. Actually, its probably a very good thing, so long as we recognize the underlying morality of it all.
Of course, their haven't been any real Nazis in sixty years (Modern Nazis are mostly just balded-headed idiots living in trailers in the Deep South.) The model is starting to grow old, and we no longer seem to have any enemies to define ourselves against. Communists were always kind of a weak substitution (if you ask me,) and modern terrorists are dangerous, but hardly anything that will take down America as a whole. More over, talking about those two groups leads to a lot of gray areas and questions of religion, social beliefs, and nuances of world politics, but a Nazi will always be a Nazi, instantly recognizable and unquestioningly evil.
Still, I don't see the 4th Reich rising anytime soon, so maybe it's time America starts finding new ways to define itself. Mostly because of my last and most important point, Nazis are cliched. Really my first thought upon seeing the direction of the Lois & Clark episode was, "Oh, they're doing Nazis?" In many ways the Nazis have become a lot like the Borg in Star Trek, over exposure has led to their homogenization as enemies to the point of becoming a bad trope. I would say rule of thumb is that after fifty years, any historical villain tends to lose its teeth and should probably be restricted from use, (unless the story is actually set in the aforementioned historical times.) In all fairness, the Lois & Clark episode was on the cusp of that rule, but really from the 2012 perspective it could have easily just have been Romans, British Redcoats, or Secret Southern Confederates, and the plot would not had to change much (it still would have been just as cheesy). However, I will admit that none of those historical enemies are quite as satisfying to punch in the face.