October 6, 2005
The Comfort of the Villain
-- Spencer Dew
With the death of Simon Wiesenthal on September 20, the Holocaust has slipped further into the past. As survivors pass on, memories of the event recede, and the event itself risks, as Wiesenthal warned, the threat of "trivialization."
Wiesenthal's prophetic role was to remind the world of the human faces behind the incomprehensible tragedy and horror of the death camps, testifying to his own time as a prisoner, and devoting his life to hunting down fugitive Nazis.
The guards and administrators, police and politicians, inventors and implementers: They were all real people, humans like those they slaughtered, people with families and values who nonetheless perpetrated atrocities, who complied with a deranged, utterly antihuman system.
But antihuman is not inhuman. This is a lasting lesson of Wiesenthal's example, and it provides an essential antidote to the fact that the idea of the Nazi has been subsumed into, and transformed by, our collective cultural image bank.
Hollywood has long been intent on turning the Nazi into a cipher, taking the inconceivable evil wrought by humans against humans and explaining it away by a process of melodramatic villainization. History gives way to mythology.
The "mythological" Nazi makes a good film villain for three reasons. First, there is the seductive aesthetics of fascism -- the Third Reich as melodramatic spectacle, with polished boots and silver skulls on collars, a mix of fetish accessories and mythic grandeur. Second, there is the iconic scale of World War II, and the dual association of blitzkrieg and global war with the mechanized, hyper-bureaucratic annihilation of a country's own citizens. Third, Nazis are readily depicted as bestial others thinly concealed behind façades of chandeliers and champagne. When angered, they abandon even the rudiments of warped English, and curse and scream in a guttural, violent tongue.
This braiding of traits makes for an instantly dynamic character, a mythological stereotype that appears not to be stereotyped; the "Nazi" is cold, remote, sophisticated, mad, almost cultish in its death-obsession. Indeed, replete with occult associations, the Nazi has replaced Satan as the villain par excellence, moving from the historical to the fictional, from human reality to inhuman monstrosity. There is great comfort in the distance produced by this move, in the message that the Nazi is not at all like us.
"Nazi" thus becomes a rhetorical trope, something inhuman and therefore placating, a sign not of our confrontation with history, but our avoidance of it, our denial. And the denial of history makes way for history's repetition.
It is in political polemic that the term "Nazi" has suffered the grossest trivialization, having become an epithet for Right and Left alike -- a means for slandering one's enemy with unspeakable associations, and reframing political debates in terms of nonnegotiable distance. "Nazi" provides venomously effective caricature encapsulated in a single word. Misleading, misguided, overused, and therefore ultimately meaningless: This shorthand "Nazi" offers all the pre-packaged ease of the film version.
The mythology of the Nazi-as-demon is thus evoked, and with it a satisfyingly
clear framework of ultimate evil, the necessity of its eradication, and
the certainty of (eventual) victory. "Nazi" as a device for
rousing the audience of a given polemic thus echoes rhetorical tactics
practiced by historical Nazis. Such techniques elicit immediate emotional
response and resist examination.
But examination is precisely the task to be preserved, and the call of "never forget" is also, always, a call never to sublimate, never to distort, never to take the tremendum and reduce it to a political slogan, an idol, an action figure, or an advertisement.
Never forgetting means a refusal to allow ourselves to be numbed to the unending agony of history, and to keep the wound open, inexplicable, excruciating. It is resistance to the descent into trivialization, and the determination to face the horrors of the past as horrors, rather than fashioning them into more comfortable stories, images, or tropes.
Spencer Dew is a Ph.D. student in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School.