How 'Nazi-chic' Conquered the Mainstream

Nazi aesthetics and the esoteric sides of Nazism have been appearing for many years now in zombie films, computer games and music. Now they are moving closer to the mainstream.

Oded Heilbronner
Oded Heilbronner
A shot from the film 'Dead Snow.'
A shot from the film 'Dead Snow.'Credit: Courtesy
Oded Heilbronner
Oded Heilbronner

“Recently, more people have been asking for ‘Mein Kampf,’” Yosef Halper of the Halper Books second-hand bookstore in Tel Aviv told the Haaretz book supplement last June. Halper is not the only one to have noticed the number of young people interested in Adolf Hitler’s thoughts. For several decades now we have been accustomed to hearing Israeli politicians putting Hitler and Nazism into their remarks, but what is Hitler’s book doing in more and more university courses? Why are academic courses throughout the Western world dealing with the Third Reich completely filled, much more than classes on Stalinism, Italian fascism, the French Revolution or Maoist China? After all, Hitler and Nazism vanished from the earth nearly 60 years ago, after a brief period of existence of only 12 years.

One of the reasons for this is the direction of academic research dealing with Nazism. There are no new findings in Nazism research and it seems as though there is nothing new to be said in this field, which is leading researchers in various countries, including Israel, to try to innovate by locating Nazism research in the current discourse, which is often entirely unconnected to the discourse that prevailed 70 years ago. For example, topics that are popular today – the war on smokers, vegetarianism and veganism, or policy friendly to the environment – are at the focus of research on Nazism. Where is the connection to the Third Reich?

Indeed, many in the academic world, including Israel, see Nazism as inter alia an “ecological project” that thought more about saving the forests of Europe from environmental barbarism than about “Jewish or Bolshevik barbarism.”

Israeli researcher Boaz Neumann calls Nazism “an ecological project, including human ecology,” and goes on to argue, responding to Heinrich Himmler’s remarks in 1942 concerning the need to rehabilitate a green landscape: “If so, is it possible that the Holocaust was in fact an aesthetic, environmental project?”

Researchers in the United States are showing how the Nazi state and especially health organizations fought smoking so that Germans would be healthier. Others point to the Nazi support for vegetarianism out of love for animals and the environment. Finally, they point out that the Third Reich prohibited messianic and supra-natural activity, because this contradicted the spirit of enlightenment.

The truth is that Nazism dealt with these topics more as a means and less as an end. “Nazi humanism” toward the environment, animals and enlightened people derived from a desire to create a new order in Europe, which would be spearheaded by a healthy and clean “popular racial community.” All those who did not conform to its racial and aesthetic components would be put to death, deported or enslaved.

As the Nazi evil recedes from us, people are tending to take seriously incidental remarks and semi-messianic theories that were uttered by admirers of Hitler. In the Third Reich marginal figures in German academia before the rise of Nazism were given an opportunity to say aloud everything they had kept unsaid during the period of the Weimer Republic. Environmental philosophy, the theory of vegetarianism and literature dealing with sterilization of asocial groups – which were known prior to the rise of Nazism but were at the margins of the discourse – began to be promulgated en masse and won legitimacy in Nazi Germany due to their racial contexts.

From Gestapo porn to “nipsters”

The use Western popular culture has made of Nazi images and symbols provides an additional explanation for many young people’s desire to read “Mein Kampf.” “The secret of Nazi appeal,” a concept thinkers like Susan Sontag and Saul Friedlander used in various ways to warn of the danger of attraction to such “appeal,” is today playing a key role in visual culture.

It is undeniable that Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust “sell” and a number of examples from recent years make this clear. Porn films in which there are Nazi symbols, letters and flags are more popular than ever. For example, the film “Army Fuckers,” which is about the sexual experiences of Gestapo people, has had a very respectable number of downloads in Britain. Jonathan Littell’s book “The Kindly Ones,” which is full of perverted sex scenes among S.S, officers, was an international bestseller, and a million copies of the satirical book “He’s Back” by Timur Vermes (about Hitler’s return to today’s Germany) have been sold in Germany.

The “Wolfenstein” series of computer games, set in a Britain occupied by the Nazis, has been among the most popular games in recent years. Dozens of films about the history of Nazi Germany and the place of Nazism in popular culture – including the American “Inglourious Basterds,” the French “Le Prenom” and the German “Our Mothers, Our Fathers” – have been popular worldwide. Zombie films in which Nazi symbols and characters are prominent are very successful in the genre (for example the Norwegian “Dead Snow” from 2009). Bands from industrial rock, punk and neo-folk genres assimilate Nazi and racist motifs into their songs, and recently the Nazi aesthetic has also spilled over into a successful clip by American rapper Nicki Minaj.

Fanzines, even Israeli ones, integrate into their content shapes, slogans and characters reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. Finally, “hipster Nazis,” or “Nipsters” as the German media call them, have been observed in the streets of Europe in processions of neo-Nazi groups.

And what is the “secret of the Nazi appeal” that has also been working its magic on Israelis since the days of the “stalag books” at the start of the 1960s? Apparently it is a unique combination of pornography, “white aesthetics,” irrational actions and occult philosophies (that were developed and invented by organizations of the radical European right years before the rise of Nazism, philosophies nurtured by Christianity and ancient paganism), and cold, technocratic and rational murderousness but also colorfulness, aestheticism and fashionableness accompanies by personality perversions and academic sophistication.

A still image from Lars Von Trier's film 'Melancholia.' The aesthetics of the film were influenced by Nazi architect Albert Speer. Photo: screenshot

Jonathan Littell did a fine job of endowing Max Aue, the protagonist of “The Kindly Ones,” with this combination, and satanic cults are integrating it nowadays into their esoteric modes of action.

“The secret of the Nazi appeal” has another explanation. For many years the research into Nazism, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich stressed more-or-less accepted sides of the Reich, which can be explained using rational tools. The best of the disciplines in the humanities, the social sciences and medicine, were enlisted to understand the Nazi regime. Actions or opinions that did not sit well with Western rationality were not studied by the academic research guilds and were left in the hands of those whom academia sees as low-level researchers or researchers of popular culture – whose publications are seen more as cheap literature than academic works.

For example, the study by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, “Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism and the Politics of Identity” is considered to be a book that is not academic and one that would be out of place in a syllabus for an academic course dealing with the Third Reich. Literature about esoteric philosophies, satanic cults and mysticism has devoted considerable space to cults of this sort among the Nazi leadership, but its place was not in rational academic discourse.

While academia distanced itself from satanic and mystical Nazism, popular culture gave it a place. Many of the examples mentioned above – computer games, neo-folk music, pornographic literature, B-movies and the souvenir industry – now more than ever assimilate mystical, satanic, spiritualist and dark content from the Third Reich. No wonder, then, that S.S. “memorial sites” like Wewelsburg Castle and the abbey of Henry the Fowler in Quedlinburg are places of pilgrimage – and not only for neo-Nazi groups.

The north tower of the Wewelsburg Castle.".Photo by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann

However, things change and a new view of Nazism is developing in academic research. At the base of this view is an inability to understand everything that happened in those difficult years. More and more researchers are acknowledging the fact that we do not have enough enlightened, rational and critical tools to understand the madness that overtook the Germans in the years between 1933 and 1945.

In Wolfenstein the Nazis win.Credit: ZeniMax Media

Several years ago historian Shulamit Volkov wrote that we must acknowledge that fact that there were irrational sides in German history and the Third Reich, and that we do not have enough tools to explain them. Her words echoed the pioneering work of historian George Mosse, who wrote in the 1960s that historians were not paying enough attention to the mystic sides of Nazism because they saw anti-intellectual and irrational elements in them. They tended to think, he argued, that a historian must focus on the more rational aspects of life, but such was not the case regarding the Third Reich. Fifty years ago this opinion was deemed strange and unacceptable. Today it is perceived differently.

To sum up, to this day aesthetic Nazi satanism is enchanting to many people, and its fingerprints are evident in nearly every branch of Western popular culture. Many are attracted to the “Nazi animal” and its rituals for psychological reasons, but also because of its uniqueness in the Western cultural landscape in recent years.

There are those who are interested in uncovering additional sides in the research into Nazism, but instead of exploring other aspects of evil they are falling into the trap of Nazi “humanism” – and, in effect, are fulfilling Joseph Goebbels’ prophecy on the eve of his suicide that a thousand years hence National Socialism will be remembered as an aesthetic wall that protected Europe from Communist ugliness.

It would appear that behind the trends described here are not only “the dark Nazi aesthetic” – academic boredom that leads to provocation and the understanding that we do not have the tools to fully understand everything that happened during those years. Possibly it is hard for us to understand that unlike fascism, which continues to exist in various and legitimate forms in some countries, Nazism and all its manifestations were wiped out completely in 1945. For various reasons we are still attracted to the aesthetic and satanic sides of Nazism. The academic attempt to create a more decent image for it in the form of computer games, films and street style – i.e. to locate it in the heart of popular culture and legitimate discourse – will lead to the Nazi zombies really coming to life again.

Dr. Oded Heilbronner is a culture researcher and historian. His book on the liberal roots of Nazism is expected to be forthcoming soon in Britain

Singer Nicki Minaj.Credit: AP

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