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History of Fascism

Adolf Eichmann: Nazis in Popular Culture and the Trivialization of Historical Knowledge

Eichmann

As we mark the anniversary of the final ruling of the Eichmann trial on 15 December, it is counterintuitive that the personage of Adolf Eichmann grows in historical memory and public prominence with each passing year. In the past year, one can count one major Hollywood film, one large travelling museum exhibit and one role in a hit television series. It brings to mind Stanley Kubrick’s immortal words about Schindler’s List: ‘Think that’s about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about 6 millions people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.’

The Holocaust saw the largest continental European power use all of its resources and approximately 250,000 of its own people (the estimate commonly cited for those directly involved in murder) to attempt to kill 11 million European Jews. It is not believed that Adolf Eichmann killed any single solitary individual himself. As a lieutenant colonel, his level of leadership in the Nazi hierarchy was distinctly second tier. Others, such as Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller, who remains the only top Nazi never confirmed captured or dead, are largely forgotten. This strange turn of events could be read as an unintended consequence of the Eichmann trial itself, engineered by David Ben Gurion as the first public pedagogical exercise in global Holocaust education. Instead of the Eichmann case shining a light on the inner workings of genocide, the spotlight simply looped back on the man himself.

The recent Eichmann upsurge also makes sense for a contemporary moment when the repressed demons of fascism are returning worldwide. This illiberal wave coincides with both the passing of the last living generation that directly experienced the Second World War as well as the firm establishment of Nazi symbolism as a part of global popular culture. The proliferation of Nazi motifs in video games, fantasy, anime and internet memes are too widespread to begin to count. This does not signify a deepening of Holocaust education and awareness but rather a trivialization of historical knowledge and awareness.

Eichmann as a pop-culture meme makes a certain degree of sense as his story uniquely captures the ‘horror show’ and ‘fantastical’ aspects of the Holocaust. Forever linked to Hannah Arendt’s immortal phrase ‘banality of evil’, firmly embedded in pop philosophy, Eichmann illustrates what one might call the Hannibal Lecter school of genocidal psychopathology. By appearances respectable, even learned, Eichmann could almost seem like a petty bourgeois family man (as portrayed by Ben Kingsley in 2018’s Operation Finale) but for the frightful rage that neurotically flashes out.[1]

Seemingly analogous to the misread short-hand version of Arendt’s interpretation, observers have often failed to consider her work as part of a larger oeuvre.  When considered in tandem with her Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt meant that genocide was a product of modernity. Not that the murders were not murderous but rather that the atomization, differentiation and anxiety of modern social structures were factors within modern societies that could lead to genocide. The threat lies within a bourgeois European modernity which merely brought home to Europe, albeit in a more condensed and radicalized form with Nazism, what it had been doing under the guise of colonialism for decades elsewhere.

This image of Eichmann flatters bourgeois self-regard, and even perpetuates deceptive mechanisms used by the Nazis to such great effect during the war. The Nazis portrayed themselves as defending European civilization from barbaric half-Asiatic hordes. As George Mosse put it, theirs was a ‘bourgeois anti-bourgeois revolution’, a rescue operation for bourgeois normality, a task at which diffident liberals had proved themselves woefully ill-equipped. Who can oppose happy, healthy people, and a society cleansed of all disturbing elements?[2]

The second major recent depiction of Adolf Eichmann, in the Amazon series Man in the High Castle (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick) links to what could be called the ‘parallel universe’ theory of genocide etiology. The series involves a fictional premise that the Nazis obtained nuclear weapons which they then used to bomb the United States into submission.[3] Subsequently, they divide the Western Hemisphere along with their Japanese allies, leaving a small buffer zone in-between. Eichmann emerges as the chief planner of a massive invasion of the Japanese states via carpet-bombing to destroy all vital west-coast infrastructure.

The Eichmann here is robust with a Nazi-style high and tight haircut, and seems to have evolved into some futuristic Nazi warrior. The show’s depiction aligns with the main terms of the critique of Arendt put forth by Cesarini, Ezorsky and others. It is claimed that Arendt was duped by Eichmann’s self-minimization and that he was actually an impassioned mass murderer and not a bureaucrat whose perpetrator status was confined to clerical work. The cartoon-like Eichmann in the television series is even a military mastermind beset with fantasies of destruction on a continental scale. Hinted at here is the notion that the Nazis were some kind of alien supermen that mysteriously inhabited the bodies of a few million Austro-Germans and then disappeared into the ether in May 1945.[4] This transformational metamorphosis serves again to bolster self-confidence that the Nazis really came from some parallel universe. The common ground here is that both depictions take as their starting point the unprepossessing ‘everyman quality’ in Eichmann’s appearance.

The Holocaust as the uncanny at the heart of European civilization is mirrored in the uncanny of Eichmann who does indeed seem like one of any number of anonymous middle-aged office workers. There is an unspoken assumption of a certain kind of Eurocentricity behind the idea of what is normative and bourgeois. And indeed, one of the more persistent debates among historians is whether or not Nazism and the Holocaust emerged out of a deformation of a specific European process of modernization. For some this has even emerged as a disciplinary fault line between Holocaust and Genocide Studies.[5]

The ‘memification’ of Nazis in pop culture risks substituting historical understanding for the short-cuts of trivialization. A greater risk that hits closer to home among scholars is the profound, if subterranean survival of National Socialist narratives among a more learned and informed audience. To offer a couple of brief examples, though not as widespread as a generation ago, the terms Anschluss and Kristallnacht are still routinely deployed in pedagogical settings.[6] Both are products of a Nazi media-management and propaganda machine so subtle and devious that it persists after the original cover-up. The deception of the nomenclature here is so complete that no successive English language scholastic term has come to usurp its place in the vocabulary of the subject. Very similar issues persist with regard to the so-called ‘Euthanasia’ program.[7]

The canny use of aesthetics by the Nazis from their uniforms designed by Hugo Boss to the eye catching use of banners now seems tailor made for posterity and for co-option into popular culture. Their design strategies drew upon ideals of beauty that quickly found a direct road into the cerebral cortex. Baroque theatrics possessed a seductive power whose spell has not been fully broken. It is all the more incumbent to present new and compelling methods and means of conveying the traumatic horror perpetrated by these minions.

The Eichmann trial was the first major exercise in global Holocaust education. Especially when considering how wildly reception of these events varies around the world, it is imperative to keep the unique reality front and centre. Hitler was not just one of dozens of military strong men dictators but the author of death factories which meant graveyards in the air for millions as their bodies were cremated, the same air we all breathe on this small planet.

Yet there is still so much more to know. To provide an additional instance, how many people think of the role of nurses in the Third Reich, whose arms may have coddled a small child whose defects the nurse received monetary gain to report. Any number of nurses continued to hold such babies as lethal poison was injected into their tiny arms.

Let us not exchange the ‘indigestible gap’ in modern history that challenges comprehension and requires in-depth research for pop tokenism and cultural commodification, as embodied by the popular images of Eichmann.

Adam J. Sacks holds an MA and PhD in history from Brown University and an MS in education from the City College of the City University of New York. He is currently a Lecturer in the Faculty of History in the University of Hong Kong and is working on the development of Jewish Studies and Holocaust Studies curriculum for that institution.

[1] The film derives much of its momentum as a Cold War spy thriller narrative, which, like a recent exhibit that focuses on the Mossad angle, is more of a sensational conceit than a substantive new historical angle.

[2] It is well documented that Nazi Generals in particular, Franz Halder most famously, with the aid of their American handlers were quite adept at modifying Nazi propaganda into a carefully crafted post-war narrative that fit the Cold War like a glove. Nazis were just ‘pre-mature’ anti-communists.

[3] Historically, the Nazis were never even close to reaching criticality for chain reactions and had their heavy water depots in Norway destroyed by the Allies.

[4] This premise is wholeheartedly endorsed by Goldhagen’s ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’, in the sense that Goldhagen found post-war Germany magically cleansed of its historical eliminationist antisemitism.

[5] I was surprised when taking a poll among my students in Hong Kong, on the question of ‘how does one become a murderer?’ I asked whether they found themselves more convinced by Goldhagen’s emphasis on a culturally specific ideology of hatred or Browning’s more impersonal forces of social pressure, and they overwhelmingly chose the latter.

[6] Anschluss (in German literally meaning connections, whether social, electrical or telephonic) is used for the Nazi take-over of Austria and Kristallnacht (literally ‘crystal night’ as in fine glass, and incidentally also a part of the name of a very popular beer in Germany) refers to the ‘Night of Broken Glass’, a pogrom against the Jewish population carried out on 9-10 November 1938.

[7] The use of ‘euthanasia’ itself, which literally means ‘good death’ in the Greek, is particularly perverse. This is an instance where even the standard scholarly alternative ‘T4’ is itself directly borrows the Nazi’s deceptive code language used at the time.

Cover image: Adolf Eichmman during the trial, 1961.

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French fascists against Jewish women (1930s-1940s)

antoine 8

Image: A female section of the PPF marching through the streets of Paris on 8 August 1943

This is an extract from a paper given by Antoine Godet at the Gender and Antisemitism workshop at the University of Sheffield which was held on June 18, 2019. It dealt with the representation of Jewish women, French or not, by French fascist men, through their texts and drawings in the 30s and the 40s, and the antisemitism of French fascist women. For this blog, Antoine focuses only on the misogynistic antisemitism of French fascist men. They belonged to movements such as the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), the Francisme or the Milice, and were journalists and drawers in the fascist press (Je suis partout, L’Émancipation Nationale, Au Pilori, etc.)

In their writings and iconography, French fascists say little about Jewish women. They prefer to denounce Jewish men, or rather “Jews” in general. Nevertheless, for the Fascists the “Jew” then is devoid of manhood and embodies the counter-model of their nationalist ideal manly man. Above all, the Jewish people in general are feminised and, at the end of the 30s, the racist ethnologist George Montandon, who was later a PPF activist, spoke of the “ethnie putain“, “the whore ethnic group”. According to him, this “scientific name” is justified by the “lust” of the “Jewish ethnic group” and “the fact that this community, instead of serving a country, puts itself, like a streetwalker, at the service of all countries” [1]. For French fascists, this global Jewish femininity weakens and soils the French race, to the point of speaking of France enjuivée (“Jewified France”).

George Montandon, How to recognize a Jew – with ten photographs, Paris, Nouvelle Éditions Françaises, 1940.

In fact, especially from the late 30s onwards, French fascists warn against the danger of interbreeding between Jews and non-Jews, an idea directly inspired by Nazism. For example, in 1938 in the pamphlet L’Emprise juive (The Jews hold), Marcel Bucard, the leader of the Francisme, expresses this fear of racial mixing by taking the example of “Jacob”, who prostitutes his daughter “Esther-Isabelle” with a count, in order to invade high society and voluntarily soil the French race. Bucard concludes that, in a hundred years’ time, “all the countesses and marquises will have eyes in the shape of coffee beans, and the hooked nose of the Rebecca from the rue des Rosiers“, a Jewish street in Paris. In May 1941, Doriot, the leader of the PPF, says it again: “A Jew has no right to marry a French woman. Let him marry with Rachel!”[2].

A drawing from Une histoire vraie, 1941

Moreover, from the 30s onwards, French antisemites tend to abandon the stereotype and the fantasy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries of the Belle Juive, to represent these women as hags with hooked noses and frizzy hair, which have now lost all their seduction capacities; or as insolent members of the bourgeoisie covered with jewels. In October 1938, in an article entitled “Jewish Fauna” published in Je suis partout, the writer and journalist Lucien Rebatet attacks “the thick Jewesses with pearls and furs, who try to imitate the charming and voluptuous walk of Christian women and are nothing more than a caricature of obscenity”[3].

Vidi, L’Union Française, 21 November 1942

 


Ralph Soupault, Le Petit Parisien, 19 December 1941

From 1940, this kind of physical description of Jewish women can be found mainly in the drawings of the collaborationist press representing the “Jewish Republic”. A Republic which, for them, continues to be embodied in “Jewified Vichy” and does not want to die once for all. By contrast, France, or rather the “National Revolution”, is personified by a nice woman, usually a blonde one, who delays aligning with other fascist countries in Europe. However, the myth of the Belle Juive has not totally disappeared and George Montandon, obsessed with the “Jewish nose”, recommends in 1938 and after to “disfigure nice Jewish women by cutting off their nasal ends, because there is nothing uglier than removing the tip of their nose”[4].

‘To save France… we need new blood – I’m the blood-donor’ Hubert, Au Pilori, 21 January 1943

 

Raph Soupault, Je suis partout, 20 December 1941

Finally, morally and psychologically, the Jewish woman is also the one who embodies or inspires feminine intellectualism and feminism. She is in particular the dangerously modern and left-wing woman, like Cécile Brunschvicg or Louise Weiss, the black beast of Je suis partout[5]. The Jewish woman is also an artist, and often a “greedy artist”, who relies on her fellows to succeed, like the actress Rachel according to the same newspaper. Under the Occupation, she necessarily belongs to the Zazous, this carefree youth vomited by the Nazi collaborationists. At last, under the pen of the collaborationists, the generic Jewish woman is called Sarah, Dalila, Rebecca or Rachel. For example, the writer Céline nicknamed England “Lady Sara Marmelade” to imply that this country is controlled by Jews. In the same line, Sara Roosevelt, the American president’s mother, is suspicious for the collaborationists because of her first name. Once again, she embodies this idea that the United States, and the Allies in general, are controlled by the Jews and devoid of manhood[6].

‘Military purposes: For a swinging France in a zazou Europe…’ Ralph Soupault, Je suis partout, 6 June 1942

Antoine Godet has a PhD in Contemporary History at Angers University, France. His thesis (2017) dealt with “The political and social symbolism of fascist and fascistic movements in France and Great-Britain in the 1930s through the comparative study of the Parti Populaire Français and the British Union of Fascists”. His research themes focus on Fascism, Nazism, extreme right, representations, political symbolism, rites, liturgy, identities, communities.

Related Stories: The Gender and Antisemitism Series

Challenging Heterosexist Readings Of Women’s Holocaust Testimonies by Roseanna Ramsden


[1]
George Montandon, “Détermination psychologique de l’ethnie judaïque : “l’ethnie putain”, La Difesa della Razza, 5 November 1939, p. 18-23 ; “Les Juifs démasqués par un savant ethnologue”, La France au travail, 2 July 1940.

[2] Marcel Bucard, L’Emprise juive, Paris, C.D.F., 1938, p. 69, 86, 87 ; Jacques Doriot, Réalités, Paris, Les Éditions de France, 1942, p. 114.

[3] Lucien Rebatet, “Que devient la Roumanie ?”, Je suis partout, 28 October 1938, p. 8.

[4] George Montandon, “L’Ethnie juive devant la science”, Cahiers du Centre d’examen des tendances nouvelles, n° 1, September 1938, p. 22 ; Revivre – Le Cahier jaune. Le grand magazine illustré de la race, 5 April 1943.

[5] For example “La dame aux gants verts”, Je suis partout, 2 May 1936, p. 8.

[6] For example, Je suis partout, 23 May 1942

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