Issue #33, September 1997
Capitalism has made it this way
Old-fashioned Fascism will take it away
— Marilyn Manson, "The Beautiful People," Antichrist Superstar
When I saw it on a remaindered book table this summer, I couldn't resist shelling out $1.50 for Newt Gingrich's briefly talked-about alternative history novel, 1945 (written with co-author William R. Forstchen in 1995). Although as a leftist I frequently indulge in the intellectual exercise of imagining Nazis both past and present, literal and metaphorical, I'd never really paused to consider what the right might think a Nazi looked like, ideologically speaking. So now I had a chance to see how Newt imagined an invasion of the United States by Nazis in 1945, an invasion that the book's jacket assures us would have occurred had Hitler not prematurely declared war on the United States.
Actually, it's not surprising that Newt chose this cultural moment to publicly imagine Nazis on American soil. According to the bi-partisan Anti-Defamation League, 1994 political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats more frequently than ever before employed the rhetorical conceit of comparing one's opponent to a Nazi, and such references have been mounting up ever since. Nazis, it would seem, are appearing on American soil with increasing regularity.
Everybody knows, after all, that Nazis are the "ultimate evil"; and that shared knowledge can be used to evoke an emotional response. We on the left often compare right-wingers to fascists, while the right complains of "feminazis" and fascist Big Government social engineering, like school lunch programs, which suppresses individual freedom. As the film Contact reminded us this summer, when it turns out that Hitler's 1936 telecast of the Olympic Games in Berlin (the first TV signal beamed into space) is the message that alerts the friendly aliens to our technological progress, representations of Nazis can mean anything at all. The irony here, the film points out, is that even the ultimate evil, sufficiently divorced from its context, can be used to represent something good. But as always, the understanding that Nazis are the ultimate evil is explicitly assumed. Yet the question arises, aside from "that which is very very bad," what do Nazis actually mean in American popular culture?
In the 1980s we learned from Raiders of the Lost Ark that they have very fashionable boots and a fetish for antiquarian artifacts. We also learned that their motivations are ideological, not material. They seek the Ark of the Covenant (a fetishized commodity if ever there was one) in order to ensure that their "Armies of Darkness" can march unimpeded toward world domination. Indiana Jones, on the other hand, although seeking the Ark for the forces of good, makes no bones about the fact he expects to be materially rewarded for his efforts. If one's motivations are not material as well as ideological, it would seem, they must be far more nefarious.
Newt's novel (no surprise here) also imagines Capitalism as antithetical to Fascism. During the novel's climax wherein the Nazis invade Oak Ridge, Tennessee's nuclear facility (and are only thwarted, by the way, thanks to a well-armed civilian militia which spontaneously assembles itself during the invasion), Newt inserts a scene in which a young Nazi commander, "Radl," before dying melodramatically, has a sudden revelation about the difference between the American and the German national character:
The Americans, though, were something different. Strange they were, almost amusing in their innocence. Would they use that new bomb of theirs the way Germany would, without hesitation?
Radl thought about it. Doubtful. Anything the world had that the Americans wanted badly enough they would simply buy. We Germans have been taught to see this as a wolf age struggle of ethnic nations; the Americans simply didn't care about such notions, could hardly comprehend them. Oh they were willing enough to fight when forced...the Americans were much tougher than a bunch of free-enterprise degenerates had any right to be.
And look at the aftermath of that war [the war against Japan]; the fallen enemy was coddled, and carefully converted to a civic philosophy designed to make future war between the two nations nearly impossible....When it came to world conquest, Americans just didn't get it.
The American "free-enterprise degenerates" are not interested in world domination or nuclear war simply because they have the power to buy anything in the world they want — economic domination, clearly, is "coddling" rather than Imperialism. In essence, Capitalism is not concerned with, in fact is an antidote to the ethnically motivated "wolf age" struggle between nations.
From Schindler's List we learn not only that Capitalism is antithetical to Fascism, but that it can even be used as a weapon against the Nazis — Schindler is able to save thousands of Jews by employing them in his factory. The Nazis in the film are not only evil, sadistic, sexually perverted, and well-dressed — all the things we have come to expect from them — they are also wildly counter-productive; they would rather kill off their workforce for the sake of ideology than merely exploit it as Capitalism dictates they ought.
But Nazis are not your typical hairy-knuckled anti-capitalist thugs, as Communists are often figured in the American popular imaginary — there are those oh-so-fashionable boots which must be accounted for. As Newt's protagonist says, "his own blood was set racing by the sense of power and glory" of a Nazi military spectacle: "It was like being aroused by a woman one despised. No matter the revulsion, despite the inner certainty that never would one yield, beneath all moral rectitude there lurked a dark, compelling attraction." Hector Babenco's 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman, in which a gay transvestite in an Argentinean prison consoles himself by fantasizing about being the female lover of the male lead in Nazi propaganda films, shows us how the "dark compelling attraction" of Nazi storm troopers noted by Newt is explicitly sexual. And of course there is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which the ultra-sexy blonde female lead who seduced both Indiana and his father turns out to be a Nazi. Clearly part of the Nazi mythos in America revolves around the sexual attractiveness of the Teutonic Ubermench (or Ubermaiden), an attractiveness that we are deeply conflicted about — since it does, after all, involve being aroused by the "ultimate evil."
Luckily for our collective consciences, the sexually appealing nature of Nazis is undermined, or at least punished, by the fact they frequently turn out to be perverts. It's not enough that they be ideologically revolting, the nature of their evil must play itself out on the psychosexual level as well. Newt obligingly provides us with a Nazi commander who likes to rape and sexually torture teenage girls with knives before killing them in a particularly grisly fashion. This monster, incidentally, trained by the superlative Nazi war machine and hardened by battling Bolsheviks on the Russian front is afraid of only one thing — "Southern Good Ole Boys," who eventually capture him (the civilian militia again) and do unspeakable things to his testicles. (Newt appeared to really enjoy writing this — the prose becomes uncharacteristically boisterous at this point). Similarly, in Stuart Heisher's 1961 film Hitler, we see Hitler's genocidal politics explained as a symptom of his psychosexual disorder — (gasp!) an Oedipus Complex. Throughout this otherwise resoundingly unmemorable film, we see Hitler lasciviously eyeing his niece (the spitting image of his mother) and then deciding to burn the Reichstag; he writhes in impotent rage as each woman who arouses him morphs into his mother, then orders a few thousand Jews killed. Then there's also Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS(1974), one of the underground Ilsa porno series, in which a very literal feminazi (blonde of course) who runs a stylized concentration camp has graphic sex with and then castrates Jewish men, dressed only in her Nazi cap and boots. And of course the use of Nazi regalia by the S&M/Fetish subculture has left us little doubt as to just what those shiny black boots mean.
What these representations show us is that Nazis are both attractive and compelling yet deviant and revolting at the same time, and that above all they must be constantly disavowed. All these depictions continually underscore how different Nazis are from us, differences that are so repeatedly emphasized they must not be immediately obvious. While they can exist as an outlet for sexual fantasies, they must also be invested with sexual pathologies that we can claim are not our own but instead the property of some foreign, "evil" nature. For instance, in 1961, when Hitler was produced and Freudian pop psychology was still just entering the mainstream, only psychopaths had Oedipal Complexes (as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho reminds us); nowadays when everybody knows that everyone's got themyou would have to share the sexual tastes of John Wayne Gacy to be truly deviant — and Nazis have changed accordingly. Hence Ilsa.
So what is at stake in our construction of Nazis as anti-capitalist sexual perverts? Certainly there is the usual use for the construction of the "Other" — to distance and protect the self from uneasy similarities between oneself and the reviled objectñyet in this case it takes a slightly different twist. Unlike how the "Low Other" is traditionally figured, with representations of Nazis what always strikes one first is that they are attractive, well-dressed, well-disciplined, and well-equipped — they constitute the "High Other" of culture, if you will. Only later comes the necessary revelation that they are in fact slathering maniacs with alien motivations and deeply twisted psychologies. While Low Others are also sexualized (volumes have been written on this), their sexualization is generally arrived at after passing through revulsion; in fact often it is the Low Other's lowly status which confers that deviant sexualization. In other words, with Low Others their exteriority is thought to match their interiority — lowly aspect equals lowly sexuality, even if it turns us on. With Nazis, on the other hand, we are told repeatedly how different they are on the inside from how they seem on the outside — they may be attractive, but boy are they evil.
So Nazis as the High Other actually serve as an alibi for our own cultural and sexual desires. We all know they stand for pernicious elitism and racism run amok — thankfully they are actually so different from us. Not only can we admire their shiny black boots, we can even wear those shiny black boots ourselves, secure in the knowledge that so long as we are Capitalists, we must not be Nazis, and if we are not Nazis, then we must not be racists.
One can only wonder, since Nazis look so different to Newt, how he feels about the fact he doesn't look all that different to Nazis: Austria's right-wing populist neo-Nazi party leader calls himself the "Austrian Newt Gingrich." The crux of his campaign? — the "Contract with Austria." Hmmm...
Freya Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in English at UC-Berkeley, writing a dissertation about humor and pain.