As the "Greatest Generation" leaves us, it's surprising that the greatest villain of the 20th Century is not more absent from the modern imagination. I suspect that the long-dead dictator Adolph Hitler is still one of the more recognizable political and historical figures, and that a random sampling would find a startling number of folks, little familiar with most current world leaders, would be able to pick the little house painter out of a line.
That said, the impact of Hitler as the leader of one of the most wantonly savage and hideous regimes in modern history is not difficult to fathom. And that little mustache, an absolute icon of either evil or silent era slapstick comedy (sorry Charlie) is not a small reason I'd suspect that the depraved Adolph is locked into our collective memories so vividly.
Certainly the comic books of the time, a heady new mass medium, were eager to make use of the Fuhrer's face to catch the attention on the street and move a few issues. It must've been a very successful ploy as Adolph Hitler (and is two amigos Mussolini and Hirohito) were featured on numerous comic book covers of the time, and the mark was so dominating that he has continued to grace a cover from time to time even in our own day.
Reading about those times, I was frankly surprised that many publishers, a breed not widely known for their pioneering courage, were so nervous about depicting the dictator, dreading some sort of financial backlash or other. As the war raged and broadened, that worry became moot of course, but early on it seems there was quite a bit of trepidation about the practice, at least early on.
Lord knows the depiction of such significant figures is not always so sanguine, as the modern conundrum about the prophet Muhammad amply demonstrates. While I'm certain that it's out of a combination of respect and deference and fear, most modern outlets for news and entertainment refrain from depicting the Prophet, bowing to the edicts of Islam, a religion many if not most publishers do not follow. This practice has no meaning for an unbeliever, though the devout are as always free to consider what they might. But the callowness of modern media to fall so willingly beneath the knife of self-censorship is at once disappointing in a nation which seems perfectly at ease with multiple forms of mockery in a wide array of sensitive areas. The much-respected cartoonist Art Spiegleman puts it very well in an article here.
Certainly the arts have never been squeamish about displaying Jesus Christ in all manner of poses and settings, seeking at times to revere and in others to demonstrate disdain for the potent religious figure. That's dandy by me, it's part of what the culture should celebrate, the free expression of ideas, ideas religious and secular as fits your fancy.
Even the Devil gets his due in the modern mass media, reduced to a figment and foil in sundry stories and dramas. In fact no quasi-deity has a richer literary canon than does Milton's noble Lord of Hell. The Devil dines among us in a gallery of fiction which is made more fierce by his presence as imagined by a legion of writers.
Other, admittedly ancient religions have long fallen into the stash of the modern imagination, giving birth to a cattle call of characters who blister across the four-colored pages and beyond to satisfy the adventurous demands of the readership. As C.K. Chesterton said “Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.”
So Hitler was once an ubiquitous part of the daily lives of many in the United States and beyond, a focal point of real terror who had the enormity of his threat diminished by the ability of cartoonists to render the dangerous dictator in absurd fashion and thus make him ridiculous.