Monday, July 6, 2015

Hitleresque!


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.


I can understand why folks might not want to allow depictions of the Prophet to be captured and used for such rhetorical purposes, but the terms of the debate are not always ours to choose. Letting the dangerous air out of the balloon is important, or the looming threat appears ever more implacable.

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6 comments:

  1. The seemingly-endless proliferation of documentaries about Hitler and the Nazis on cable / satellite TV channels shows the little psychopath's huge shadow still creeps across the media landscape. And the worrying thing is that there are groups of people ( predominantly in Eastern Europe ) who would be quite happy to carry on his detestable work today...
    That was a fine post, Rip! Well-argued points and some great illustrations from the past. And a quote from GKC! Great stuff!

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    1. There a couple of reasons why I think people are still fascinated by Hitler - one he's safely dead and cannot himself cause them trouble, so they can malign him all they want (and he truly deserves it) without qualm. Another reason is the magnitude of his crimes still baffles people who cannot fathom how humans can become so disconnected from their fellow men. But in a world where drones bomb away with casualties, many innocent, mounting up, that's not something we should imagine is such an alien concept.

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  2. Indeed it is ridiculous that Islamics expect us to not draw Muhammad. And as a Librarian I face another issue, Islamics dont like the Koran shelved on a low shelf. So either you put it in the religious section where it belongs and any Islamic that comes in freaks out. Or you mis-shelve it up high to keep the peace.

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    1. I was not aware of that issue with regards to Islam. Hmm.

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  3. Replies
    1. Thanks. I know you've been out front on this issue for some time. I'm not quite as sure being in your face as Charlie Hebdo was is useful, but they should be able to do what they desire if speech is what we value.

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