Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Nor­mal­ized in Con­tem­po­rary Culture

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
  • Review
By – August 25, 2015

The Nazi era con­tin­ues to stand as an excep­tion­al­ly hor­rif­ic peri­od of his­to­ry, and its geno­ci­dal poli­cies as sin­gu­lar and extreme.This view, how­ev­er, is chal­lenged and atten­u­at­ed by a pow­er­ful wave of nor­mal­iza­tion, Gavriel D. Rosen­feld argues in this fas­ci­nat­ing and impor­tant book, par­tic­u­lar­ly evi­dent as we entered the new mil­len­ni­um. This wave of nor­mal­iza­tion man­i­fests itself in many areas of con­tem­po­rary intel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al life, appear­ing in seri­ous works of schol­ar­ship and jour­nal­ism; in pop­u­lar nov­els, film, and tele­vi­sion pro­grams; and most promi­nent­ly in inter­net cul­ture and social media.

As the mass mur­der of mil­lions of inno­cent peo­ple is nor­mal­ized — even triv­i­al­ized and vul­gar­ized — a cat­a­stroph­ic his­to­ry is light­ened of its his­tor­i­cal bur­den. The very suc­cess of the Holocaust’s wide dis­sem­i­na­tion has worked to under­mine its grav­i­ty and ren­der it more famil­iar. Rosen­feld adept­ly explores his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal and cul­tur­al trends across the globe with sug­ges­tive sec­tions on devel­op­ments in film, lit­er­a­ture, and espe­cial­ly cyber­space to trace this process of nor­mal­iza­tion and its goal of over­turn­ing the excep­tion­al­i­ty of the Nazi era. The irony is the more famil­iar the Holo­caust and Hitler’s image become, the more they are pre­sent­ed in humor­ous and iron­ic ways, the more they under­mine the ter­ri­ble real­i­ty of the Holo­caust. Memes like Dis­co Hitler,” Advice Hitler,” and Hip­ster Hitler” have gone viral on the inter­net. What we are wit­ness­ing is the Holo­caust being turned into some­thing else:a repos­i­to­ry of lessons” about man’s inhu­man­i­ty to man, a metaphor of vic­tim­iza­tion in gen­er­al, a rhetoric for par­ti­san pol­i­tics, a rel­a­tiviz­ing of Nazism’s immoral­i­ty by blur­ring the line between the Nazi per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims, a cin­e­mat­ic or lit­er­ary back­drop for melo­dra­mas, and mate­r­i­al for satir­i­cal and comedic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Nazi era and Hitler that have anes­thetized the Nazi legacy.

There was a time not too long ago when Hitler and Nazis were viewed as sym­bols of extrem­i­ty and rad­i­cal evil. Today, their ubiq­ui­ty has giv­en them the appear­ance of nor­mal­i­ty. For increas­ing num­bers of peo­ple the Nazi era has lost its his­tor­i­cal speci­fici­ty and has come to mean almost any­thing. Rosen­feld believes that the mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust will prob­a­bly con­tin­ue to be con­test­ed and deter­mined by dialec­ti­cal forces; remem­brance will be shaped by the ongo­ing strug­gle between nor­mal­i­ty and the coun­ter­vail­ing forces of moral­i­ty and sin­gu­lar­i­ty. As extra­or­di­nary and provoca­tive study shows, the steady nor­mal­iza­tion of the Holo­caust, togeth­er with the pas­sage of time and the dimin­ish­ing num­ber of sur­vivor voic­es, will blunt the hor­rors of this his­to­ry and con­tin­ue to ren­der them less out­ra­geous and ulti­mate­ly less hor­ri­ble. Any­one inter­est­ed in how his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry — par­tic­u­lar­ly of the Holo­caust — is cre­at­ed and trans­formed, will find this book indispensable.

Relat­ed Content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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