Opinion

Please Advise! How to Leverage that Hitler Brand?

With a name dropped everywhere from Pictou to Crimea, history's most heinous wonders how to exploit his infamy.

By Steve Burgess 29 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles here.

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Hitler, like it or not, is the Coca-Cola of evil.

[Editor's note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Herr Doktor,

Heil from my corner office here in the 1,000-Degree Reich! Life here in Hell is no schnitzel mit noodles, das ist wahr. Always mit der pitchfoks und der vermin und every day the radio playing "It's a Small World After All." And they make me wear der handlebar moustache to make Der Fuehrer ein big joke. Nein, I am not a happy Mein Kampfer. But ist not all bad. I don't have to waste time checking the forecast. And no chance of bumping into Gandhi. That would be awkward.

But every day while wild beasts consume mein entrails I comfort meinself that at least I am not forgotten. Der Fuehrer ist everywhere! Read the Internet comment threads (and we do -- in Hell, ist mandatory.)

My influence is found in the socialized medicine of President Obama -- this I understand from the American political philosopher Hank Williams Jr. -- and in President Putin's Crimea strategy. Also many local zoning controversies, garbage collection disputes and even der cute kitty cats. Even I with my megalomaniacal plans never dreamed I would one day be so omnipresent. Last month a Pictou Advocate newspaper cartoon had Nazi flag flying on Parliament Hill mit der caption: "Harper's Economic Action Plan." My incompetent generals could not find Pictou on the map and yet I am there. At last I have truly conquered the globe!

Please report to me Herr Doktor on this alleged Canadian Nazi initiative. Is maybe possible for Anschluss mit der Harper regime?

Regards,
Adolf Hitler
PO Box 666, Hell

Dear Adolf,

Thank you for writing. I am so glad to hear that your viscera and vital organs are devoured and renewed each day in an endless ordeal of torment. If you can send pictures, even better.

Alas, with apologies to the Pictou Advocate (and a number of frequent commenters on this very website), any suggestions that Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a jackbooted fascist thug can be filed alongside Obamacare "death panels" and claims that homosexuality causes natural disasters. Such remarks are the rhetorical equivalent of a Donald Trump hairpiece.

No, for all its flaws, bitter infighting and corruption, Canada is a functioning democracy run by differing but largely well-meaning public servants. No chance of an Anschluss (a word for "union" that came to refer to the Nazi takeover of Austria. But then, poisoning a perfectly good German term is certainly one of your lesser crimes.)

You're quite right though, Adolf. Your name pops up constantly wherever tempers flare and accusations fly, a process codified by Godwin's Law which says as an Internet discussion thread continues, the likelihood of someone being compared to you becomes increasingly certain. It's not just online either -- politicians love to invoke your name for all manner of issues. In 2010 a Georgia Republican suggested illegal aliens should be shot on sight, comparing the battle against illegal immigration to the war against the Nazis. The Pictou Advocate is not the first nor will it be the last publication to take your evil name in vain.

There's even a certain logic to it. When it comes to villainy, Herr Hitler, you and the Nazis are the market leaders. If someone gets angry, who else are they going to invoke?

Hitler, the real thing

There's a similar (if more benign) process at work in the common misattribution of popular quotes. It seems virtually every clever aphorism ever coined, regardless of origin, ends up being credited to either Mark Twain or Albert Einstein. Twain and Einstein have become the Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies of wisdom -- the rest are just store brands. Same with you, Adolf. You are the Coca-Cola of Infamy.

What's interesting in the current Ukrainian crisis is that some of the Hitler comparisons are actually being made judiciously, by serious people. Hillary Clinton's is only the most prominent voice to draw attention to the similarities between Russian President Vladimir Putin's strategy in Crimea and your own swallowing of Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland region in 1938. Putin's ominous argument that he has a mission to protect ethnic Russians in other jurisdictions is indeed the same justification offered by Nazi Germany for dismembering Czechoslovakia.

Alas, as the Pictou Advocate demonstrates once again, Hitler/Nazi comparisons are almost never a good idea. A Hitler reference is a rhetorical hydrogen bomb; any point being attempted is lost in the resulting explosion. When you mention Hitler you don't get to do it a la carte, referencing just a single aspect of a vicious career. It's a package deal. Even if Putin is employing one strategy from the Nazi playbook no one can reasonably argue that he is intent on genocide and/or world domination.

It's almost a shame that the Third Reich is off-limits to reasoned discourse. The fact that the Nazis took power through a combination of elections and parliamentary manoeuvring is a reminder that you do have lessons to teach us, Mr. Fuehrer. But translating those lessons into rhetorical attacks will never fly. When it comes to political debate, even a little drop of Hitler is poison in a well.

No laughing matter?

Then there's the issue of Hitler humour. To mock or not to mock? Mel Brooks pulled it off with Springtime for Hitler in The Producers. In 1940 Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator, playing the mustachioed tyrant Adenoid Hynkel who dances rapturously with a globe. In 1943 even Walt Disney took a run at you as Donald Duck starred in a cartoon version of Spike Jones' satirical song "Der Fuehrer's Face," complete with a Hitler cuckoo clock. Back then though, Hitler was not a concept but a living menace.

Actually, Adolf, you're worse than Satan (please say "hi" if you get the chance and thank him for adultery and bacon and schadenfreude). Many depictions of the Devil have been sympathetic and nuanced. I particularly like Nicole Hollander's Sylvia cartoons in which the Devil doesn't have to chase people for their souls; he just sits back and takes orders from all his willing customers. ("I want to refinance my soul," one disgruntled client says. "You're going to take a bath on points," the Devil clucks.) Your problem, Hitler -- and the world's -- was that you weren't fictional.

Even Chaplin eventually repented of his mockery. "Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps," Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography, "I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis."

I'm glad he did. But perhaps it really is a sin to make fun of history's greatest monster. If so, Adolf, guess I'll see you in Hell.  [Tyee]

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