How’s that for a title for you? Eye-catching, I suppose. Denisa and I are watching All the Light We Cannot See right now on Netflix, and while we were in the middle of an episode, it suddenly occurred to me that Nazis are almost always presented as very evil people in media. I know that’s not exactly the observation of the year or anything. I mean, who doesn’t know that? If you want to show someone’s really evil, make them a Nazi in full World War II regalia, and have them shout in German for good measure. So you’re now asking yourself why this deserves an entire blog post.
Here’s the thing (and please don’t take this the wrong way): I think we do ourselves a disservice when Nazis are consistently portrayed this way, despite the fact that I have no idea how to properly portray them. I mean, even with all the decades of “Nazis = Evil” portrayals we’ve had since the end of the war, you still get troglodytes who go out and think Nazis are somehow someone they want to emulate. So lightening that treatment of them isn’t exactly going to do wonders for our world.
Except, in addition to portraying all Nazis as bad, movies generally portray the German people during that time as either Nazis or people who hate Nazism and did everything they could to fight against it, often dying in the process. There’s not a real lot of “regular Germans” shown.
Perhaps some of this is due to the fact that this is Hollywood, and so of course they’re going to gravitate to the extremes. But I think this consistent portrayal makes it too easy to think of Germans that time as either/or. In turn, this makes it very hard for many people to relate to Germans of the time, despite the fact that (news alert) the majority of people in the past were much the same as the majority of people today, regardless of where they lived or what their political regime looked like.
In the last election before the Nazis consolidated power and turned Germany into a dictatorship, guess how many people voted for Hitler.
(If you want some very well done research and discussion, click that link and see the full article.)
About a third of the German people were for Nazis. Some of the Germans were against him, of course, but the key to Hitler’s rise to power is that not enough of Germans were against him enough for it to matter. A whole bunch of them just sort of went along with what was happening, just like people today go along with what’s happening.
I remember when I was on my mission in Weimar, Germany, talking to some of the older generation. This was back in the late 90s, so if someone had been in their 20s during WWII, they were in their 70s then. Buchenwald, a concentration camp, was just over the hill from the main city of Weimar. People told me that they all knew what was going on in Buchenwald, or at least knew enough to strongly suspect, regardless of how much the propaganda machine tried to control it. The city was downwind from the concentration camp, about 7km away. When the ovens were going, people told me you could smell them. (I’ll leave it at that.)
Germans are lovely people. I love the country and still feel a strong connection to it from my two years living among the people there. I knew plenty of 60, 70, and 80 year olds. Guess what? They weren’t evil. They also weren’t saints. They were just normal people, the same as you see here in the US. They were people who went along with what was happening in their country, because it was easier than doing anything about it. Because they weren’t being directly impacted, or because they believed the lies they were being told by all the news organizations in their country. They were just normal people.
So when we only see evil, sadistic, bloodthirsty Nazis in media, it’s just too easy for all of us to wipe our brows in relief, because we’re clearly not anything like them. We’re shown that they’re different. That people who would do what they did are different. And for some of the people in power, that was definitely the case. But for the majority of Germans?
And in many ways, that’s much (much) more alarming than any bloodthirsty, whip-wielding, German-shrieking Nazi on the silver screen ever could be.