Will Hitler Ever Die? or the Formal Name as Index of the Real
Stars and Stripes lets us know
No, I’m not going to subscribe to some of the fun theories about Hitler’s death: that he escaped to South America, to the South Pole, to the inside of the earth or that, even less seriously, They Saved Hitler’s Brain! What do all the circulating rumors about Hitler tell us, why is it that the sort of uniqueness of Hitler is maintained to varying degrees of ridiculousness?
Think of one of the early ignorant comments against cloning – that ‘oh, well what if you cloned Hitler, then what!?’ That fact that someone could have said that seriously should be worrisome not just because of the lack of science (though some believe that the neurological construct of memories could be copied – this is the idea of engrams but even then there is the whole nurture argument – he would grow up very differently) but because it assumes some special evil capacity that Hitler possessed.
[I think my favorite representation of this a Twilight Zone episode from a few years ago where a woman is trained to go undercover as a housekeeper and is sent back in time to murder the infant Hitler. When another housekeeper sees the murder of the infant she panics and bribes a homeless Jewish woman to sell her baby which she puts in Hitler's place. The twist being of course that the infant grows up to be the actual Hitler. Oh the irony!!!]
The special place we grant Hitler comes up in more ‘historical’ treatments as well.
Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film Der Untergang (Downfall) which portrays the last days of Hitler in his fortified bunker in Berlin caused a global reaction to its supposed humnization.
David Denby of the New Yorker reviewed the film and said the following:
“Considered as biography, the achievement (if that’s the right word) of “Downfall” is to insist that the monster was not invariably monstrous—that he was kind to his cook and his young female secretaries, loved his German shepherd, Blondi, and was surrounded by loyal subordinates. We get the point: Hitler was not a supernatural being; he was common clay raised to power by the desire of his followers. But is this observation a sufficient response to what Hitler actually did? “Downfall” is an expensive, full-scale re-creation of life in the bunker. Himmler, Goebbels, Speer—they are all here, the entire fascinating, loathsome crew of commanders, mad visionaries, and toadies (all brilliantly acted), but never has the Nazi era seemed so close to banality or, in an odd way, to reassurance.”
He goes on to write -
“The war’s end is presented as a standard military defeat, and as the tragedy of a misguided regime, and not, as many of us would see it, as a liberation from complicity in a nightmare.”
Denby does not take his own advice and in the end decides to view Hitler, and Nazism, as simply inhuman. The idea that the fact that Hitler loved his dog is obviously not a response to what he was responsible for, the only ‘response’ to what Hitler did is to evaluate it, to think about it. It is also very telling that the banality that Denby sees in the film (and yes it’s there – when Hitler isn’t exploding over a map and cursing his generals he eats, is sweet to his lover and so forth) is attributed to Nazism and not the Nazis themselves, as if there is something inherent in them that is not banal. But of course they’re banal, they know their doom is approaching as waves of Soviets enter Berlin. To label them as simply as monstrous, instead of thinking of how/why they birthed a monstrosity, only inhibits real thinking about the event of Nazism and of the name Hitler.
Alain Badiou’s discussion of Sylvain Lazarus’ work The Anthropology of the Name works well to point out the tension between Hitler as a obscure monstrosity and as a very unique form of evil. For Lazarus the name “opens up thought” (Metapolitics 29) and does not have a descriptive function but a prescriptive function (ibid. 32). Ultimately the “name is always the index of an overbalancing of what exists into what can exist, or from the known towards the unknown” (Ibid. 31). The point is that while it seems we would like to ‘close the book’ on Hitler, to say he is a monster and nothing more we at the same time endlessly drag him from the grave and put him on display, we march Hitler clones infinitely across the screen. The lost aura of such copying is not the ‘authenticity’ of the original Hitler but of the possibility of being anything at all with the cloned body of Hitler other than to prove us right. [With aura and cloning I am referring to Jean Badurillard's discussion of Walter Benjamin's well known article on art and mechanical reproduction in Simulacra and Simulation.]
So to criticize Hirschbiegel’s film as a humanization of Hitler is a worthless critique, it speaks to the need for many to capture and crystalize the evils of Nazism under the formal name Hitler. What comments like Denby’s point out is not that there’s people trying to make more ‘sympathetic’ versions of Hitler but that we are awfully afraid of recognizing that Hitler was human, all too human. It is much easier to say the formal name Hitler embodies a particular form of evil than to say that Hitler represents a powerful human capacity that can lead to almost unimaginable misery. The material and historical construction of Hitler speaks little to how he accomplished what he did. Because adding war torn Germany, nationalism and people such as Hitler does not explain the event of Nazism but neither does granting some sense of a priori evil to a sad little man explain it either.
Filed under: Badiou, film, history, politics, Ranciere | 4 Comments