Will Hitler Ever Die? or the Formal Name as Index of the Real

17May07

The word is out

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.
Downfall

Downfall

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.
Sad Hitler

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4 Responses to “Will Hitler Ever Die? or the Formal Name as Index of the Real”

  1. 1 purloinedcoin

    I was actually thinking of this film after having seen this video: http://www.circulobellasartes.com/ag_humanidades_contenidos.php?ele=246

    a point that recurs in the lectures at least is the one where Zizek tries to dispel the notion of the inner self as enjoying a more authentic position than the external self, with his saying something to the effect of, “if we were to define an enemy as someone whose side we haven’t heard yet, we must be prepared to identify Hitler as simply someone whose side we haven’t heard.” Of course, I won’t bother to go on and belabor and repeat points that you have succinctly pointed out.

    I just have a question with regard to whether this film can be critiqued for “showing Hitler’s side”, not so much for its humanizing effects, but for its perpetuating the security and comfort found in an inner self. And perhaps these two accusations can collapse into one another, but I had figured that the act of humanization always somehow predicates some sort of valorization that speaks to the brand of particularism found in the “big issues” like abortion, gay marriages, capital punishment, etc. whereas the latter speaks to a more universally structural level. There’s a chance that my own schematic distinctions are unsound and I’d be interested, as always, to hear any remarks about this.

    also, I thought this might be somewhat related to the topic. But generally I find that my background with psychoanalysis and the other theories that build up to it is very weak leading me up to work with what I have in order to draw some sort of personal ownership of the issues you speak of in your posts. Hopefully, again, I’m not completely off the mark and that this video is somewhat related to the sort of material scapegoating/deification of the relentless evil you mention:

    http://www.searchmyvideo.com/watch/107303324/bougar/

  2. 2 naughtthought

    I know Zizek points out in Taylor’s documentary that he hates it when people play the game “although I am ____(evil, racist, etc) I am actually a loving human being who enjoys simple pleasures etc” – meaning that he is annoyed when people try to maintain a distance which simply allows them to get away with awful things. For Zizek the role we ‘play’ is more ‘real’ than any ‘true’ or ‘inner self.’ I don’t think that Downfall maintains this gap at all, I think it shows that Hitler had a kind of flawed mind that ran through all aspects of his life. So in other words I don’t think that the film points out Hitler did terrible things BUT he was a flawed man, I think the film says Hitler was a flawed man who did terrible things by pursuing something horrible (concept of an Aryan race). I think Zizek would agree with this in that he has (controversially) referred to Nazism as a ‘right step in the wrong direction.’

  3. 3 purloinedcoin

    sorry for the delayed response. I’m in the middle of finishing up work after having secured extensions for them. At any rate:

    I swear, Zizek is certainly one of those reasons why repeat viewings of films ought to be mandatory, since I failed to pick up on the significance of that particular statement as it relates to this discussion.

    But I must still admit to some confusion about the issue of whether _Downfall_ maintains or dissolves the gap between the inner self and the “mask.” Does the movie actively refuse to maintain the gap, thus closing it, or does it merely neglect it? And does the film then reconcile Hitler as Fuhrer with Hitler the man “who enjoys simple pleasures?” And does the right step that Zizek refers to then entail a full ownership of one’s deeds whereas the “wrong direction” is an expression of Zizek’s own personal ethical preference?

    Thanks again.


  1. 1 ¿Morirá Hitler alguna vez? (El nombre formal como índice de lo Real) « PENSAMIENTO DEL VACÍO

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