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The Sound and the Führer

On the 121st anniversary of his birth, what makes Hitler an Internet phenomenon?

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Adolf Hitler is mad as hell. Kanye West, the Democratic National Committee, Microsoft, even Tel Aviv’s municipality—contemporary life is sending him over the edge. In his bunker, surrounded by his top henchmen, he vents.

This, at least, is how the Internet would have it. Slapping original subtitles onto a scene from the 2004 German film Downfall, scores of YouTube auteurs have made Hitler one of the Internet’s most popular memes. The scene remains the same—the Führer, portrayed by Bruno Ganz, is livid, shouting at his generals and flailing his arms in anger—but the creative translations explore every nook of the news, from politics to pop culture. The most popular videos in this cottage industry have attracted more than 4 million viewers to date.

Much has been written about this phenomenon. For the most part, commentators either dismissed the clip as another in a long line of random and amusing Internet gags, or focused on the obvious and argued that laughing at a horror such as Hitler provided catharsis.

While such explanations are plausible, neither addresses the fundamental question at the heart of this cultural anomaly: why Hitler? Why not, say, Darth Vader? Why not Robert Duvall’s apoplectic Stalin? A host of other characters fit the bill just as well, yet we chose Hitler. And not, mind you, the Führer of The Producers or The Great Dictator; while these and other earlier comic depictions found much to mock about the Nazi leader’s power and pomp, the Internet clips find humor in Hitler’s darkest hour, when he ceases to be the bête noir of history and comes as close as we’ll ever see him to a vulnerable human being.

There’s much evidence to suggest that Internet Hitler is vastly different than former parodies of the man. Mel Brooks’s Hitler, for example, as well as Charlie Chaplin’s, made us laugh because they exaggerated the silliness evident just beneath the surface of any totalitarian enterprise, with its fetishistic approach to power and footwear and its childlike insistence on immediate gratification. Internet Hitler, however, is just the opposite. He can’t catch a break. Nothing goes his way. With few exceptions, he finds himself put down by some large and cumbersome bureaucratic organization, be it the DNC or the NFL, Microsoft or a municipality. In his energetic rant, Internet Hitler is a latter-day Howard Beale, mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

We can ask for no better endorser of our ennui. Once we overcome the joke’s initial appeal—can you imagine Hitler going on Facebook?!?—we’re left with a pulsating feeling, not always coherent, that the joke’s funny because it’s true; that Hitler would get mad at Microsoft; that even Hitler would get mad at Microsoft; that the inconveniences and annoyances that make up so much of our days are so outrageous that even the greatest architect of evil our collective imagination could evoke would find our condition utterly intolerable.

To better understand how we’ve come to feel this way about Hitler, it’s to Hitler himself we should refer, not the film version but the real historical figure. Whatever else World War II had been—a momentous battle, shaper of geopolitical realities, engine of death—we remember it now primarily as a symbol for perhaps our last great and uncomplicated war. From the mud in Faluja or the dunes of Kandahar, all we have to do to assuage the ambiguities of our current conflicts is close our eyes and think of Normandy. But specificity, of course, fades with time, and the war and everything it represents in our memory gradually became embodied in its talisman: Hitler, the Absolute Evil. Like every religious icon, when we see Hitler, we’re supposed to feel a swell of transcendental emotion: Just as the Christian beholding the crucifix should feel Jesus’s compassion and sacrifice and love, a Jew—or, for that matter, any American, or any contemporary westerner—looking at the image of Hitler should feel hateful and enraged and proud to side with the enlightened men who risked everything to rid the world of this mustachioed menace.

But just as Christ evokes a spiritual ideal that could never be obtained by us mortals, so does Hitler. We will never again have an enemy who so purely and uncomplicatedly represents all that is foul with humanity. Milosevic, Ahmadinejad, Mugabe—none has succeeded in dethroning Hitler as the universally iconic stand-in for all of humanity’s malice. We may fear them and loathe them, but we do so as humans fearing and loathing other humans. This is why the constant rhetorical gambit abused by politicians, the one about it being 1938 and the next Hitler being right around the corner, is not only historically inaccurate but also emotionally empty. Most of us won’t let ourselves get swept up by it precisely because we know—we feel!—that there could never really be another Hitler to terrify and enrage us so purely as the original once had.

And with no real Hitler, with no real evil to fight to the death, the unpleasantnesses that dot our lives loom larger and larger. The sports franchise run by greedy executives who make disheartening choices and degrade the game, the large corporation policing our hardware and software usage to maximize its profits, the clerks who regulate our city’s parking rules: They all exert so much influence, governing how we spend our free time and available income, that we’ve come to see them not so much as necessary evils but as world-historical forces. We have no more battlefields on which to infuse our lives with meaning; the battlefields we do have are teeming with doubt and confusion. If we could only imagine another Hitler, another epic battle we might once more be called to fight for the good of the world, the parking ticket may not seem so bad. But we can’t, because the point of Hitler is his singularity, his momentous stature as the sum of all our fears. Searching for the next best thing to rail against, we rail against what we see, the ephemera and detritus that make up so much of life.

Who better to express our anger, then, than Hitler? Who better to shout about the inequities that torment us? In that sense, Hitler is like a solution to a centuries-old riddle. It is this: Human nature is to seek certainty. Modernity’s nature is to inspire doubt. How would humans live as moderns? How would they tolerate uncertainty? One solution may be the creation of modern myths, markers of absolute good and absolute evil to help them navigate their way through a world bereft of both. When we laugh at Hitler’s fictitious rants, we use him to vent our frustrations, but also to color our too-frequently-relativist world with a drop of that old-time righteous rage. This is as close to an act of faith as many of us would ever get.

And yet it’s a deeply flawed habit. To return for a moment to Hitler as religious icon, it should be noted that religious icons come with religious feelings, and those—in theory, at least—develop our tolerance for the unknown and our acceptance of the immutable. Not so Hitler: Hitler refers only to himself, he teaches us nothing, he’s all sensation and no sublime transcendence. There can be no salvation with him, no moment of epiphany, only fear and rage. So, while religion—again, at its best—teaches us to accept personal responsibility and strive for change even when we realize that change is highly unlikely, Hitler encourages us just to scream. He provides us with catharsis, but not with redemption.

Is it any wonder, then, that it’s the Internet that made Hitler a pop star? What, after all, is communications on the Web—the tweets, the blogs, the status updates—if not a steady stream of sniping and snapping and snark, an agora where malcontents can shout out their frustrations for other malcontents to criticize or praise? What a blog is to writing, what a tweet is to conversation, Hitler is to a value system: shorthand, a substitute, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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Josh Lambert says:

To add an obvious point: the difference between Ganz-as-Hitler and the other examples listed (Darth Vader, Duvall-as-Stalin, and, for that matter, Chaplin’s or Brooks’ Hitler) is that Ganz’s is the only one that speaks German rather than English, which is what makes the subtitle-replacement joke possible. Also, by the way, the timing of this piece is quite coincidental: just as this article went up, the “Downfall” meme was starting to be taken down (http://openvideoalliance.org/2010/04/hitler-downfall-meme-gets-dmcad/?l=en). YouTube’s birthday present to Hitler, maybe?

Jeff Carpenter says:

not just rants of sound and fury signifying nothing of substance, but tales told by idiots . . . . last paragraph is excellent. Rants and repeals and “we’ve got to take back our country” language does nothing positive, nothing productive, nothing of value. No redemption indeed.

MMar says:

You make some interesting points, but end up being quite ridiculous, utterly.

“shorthand, a substitute, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

You think a blog is “signifying nothing” or “shorthand” to writing? The tweet-to-conversation analogy may be slightly less off-base, but to say blogs are meaningless is stupid. Blogs, to a large extent, decentralize news, is all I can say, because I don’t want to put effort in to telling you their value and utility when it comes to critically dissecting media, sharing information, and learning in classroom environments. As a student, I can’t say enough good things about blogs and how thoughtfully they can be used by people to deconstruct media or say something extremely meaningful. You really have to look at intention. Twitter messages are too small to be meaningful, but their use is for spreading information, not for a scholarly purpose– they have not substituted anything, they merely parallel normal human interactions in a slightly altered way. Educators often will use Twitter or other social networks to share information for their classes (ex. current events in the news, new applications, research, etc.), and it helps them stay connected with each other and even watch over students at times. Blogs are excellent for letting students or others write about and pursue their interests to an audience while using critical thinking skills that the class wants to teach anyway, but blogs are not made to replace any other form of writing. Merely, social networking/blogs represent different kinds of communication that have their own uses. They have their own set of difficult-to follow rules: less is more, focus, clarity, connections, etc. You can’t write off blogs as a less valid form of writing– writing reflects language, language serves the purpose of allowing us to communicate, and language evolves from climate to climate. It’s simple. You are merely reactionary.

What you say about Hitler as a transcendent figure is very interesting and accurate, but your interpretation of his presence is completely off-the-mark and comes off as really pretentious.

“we’re left with a pulsating feeling, not always coherent, that the joke’s funny because it’s true; that Hitler would get mad at Microsoft; that even Hitler would get mad at Microsoft; that the inconveniences and annoyances that make up so much of our days are so outrageous that even the greatest architect of evil our collective imagination could evoke would find our condition utterly intolerable.”

I don’t really understand this. I see what you’re saying about the joke being funny because Hitler would get mad at microsoft, too, but you could argue it also from another angle to say, and I think this is more likely, that it’s so funny because there’s no way in hell Hitler would care about Microsoft, and it’s really hilarious to knock him down a peg by turning his angry rant in to a petulant whine about something petty.

You make it seem like Hitler’s getting mad because WE are mad about our lives, too, and he justifies our anger, because he’s the most sinister man of all time. In reality, a clever 14 year old likely made that video with the simple goal in mind of making something hilarious: welcome to remix culture. It needn’t be convoluted past that point to the extreme you’re bending it to. To say he’s an endorser of our ennui is so ridiculously off-base. He’s being made fun of all the same, he’s not expressing our frustration. You simply don’t understand.

You weave this narrative that we have no more great evil in our lives to make our troubles seem lesser in comparison, and that’s why the video was made. You are saying that the viewers are supposed to identify with Hitler, and that Microsoft represents monumental evils in our lives, and we’ve come to see smaller things as the biggest evils, and justify doing so with Hitler. Couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Keep in mind, people are laughing when they watch this video. It’s ridiculous. “Hitler’s a wimp! Haha, screw that guy” we might think. Hitler is so over-the-top-transcendental evil that he has become a comedic figure, to some extent. His actions were so horrible, so extreme, we can sometimes use his extremity to make an absurd joke. It’s like a Helen Keller joke. They’re terrible, but they can be funny for exactly that reason. We shouldn’t laugh, but we do. The Hitler videos are not intended for us to self-identify with Hitler and justify our anger, but instead to parody and remix, because remix is the basis of what our culture is evolving to be. There are many internet memes where there is one original video, hundreds of remixes, and a few of such remixes are extremely funny or clever. You can see it with Rick Roll, Link CD-I, Sparta, chipmunk, or other memes, or the genre of hip hop music to some extent

“When we laugh at Hitler’s fictitious rants, we use him to vent our frustrations,”

So that is why I disagree with this above quote. This is not what he’s being used for. Just because geeks made this video and geeks care about microsoft does not mean they’re using Hitler to vent frustrations about microsoft– rather, it’s far more likely they’re making fun of both Hitler and themselves. Rather than magnify their problems, this video is used to make light of them, to make fun of them. People are upset about Microsoft for some things, and many in a techie community would have shared in that collective frustration, making Hitler express a shared frustration with them. But having Hitler rant about it so over the top not only humanizes him (rather than makes him a “religious figure”) by humiliating him, but also shows someone taking Microsoft waaaayyy too seriously, and the reason they laugh is because it’s not that serious, in reality, and they never considered it to be so serious. Technology is merely one part of life. It will change. It makes jokes.

Hitler is not a religious icon, not in any sense, not at all how you sickly twisted this meme to fit your writing. Hitler’s transcendental evil is knocked down a peg by absurd comedy, it is not intended to be relished. He becomes a whiny child, overly angry at something all techies know is not such a big deal. He diminishes the severity of their problems, which you incorrectly claim have become short-sightedly monumental in size, by expressing it to the extreme in a childish fashion.

MMar says:

I realize my writing was unclear in my comment, so let me summarize

+You claim that Hitler is being used to justify out now-gigantic anger
-this is incorrect because Hitler is actually being made fun of, and so are people who are overly upset about Microsoft.

+You claim that Hitler is made a religious figure, to identify with, as religious figures use mythology to teach us how to navigate through our lives.
-this is also incorrect, as Hitler is actually made more human by this video

+You claim rather tenuously that we think it’d be true that Hitler would care about Microsoft to have such a big rant, and it’s funny because it’s true. But this is a risky claim to make, because it’s really convoluted (Occam’s Razor is outraged by your writing) and you make so many big leaps from this tenuous claim.
-In reality, we think it’s funny because its absurdity. A movie about a sinister, evil figure has been radically transformed in to a petulant rant. I recall watching another video parody of Hitler where he complains about an online RPG, Runescape. Runescape is a joke, practically for little kids. It couldn’t possibly be justifiably that someone, especially a grown man, could get so upset over something like this. Hitler becomes more human, but strange, immature, undesirable, and unlikeable through these videos. To say anyone would want to identify with such a whiny person suggests your view of whoever made the video in the first place is very narrow, as if you think they are whiny and upset over trivial matters, as well.

I’m writing as someone who spends hours and hours on the internet every day (regrettable, but oh well), and I’m the target audience (a teenager) of such memes, and I am a fan of and familiar with many memes. I think I can safely say that my experience of the meme before you picked it apart (or rather, bent it out of shape) is probably more realistic than your interpretation. The only reason I’ve had to even write so much is to counter your points. To be facetious, the closest to transcendental meaning the Hitler videos have is ‘LOL,’ and then you can get in to the varying psychological/cultural reasons for the meme’s popularity from there, which I’d argue are far different from your erroneous parallels.

MMar says:

Pardon my typos in that last comment. “justify out anger” should say” justify our anger,” among some other small mistakes.

Elliot Feldman says:

Hitler was the anti-Moe.

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The Sound and the Führer

On the 121st anniversary of his birth, what makes Hitler an Internet phenomenon?

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