It’s pretty hard to get through the World Cup without referencing World War II (honestly, it’s pretty hard to get through anything without referencing World War II), but in a year when Germany takes the championship, it’s next to impossible. The latest comedian/sudden sports fan to jump on the Germany = Nazis bandwagon is comedian Chelsea Handler, who featured a segment on her late night show, Chelsea Lately, in which her diminutive sidekick, Chuy, appeared in a Hitler costume, ostensibly in honor of the German victory. One of her panelists quipped: “I’m a Jew, and I’m glad the Germans won. It’s nice for them to have something gold they didn’t pry out of my grandfather’s mouth.”
The ADL cried foul (perhaps the only thing more predictable than Nazi jokes at an international soccer tournament) because of the trivialization of genocide, the appearance of a Hitler moustache on television, yada yada yada. Fair enough. That’s their job, to be offended, just like Handler’s job, in a nutshell, is to give offense, and hey, we all got rent to pay. But to disavow Handler’s act in its totality (whether you think it’s funny or not) is to ignore some of the deeper identity issues at play.
Handler’s father is Jewish, and she has always publicly identified as such (matrilineal descent notwithstanding). Her mother, however, is German. In a rare moment of seriousness on the genealogical show Who Do You Think You Are? Handler expressed her lifelong fear that her grandfather, who she knew to have served in the Wehrmacht, might have been an active, or even ardent, member of the Nazi Party. The findings of the show’s team of experts were inconclusive on the matter, but they gave at least some credence to her fears: Her grandfather had a senior job in the factory of a high-ranking Nazi industrialist; he participated in a sports organization run by the SA. Eventually, he wound up as a POW in Iowa, which was how he wound up in the United States with a brood of Jewish-American grandchildren, who by all accounts he loved unreservedly.
It’s a neat American ending to a complicated story, but comedy is often a way of exorcising one’s messy personal demons. It’s fair to say that when Chelsea Handler looks at a swastika, she sees a lot more than just a cheap laugh. Rather than condemning her outright, the ADL would do well to look at her as a proponent of reconciliation, and even as one who allows old wounds to heal enough to make fun of the scars. At least until the next World Cup.