Like anyone with an iPhone, I recently downloaded a new app. It was called “iStalin,” and it had an ugly, monochromatic design—a headshot of the brutal man in Apple’s trademark rounded-corners square—but within moments, it transformed my apartment into Nov. 7, 1941. I listened to Stalin expounding against the barbarian German invaders. My four Soviet grandparents likely heard this same speech decades ago, but now there were no Nazis, and my 2-year-old was sleeping down the hall. Instead, I was left with chills, as if my phone, normally so faithful and reassuring, had betrayed me.
A few more taps and swipes to download a different app, and I could listen to over 100 speeches from il Duce. Since I don’t know Italian, I opted for the “songs of Fascism” section, where I read the lyrics to the hymn “Battaglioni M”in English accompanied by an Italian recording: “Duce’s battalions/ Death’s created for life battalions/ … Without hatred there’s no love around.” “Adolf Hitler ST,” an encyclopedia of Hitler’s life, presented me with categories that included Architecture, The Occult, Hitler’s Women, and Dead [sic]. The Holocaust was not listed. The app was available in English and German, at a cost of 99 cents. It was filed under Education.
On the Internet, there are plenty of satirical Tumblrs and comedy sketches, but to date no comparable iPhone apps for the Osama Bin Ladens or the Kim Jong-ils. (Someone has already developed an interactive version of Muammar Qaddafi’s influentialGreen Book, the 1975 collection of his views.) If nothing else, information moves more swiftly than it did for our grandparents. But as it turns out, in the public square owned by Apple, a fiercely private company, is a tiny, overlooked, corner devoted to a strange subset of app—let’s call it the dictator app. The offerings are an unexpected twist on the “there’s an app for that” ethos, the same one that allows us to share photos of our kids, track our weight loss, and do our banking. This was not how our grandparents interacted with the figures who determined the unfolding of their lives. This is not—at least not yet, despite the so-called Twitter revolutions—how the world interacts with its dictators and madmen.
Technology flattens out differences, and no more so than on an iPhone where “iStalin” takes up the same square of real estate as a bill reminder and Dr. Seuss. But does such material belong on our phones, tucked away in our pockets for instant, effortless access? And if not, then where does it belong in a digital age, and who gets to distribute it? If Stalin’s speeches were being piped through the intercom at the local Barnes & Noble café, we’d know exactly what to do. But when it comes to our haloed iPhones, we’ve lost our certainty about the line between propaganda and history. After all, isn’t unfettered access to information supposed to be a democratic right?
“iHitler,” an encyclopedic offering, didn’t make it through Apple’s vaunted approval process (it’s now called, simply, “Hitler”); but apps named “iStalin” and “iMussolini” did. There are a number of game and other mocking apps featuring the likes of Hitler and Stalin (as well as Putin and Kim Jong-il) in the app store, but the kind of app under review here is not a game, but rather a fleet propaganda delivery system, with speeches, images, films, writing, and some biographical information, packaged as history. (It’s worth noting that Apple banned a Dalai Lama app at China’s behest.) Words like “great,” “powerful,” and “emblematic” appear often in the descriptions of the eponymous figures. Words like “dictator,” “terror,” and “genocide” are glaringly absent.
Add in the language of new media, with its emphasis on sharing and convenience, and these apps offer a platform for a twisted mash-up of past and present. Take the app “Stalin,” which introduces its material, “drawn from Wikipedia,” like so:
Joseph Stalin was one of the most influential leaders of the Soviet Union. His actions defined its development and made a tremendous impact on the world stage. Read all about him with this Joseph Stalin eBook. It provides you with a truly remarkable account of this interesting man’s life. … Reading the book is a snap. It is organized into chapters so you can read about the specific part of Stalin’s life that you are interested in.
Similarly, the app “Adolf Hitler ST” announces in stilted English to potential buyers:
[I]nside this Encyclopedia: You can copy full text and full pictures, to paste and send by eMail or to paste to any document inside your device to share or study later. You can zoom (in/out) all text and graphics, using two fingers to enlarge or double TAP to zoom out. This encyclopedia of Adolf Hitler digital studio can be used for university, college, or within the family and extend our knowledge. … This is one of many low price encyclopedic applications on a great repertoire. And of course your comments and emails are always welcome for updates, suggestions and provide a better service for you.
We expect the non-jokey version of hate speech to be relegated to the Web’s dark holes, its neo-Nazi and conspiracy sites. The app store is where apps go to get legitimized. But aside from “iMussolini,” which was covered as a novelty in the Italian press, none of the dictator apps have received much notice.
As jarring as the apps may seem to U.S. audiences, they are hardly out of place in a broader debate on historical revisionism taking place in Europe, especially across the post-Soviet world. Ellen Rutten, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bergen in Norway who is part of the group of researchers behind Web Wars, documenting how the Soviet era, particularly Soviet trauma, is reflected online in blogs and social media, sees lots of nonchalance toward factual truth and a tendency to glorify the Stalinist era, ideas that are given greater currency with the spread of mobile devices.
“People create popular history online that’s more fractured and doesn’t have a lot of truth to it,” she said. “But people aren’t really interested in history—they’re trying to create an identity about themselves, their politics. Public space in Russia is still semi-authoritarian, so people find space online.” Without other outlets for processing memory and trauma, she said, the Stalin apps make a lot of sense.
The experience of “iMussolini” is instructive. When it was first released in the Italian iTunes store, it became the country’s second-most popular app, reaching 1,000 daily downloads. Jewish groups, Holocaust survivors, and the Young Italian Communists were quick to protest. The 25-year-old who developed the app was quoted defending free speech in a smattering of news stories, and the app was pulled, ostensibly for copyright violations. But within a few weeks, it was re-approved and forgotten. That was two years ago. Just a few weeks ago, I downloaded “iMussolini” in under two minutes, for 99 cents.
A commenter in La Reppublica best captured the confused response to the apps, writing, “This is really a flabbergasting phenomenon, especially when you consider that the iPhone has gained cult status for the Facebook and Web 2.0 generation. These aren’t nostalgic old people and historians of the fascist era but kids and young adults who spend time and money on the Internet and get their information from it.”
All this raises uncomfortable questions about our relationship with the Apple Mothership—the private company that’s increasingly replacing, or mediating, our public spaces and mundane daily transactions. When controversy arises, it’s an ugly reminder that we are consumers, not citizens. (Apple did not respond to interview requests.) And it’s also a reminder of the immediacy of new technology and its consequences. After all, we’ve had 65 years to discuss whether Mein Kampf should be on the library shelf.
In the smartphone world, our librarians and academics have been replaced by developers, who may lack doctorates but have plenty of coding know-how and access to Wikipedia. The result is that we can now simply download “Stalin” and begin reading his body of work. And the apps reveal a smorgasbord of interests, from dictators to yoga. Take the developer of “HD Adolf Hitler,” whose 32 other encyclopedic apps include “Life to Jesus,” “HDnostrodamus,” “HD Pearl Harbor,” “Biological Warfare HX,” as well as offerings on nail disease, sharks, obesity, and one called, instructively, “Kinds of Birds.”
In interviews, Luigi Marino, who developed “iMussolini,” has said of his controversial subject: “It’s a delicate page in our history that should never be forgotten. … The app does not intend to encourage violence in any way.” You can almost hear the shrug. At best, perhaps he’s just too naive to understand why people might take issue; at worst, he seems cavalier about the protests of Holocaust survivors whose objections he doesn’t even acknowledge. Though he did later release “iGandhi” as a sign, he said, of goodwill, it was followed by “Hitler” and “iStalin,” and more recently, “iSilvio!” poking fun at Italy’s former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
“iMussolini” sits now at about 200 monthly downloads, and Marino’s other apps, which are free, generate a couple hundred daily. He now claims that he continued developing his dictator line of apps, rather than for Gandhi and his ilk, because “these characters are interesting from a historical perspective.” The controversy and resulting attention probably didn’t hurt his sales.
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