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The Sound and the Führer

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

Liel Leibovitz
April 20, 2010

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.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.