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Fascists Know How to Turn Mockery Into Power

Satirists who mean to cut down fascists can end up boosting their ideas.

By , a freelance writer in Chicago.
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit.
Taika Waititi and Roman Griffin Davis in the 2019 film Jojo Rabbit. Twentieth Century Fox

Karl Marx wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” If he’d lived in our day, he might have said the same thing about Adolf Hitler. Once the Nazi leader was the solemn embodiment of evil, cruelty, and hatred; he was a warning and a moral lesson. Now, he’s a joke. Thanks to internet meme-makers, Hitler is famous for disco dancing and looking like cats. Hitler: He has a dumb mustache. He’s excitable. He’s funny.

Making Hitler funny can be a way to diminish, mock, or insult him; humor and irreverence can challenge evil. But they don’t necessarily challenge fascism. Ironic, aestheticized, anti-establishment Hitler is in many respects congruent with the original irreverent, anti-establishment aesthetic of the Nazi Party. That’s an aesthetic that the alt-right has consciously tried to recapture today. As a result, funny Hitler and his modern acolytes often have the last laugh.

Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s 2014 book, Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past Is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture, provides a thorough outline of how Hitler became fun. Early representations of the Führer in pop culture were often satirical and goofy. Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 The Great Dictator portrayed the fictitious dictator Adenoid Hynkel engaged in vicious food fights with his Italian counterparts. The would-be ruler of a thousand-year Reich couldn’t even tear spaghetti in half.

Following the war, though, Chaplin admitted that he couldn’t have made the film if he’d “known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps.” That moralistic reticence defined representations of Hitler for decades. Films from 1955’s The Last Ten Days to 1981’s The Bunker portrayed Hitler in serious, documentary style, often in the days before his ignominious defeat.

That tradition persists, as 2004’s Downfall makes clear. But since the turn of the century, Hitler has increasingly been portrayed in less sober ways. Movies like Inglourious Basterds (2009) and television shows like Preacher (2016-2019) have picked up where Chaplin left off some 80 years ago, using slapstick and exaggeration to portray Hitler as preposterously contemptible. In 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, the titular Jojo, a young boy in Nazi Germany, dreams up Hitler as his imaginary friend, who provides gushing encouragement. “Sure, you’re a little bit scrawny and a bit unpopular and you can’t tie your shoelaces even though you’re 10 years old, but you’re still the bestest, most loyal little Nazi I’ve ever met!” Fascists are infants who need a Hitler teddy bear.

Most of the funny Hitlers are intended to mock and insult Nazis. When Jojo tells Hitler to “fuck off” and kicks him through a window, it’s pretty clear where the filmmaker stands. But even here, where the joke is on Hitler, it’s also at least partially a dig at the moralistic tradition of Hitler representation.

This is clearest in the proliferation of memes from Downfall, in which clips of the film are decked out in new subtitles so the Führer ends up throwing a tantrum about his broken PlayStation 4 or about the Red Wedding scene in Game of Thrones. The triviality makes Hitler look preposterous. But it also makes the serious portrayals of Hitler look fusty and tired. A whole movie of Hitler being evil and boring? Lighten up, dude.

Hip denigration of a tedious status quo can be entertaining and energizing—but it’s not necessarily anti-fascist. On the contrary, kicking the squares is perfectly congruent with fascist attitudes and style. Robert O. Paxton’s classic The Anatomy of Fascism explains that fascist movements explicitly framed themselves in opposition to a safe moralistic consensus. “Fascist contempt for the soft, complacent, compromising center was absolute,” he writes.

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin argued: “The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” What this means is that part of the allure of fascism is the way it makes politics more fun, replacing dreary reasoned policy discussions with spectacle, symbol, and emotion.

Current neo-Nazis are very aware of the tradition of fascist anti-establishment aesthetics. They’ve rebranded themselves as “alt-right” to make themselves sound like a hip contrast to the traditional right, and online they use silly frog memes to make themselves seem loopy, irreverent, and entertaining. Leading figures like Milo Yiannopoulos linked white nationalist communities and video gamers, positioning fascism as a defense of exhilarating violent, sexist culture against boring establishment scolds.

Making Hitler funny may be a break with the reverence Hitler demanded at gunpoint. But it also ends up being a way to give Hitler back his aesthetics and part of his glamor. When Downfall Hitler launches into an attack on road construction, it’s incongruous and absurd. But it’s also Hitler getting you to cheer along as he attacks the incompetence and inconvenience of a sclerotic democratic bureaucracy—and attacking sclerotic democratic bureaucracy is a thing that the real Hitler actually did. A dollop of humor makes the anti-establishment rage go down easy, not least because it distracts you from the fact that the “establishment” in question is just anyone the fascists decide to target. As the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein explains, “drain the swamp” is a successful slogan precisely because it’s a catchier way to say “liquidate our enemies.”

The fascist appeal of funny Hitler is perhaps most queasily evident in the 2015 German film Look Who’s Back, based on a hugely successful 2012 novel. Hitler (portrayed by Oliver Masucci) wakes up one day to find himself in contemporary Germany and has to adjust to modern life. Fish-out-of-water set pieces show him battling a small dog and trying to get his underwear cleaned.

But the movie also includes reality television-style sections in which Masucci, in character as Hitler, wanders around and interacts with German people. Everyone obviously knows that this is not the real Hitler—and that frees them up to behave jokingly like Nazis. Some give the Nazi salute. Some tell “Hitler” they agree with him about immigrants or even about setting up camps.

The filmmakers turn Hitler into a symbol of himself. But that doesn’t diminish him. Instead, it effectively calls Germans to their own hatred. Humor and parody relax the moralistic bonds of convention, creating a space in which people feel comfortable embracing Hitler as their own. Look Who’s Back intends to parody and mock the Führer, and it does that. But it also ends up suggesting that parody and mockery are as likely to spur fascism as to combat it. As the comedian Peter Cook dryly observed, the satirical political cabarets of Weimar did not prevent the rise of the Nazis.

Of course, Hitler humor isn’t necessarily fascist. It’s just not necessarily anti-fascist either. If you search “Hitler memes” on the internet, you’ll see some anti-fascist humor, but you’ll also come up with a lot of alt-right anti-Semitic “jokes.” Fascism likes to portray itself as irreverent even as it represses dissent. It claims that it’s an alternative to the status quo even as it sets about murdering marginalized people. Nazi claims to humor, like all Nazi claims, should be ruthlessly refuted, spat on, and mocked. But for precisely that reason, if you’re going to use Hitler as a joke, you need to be very careful that the joke isn’t on you.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.