Sunday 25 February 2018

Nazis and Trump: What do our twin TV obsessions have in common?

As Donald Trump prompts comparisons to Hitler, a new TV series considers how the West might have fared under Nazi domination

Reich here, Reich now: The BBC's SS-GB
Reich here, Reich now: The BBC's SS-GB
Man In The High Castle.
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during his "Make America Great Again" rally at Orlando Melbourne International Airport in Melbourne, Florida, U.S. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Ed Power

Ed Power

As dystopias go, this one feels chillingly timely. Swastikas flutter from flagpoles. Hitler's likeness is emblazoned across postage stamps. The SS 'double lightning' symbol dominates the skyline.

These disquieting images are from new BBC alternative history drama SS-GB. Britain has been crushed by the Third Reich, with London remade in the Führer's image. The only options are to collaborate or risk your life as a member of a tiny resistance.

SS-GB, the first episode of which aired on Sunday, comes on the jackbooted heels of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle.

In this Nazi-packed caper, America has lost the Second World War to the Axis Powers, with the Imperial Japanese and Reich forces dividing the land of the free down the middle. Again, it's a proper Swastika-party, with Himmler-lookalikes directing traffic, and Third Reich regalia blinging out of every street corner.

Popular culture's obsession with Hitler and his thugs isn't new. The Len Deighton novel from which SS-GB is adapted from was published in 1977. Philip K Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle in 1961. Moreover, every war film released between 1945 and 1970 was statutorily obligated to include at least one villainous SS officer, with soulless blue eyes and blond Aryan mop.

The tradition was proudly continued by Spielberg's Indiana Jones movies, with their cackling Nazis and stage-German accents (a caricature terrifyingly parodied by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds).

Man In The High Castle.
Man In The High Castle.

Nonetheless, our current fascination with Hitler hasn't dropped from the clear blue sky. The election of Donald Trump as US President has raised the spectre of neo-fascism, with commentators noting parallels between's Trump's sweep to the White House and the Third Reich's march to power.

"People thought of Hitler… as a rabble-rousing politician," said Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder in a recent interview. "People thought of him as having limited gifts. The people from traditional political parties believed they could understand him in their own terms… they were wrong."

That isn't to say Trump's views are straight from Mein Kampf (for one thing, it is a leap to imagine him actually reading Mein Kampf all the way through). However, he has surrounded himself with high-profile members of America's so called "alt right". Most prominent among these is his White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, an unapologetic nationalist and one of the architects of Trump's 'America First' doctrine.

"Punch a Nazi" has meanwhile become an internet meme, after a violent assault on noted 'alt right' leader Richard Spencer. In January, Spencer achieved international notoriety after footage emerged of him celebrating Trump's win with a chorus of 'Hail Victory', the English translation of 'Sieg Heil'. He later received a fist in the face during a live interview - triggering an online debate as to when, if ever, it is acceptable to hit a fascist.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live

"If you put a Swastika on the front of a book it sells, if it's got Hitler in the title it sells. The Nazis are still, to use that dreadful phrase, 'sexy'. That tells us something about people nowadays and gives us an insight into the audience," says one Irish academic who has studied Hitler's rise.

"If we look at the popular base of support for Trump now and we look at the popular base of support for Hitler after 1930, it is a very similar demographic: lower middle class. There was a squeeze on the economy austerity, in other words.

"There are parallels to the austerity programme of now and then, where there are massive cutbacks in spending, raising of taxes - all of these squeezed the so-called middling classes."

"Hitler fascinates us not least because he appears in retrospect as the ultimate embodiment of evil," wrote Third Reich historian Richard J Evans, in an article assessing the rise of far right parties in Greece and Hungary. "Only Hitler deliberately launched a war of European and, ultimately - in intention at least - world conquest, planned from the moment he took power, if not earlier."

Trump's 'Make America Great Again' and 'America First' slogans, moreover, could have come straight from the Nazi playbook.

"In his speeches Hitler talks about putting the people back to work, he talks about rekindling the spirit and will of the people," the Irish academic adds. "It is about German honour. He doesn't actually say 'Germany First', but it is a parallel to that."

SS-GB may have captured lightning in a bottle, but it surely wasn't on purpose, as the series was commissioned before Trump's stunning ascent. Amazon, for its part, released the pilot of The Man in the High Castle in 2014. Yet it cannot be denied that these visions of Britain and America rebuilt in the Nazis' image feels even more unnerving in light of recent developments.

"Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman," historian Ron Rosenbaum wrote. "The Weimar establishment didn't know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They 'normalised' him."

It's long been a cliché to describe the Nazis as a warning from history. Shows such as SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle remind us that, in this new era of extremism and political polarisation, it is more important than ever to pay heed to the past.

Irish Independent

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