The headline in The New York Times would have caught anybody's eye: "When The Nazis Became Nudniks." It ran above a feature about "The Producers," the musical comedy hit on Broadway created by Mel Brooks, based on the hit movie by Mel Brooks.
The outrageous plot, as insomniacs know, is about two flimflam artists who sell several rich old ladies half-interest in a play, and look for a script so bad it's guaranteed to bomb and they can run away to Brazil with the loot. They find the script and turn it into a musical they call "Springtime for Hitler," with a Busby Berkeley finale replete with a chorus line of leggy girls in black boots dancing in a revolving swastika while Adolf and Eva cut a gay rug in a romp-and-stomp at Berchtesgaden. It's hard to imagine anything more tasteless. You can guess what happens next.
Satirizing Hitler, as we all know, is great fun. Charlie Chaplin demonstrated that when he impersonated the little dictator, holding a black comb over his upper lip and raising his right arm in a crazy salute to himself. Berlin cabarets in the 1920s rocked with satirical depictions of der Fuhrer as a foolish pervert who wanted to purify der Deutschland for cranks like himself.
Our fascination with the Nazis is not only with its evil, writes J. Hoberman, "but also with their status as pioneers of spectacular politics - ecstatic mass rallies, orchestrated media campaigns, eroticized violence, pseudo-documentaries created to glorify a pop-star political leader."
Comedy sharpens awareness of who the Nazis were while diluting the shock at the evil they spawned. Pop culture shortens historical memory while trivializing it, paving the way for sloppily reasoned analogies.
One comic episode of the television hit "Seinfeld" depicted Jerry and his girlfriend making out during a showing of the movie "Schindler's List," a film about a small-time Nazi crook who winds up saving Jews.
The movie delivered the Holocaust into mainstream American culture. Steven Spielberg, who made the movie, achieved the status of historian and race expert when he was asked to testify before a congressional committee about "hate crimes." The Holocaust, of course, was not a movie and Steven Spielberg was not a witness to it. When horror becomes familiar, it's easily manipulated.
Other examples of absurd analogies and glib comparisons abound. Woody Allen says he endured his personal scandals (seducing the daughter of his movie star mistress) by reading tales of the Holocaust and extracting lessons from them: "Those who focused on what was actually happening to them - the daily horror ... the reality of it - they survived."
Denise Rich, the wealthy socialite implicated in the scandal over Bill Clinton's pardon of her fugitive former husband Marc Rich, was described by a friend as inheriting her toughness and tenacity from her father the Holocaust survivor: "Her father never gave up. She never gives up."
Whereas the Holocaust once inspired near-universal support for the idea of a Jewish homeland, enemies of Israel now routinely equate Jews with Nazis. An Arab-sponsored text for a "United Nations Conference Against Racism," to be held next month in South Africa, describes Jewish settlements on the West Bank and Gaza as "crimes against humanity."
"This is harsh language about Israel and Israeli policies," says an American official. If the proponents of the language persist, "the world conference itself could be badly destabilized." (Let's hope.) Words are important, notes Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister. "Auschwitz began with words, the same as all forms of racism."
When the evocation of Nazi Germany could actually teach a specific lesson of history, we ignore it. If you're a member of the Falun Gong, it's not difficult to draw parallels between the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the games planned for Beijing in 2008.
Only this week, the Chinese government put a U.S.-based American scholar on a sham trial for espionage and sentenced her to 10 years in prison for passing along copies of previously published material about Taiwan. The Olympics can provide spectacular propaganda for any repressive or totalitarian regime.
Those who argued that the Olympics would move Hitler toward benign change were, as it turned out, wrong. (Dead wrong.) The only changes were temporary. Anti-Jewish signs were taken down, laws against foreign homosexuals were suspended and Joseph Goebbels ordered his censors to make sure that "the racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sporting results."
A cartoon in the Jewish Chronicle captured the spirit of the changes with this definition of Berlin Olympic manners: "It's verboten to bump Jews with iron bars without first saying "'excuse me.'" Can the Falun Gong look forward to the musical "Springtime in Beijing"?