Gavriel D. Rosenfeld. Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. X, 466 pp., 46 b/w illus. ISBN 978-1-107-07399-9; ISBN 978-1-107-42397-8.
Reviewed by Diana Popescu
Published on H-Soz-u-Kult (April, 2016)
G.D. Rosenfeld: Hi Hitler!
Gavriel D. Rosenfeld examines a new wave of cultural and intellectual engagement with the Nazi past which seeks to normalize this past in countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Germany. The author argues that, since the turn of the millennium, these countries witnessed an increasing number of cultural and historical representations of the Nazi era which endorsed, through methods such as relativization, universalization and aestheticization, a normalized view of Hitler and of Nazism. In this study, relativization refers to an interpretative approach which makes the Nazi crimes appear relative and which diminishes the singularity of these crimes. Universalization invites comparisons and analogies of the Holocaust with other historical contexts and with contemporary issues. By stressing the universal character of the Holocaust, its specificity is weakened. Aestheticization includes representations of Nazism that are counterfactual and narratives of the Holocaust – historical, literary or filmic – that propose ‘what if’ scenarios. These methods are found in academic writing as well as in popular culture. According to Rosenfeld, there are three historical contexts that facilitated the spread of normalized views of the Nazi past: the coming of age of younger generations who developed new and often unconventional methods of representing the past, the rise of the internet era and the post-9/11 world crisis.
The most effective way to illustrate how normalization is at work is by analyzing depictions of Adolf Hitler. The author argues that, if in post-war years Hitler was represented as inhuman, demonic or as pure evil, since the turn of the millennium, Hitler has been humanized and aestheticized. The former is made apparent in contemporary filmmakers’ choices to focus on Hitler’s early years, as in Menno Meyjes’s Max (2002) and Urs Odermatt’s Mein Kampf (2009), or on the late period of Hitler’s life as in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall (2004) and Dani Levy’s Mein Führer (2007). Trends to aestheticize Hitler are particularly present in satirical and comic representations that dominate the internet. Rosenfeld worries that these playful engagements with the figure of Hitler are meant to provoke laughter and entertain rather than to make a serious critical statement about the Nazi past. The effect of these interpretations is to normalize the users’ perceptions of the Nazi era, and, consequently, to block historical understanding.
The book is neatly structured into six chapters. The first three chapters focus on the subject of Holocaust historiography. Chapter One offers a very instructive and critical overview of revisionist historical writings about Nazism and World War II which pit against prevalent historical understandings of the ‘good war’ led by the Allies against Nazi Germany. Rosenfeld argues that revisionist historical studies have caused the blurring of the ‘once clear moral lines’ between the Allies and the Axis and proposed a normalized view of the past (p. 27). Chapter Two documents different phases in the historiographical debates about the uniqueness of the Holocaust carried out by Anglo-American historians, which started in the 1990s and continue till present day. In the latest phase of these debates, Rosenfeld notes that a younger generation of historians including Donald Bloxham, Timothy Snyder and A. Dirk Moses questioned the distinctiveness of Nazi genocidal crimes, which caused, according to Rosenfeld, a subtle normalization of this past. Chapter Three discusses scholarly uses of counterfactual reasoning and the integration of ‘what if’ questions of the type: ‘Could Jews have done more to resist? Would the Holocaust have happened without Hitler?’ (p. 27). This tendency coupled with similar uses of counterfactual narratives employed by novelists and filmmakers leads Rosenfeld to argue that there are no limits (moral or aesthetic) to representing the Holocaust.
The last three chapters focus on how contemporary literature, film and the internet – through recourse to counterfactual scenarios and humour – have in effect normalized the Nazi era. In Chapter Four, Rosenfeld examines historical fiction novels by Anglo-American writers Harry Turtledove, Michael Chabon, and by German authors Dieter Kühn and Timur Vermes which have relativized or universalized the Nazi past to serve political agendas connected to the post-9/11 world (p. 28). Chapter Five looks at mainly German-language feature films including Max, Downfall, Mein Führer and Mein Kampf (exceptions include American films Inglourious Basterds, and the TV series Hitler – The Rise of Evil) which depict Hitler in a human or comic light, or simply avoid representing him as evil. Chapter Six investigates representations of Nazism on the internet. These take varied forms such as Hitler memes, parodies of the film Downfall, humorous websites called ‘cats that look like Hitler’, ‘things that look like Hitler’ and ‘hipster Hitler’. These comic renditions denote not only the continued obsession with the figure of Hitler, but also show how this figure has been normalized.
The works chosen for investigation – historical studies, historical fiction novels, feature films and internet webpages – are minutely described and contextualized. Importantly, Rosenfeld is keen to situate these works in a clearly demarcated political spectrum. He promptly flags up the left-wing or right-wing orientations of their authors, pointing to how politics indelibly affects their perceptions of the Nazi past. Rosenfeld suggests, for example, that universalization is adopted mainly by those with left-wing convictions, while relativization is a favoured tool for right-wing or nationalist supporters. Aestheticization, on the other hand, appears to be used on both sides of the political spectrum.
This book has many strengths. Worth pointing out is this scholar’s thorough methodological approach to sources, his critical reading and engagement with Holocaust scholarship, as well as informative presentation of lesser-discussed works such as Anglo-American and German novels endorsing counterfactual histories. Particularly, the chapter dealing with the presence of Nazism on the internet contains, in the opinion of this reviewer, the most compelling arguments about the phenomenon of normalization.
Having said that, I am less convinced by the author’s readiness to highlight the presence of normalization of the Nazi past in all of the works selected for analysis. Rosenfeld’s examination of the humanization of Hitler in German contemporary films (e.g. the analysis of the film Mein Führer) could have included a more nuanced approach to this issue. While he does not negate that the cinematic portrayals of a humanized Hitler do not exclude ethical questions, more space could have been devoted to exploring if and how the humanizing approach integrates a moralistic stance to history and encourages a critical interrogation of Nazism.
While Rosenfeld regards tendencies of normalization as omnipresent in the Western societies’ cultural memory, he also argues that they have been met with strong opposition from critics and scholars. This, in turn, points to the presence of another phenomenon called the dialectic of normalization. This reader would have liked to learn more about the effects of the dialectic of normalization upon contemporary understandings of the Nazi past. I would argue that the recurrent critical responses to normalizing approaches, quoted by the author throughout his study, demonstrate that this chapter in European history remains abnormal and therefore un-integrated in the Western public consciousness.
While Rosenfeld offers a thorough definition of the concept of normalization, his study would have benefited also from distinguishing between normalization, instrumentalization and trivialization, as well as between representational approaches which particularize and those which relativize the Nazi past. What are the semantic differences between these terms? Where can one draw a line between them? More focus could have been placed on exploring related questions such as: Does normalizing the Nazi past inevitably mean its trivialization? Does the comic approach to Hitler, by definition, lack a moralist stance? Is normalization leading to normality? Can normality and morality co-exist? Rosenfeld does not deny that morality and normality can work together, but he generally refrains from engaging at greater length with this issue, as well as with the more nuanced responses to normalization, made apparent in the so-called dialectic of normalization.
In the concluding remarks of the book, a set of binary opposites are articulated. In the group denoting normalizing tendencies, the author places revisionism, counter-factual histories and humorous representations. This conceptual group is contrasted with an older representational approach to the Nazi history that favoured a moralistic stance, and with a historical narrative that foregrounded the exceptionality and singularity of World War II. It is argued, perhaps too hastily, that normalization will come to entirely replace moralism. But we may also have to ask about the blind spots of this (older) moralism, which was sometimes ahistorical and relativizing as well.
Undoubtedly, this study offers compelling evidence to demonstrate the existence of a new wave of normalization. However, it remains unclear whether normalization prevents historical engagement with this subject, or whether it excludes moralistic stance towards this past. Nonetheless, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s account of the shifting status of the Nazi past in Western memory is thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking. It will make a valuable reference for any academic module on Holocaust history, memory and representation.
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Diana Popescu. Review of Rosenfeld, Gavriel D., Hi Hitler!: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture.
H-Soz-u-Kult, H-Net Reviews.
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