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Hi, Hitler: What creators looking to satirise the Führer must remember about the perils of parody

Today, 20 April, is Adolf Hitler’s birth anniversary. And if the internet has had its fill of 4/20 gags, perhaps it ought to add a meta-joke or two about its own Hitler fixation? After all, who among us hasn’t shared or chuckled at one of those ‘angry-Hitler’ memes (essentially, a scene from the 2004 German film Der Untergang showing Adolf Hitler shouting in frustration; folks would change the English subtitles to change the context)?

There’s a sense of inevitability about the internet and Hitler jokes, one would argue — at this point, the phenomenon is approaching axiomatic status. And remember, this is nearly 30 years after the American lawyer and author Mike Godwin proposed the eponymous Godwin’s law, in 1990. It was originally intended for chat room threads, but is now more widely applied across social media: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”.

Adolf Hitler, YouTube star

The German author Timur Vermes certainly understood the funny side of Hitler’s meme-worthiness. He famously satirised the phenomenon in his uproarious 2012 novel Look Who’s Back (Er Ist Wieder Da), later adapted into a hit movie of the same name in 2015. In the novel, Hitler mysteriously wakes up in Berlin circa 2011, in a parking lot outside the garden where his body was supposedly burnt. Although he is unable to figure out just what happened to him and why he’s still alive, Hitler goes with the flow and interprets his new reality in terms of the old one — he assumes an Axis victory in the Second World War, and everything flows downhill from there (like the assumption that “Wikipedia” is named after wikinger, ie Vikings).

One of the great things that Vermes achieved with this novel is showing how fascism has acquired new tools and tricks since Hitler’s time, to the extent that most people do not recognise it as such, not unless it’s extremely blatant and in-your-face. Trump’s constant demonisation of the media is just one example of this. Thanks to the internet, distraction is now a political tool — the powers-that-be make you fixate on something that’s bombastic or visually remarkable, even if it is ultimately trivial and has little or no bearing on their overall policy structure. And this is a PR strategy that’s now common across the political spectrum. Vermes chooses the example of Vladimir Putin and his shirtless hunting expeditions.

“And as for appearing in swimming trunks — well, that is the most preposterous thing imaginable. You couldn’t dissuade Mussolini from doing it. And more recently that suspect Russian leader has been doing it too. An interesting fellow, no question, but as far as I am concerned it is a foregone conclusion: the moment a politician removes his shirt, his policies are dead in the water. All he will say is, ‘Look, my dear fellow countrymen, I have made the most extraordinary discovery: my policies look better without a shirt on.’”

 Hi, Hitler: What creators looking to satirise the Führer must remember about the perils of parody

Timur Vermes' novel showed how fascism has acquired new tools and tricks since Hitler’s time, to the extent that most people do not recognise it as such, not unless it’s extremely blatant and in-your-face

Vermes’s Hitler rants about politics — and the fact that he is, in fact, the real, original Hitler, but to no avail. The Twitter generation, steeped in layers of self-referential, ironic comedy, takes him to be a method actor or a standup comedian peddling an eye-catching gag. Hitler becomes a YouTube star and later a celebrity author, his rants becoming an ironic commentary on contemporary German politics. Eventually (spoiler alert), he leverages his newfound celebrity to embark on a (second) political career. And what better way to end a meta-narrative about the ridiculousness of contemporary political discourse? Both the book and the film, starring Oliver Masucci (from the Netflix drama Dark), are highly recommended.

Fire and Führer

A popular strand of Nazi representation in pop culture has been the idea of killing the Führer to either prevent World War II, or to hasten its end. Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, of course, was all about the latter, a covert American plot to bring about the end of the Third Reich. The Christopher McQuarrie film Valkyrie (2008) was about a real-life plot to assassinate Hitler, as was the German film 13 Minutes (2015). More recently, an episode from the Netflix animated anthology Love, Death and Robots tried to explore what would’ve happened if a young Hitler were to be assassinated.

The late Ira Levin’s novel The Boys From Brazil (1976) is perhaps the most interesting among these narratives, plot-wise: it has an actual ‘mad scientist’ character who has harvested Hitler’s DNA and implanted the same into 100 infant boys. He and his team then go to great lengths to ensure that these boys have childhoods similar to Hitler’s — their fathers are killed off, siblings isolated and so on.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was about a covert American plot to bring about the end of the Third Reich

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was about a covert American plot to bring about the end of the Third Reich

Hitler is also important to the history of PC gaming. One of the pioneering 3D games and a fan favorite, Wolfenstein 3D, often simply called “Wolf”, was set in a Nazi castle in the immediate aftermath of Hitler’s suicide and the fall of the Third Reich. The game’s hero, an American super-spy called BJ Blazkowicz (yes), is on a mission to infiltrate the eponymous Castle Wolfenstein (one of the last surviving Nazi bastions) and kill all of the unholy entities inside — genetically modified wolf-like beasts, rogue SS guards, and finally, as an ultimate “boss” (a super-powerful villain usually seen at the end of a video game), the “Mecha-Hitler” a kind of crude-android version of the Führer.

The scowling “Mecha-Hitler” (whose futuristic armour looked strangely like Buzz Lightyear’s space suit) was a notoriously stubborn foe. Indeed, as the fan Wiki page for Wolfenstein says, even after the Wolf prequels showed the user (ie Blazkowicz) killing Hitler in a hailstorm of bullets, in future installments (video games are as mindful as comics about what is ‘canon’ and what is not), “Hitler turns out to be very much alive and well after his encounters. He is extremely hard to kill or simply won’t stay dead.”

From Wolf 3D to Wolfenstein

From Wolf 3D to Wolfenstein II


In 2017, a Wolf sequel called Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus was released — this was set in an alternative America circa 1961, in a universe where the Nazis won WW II. The game’s protagonists basically fought the Nazi overlords of this new America. Remarkably, the game inspired a backlash from the American alt-right (read white supremacists), who were upset that a black woman seemed to be among the resistance fighters, claiming that this was a propaganda move for the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement.

As an article on The Verge put it succinctly, “Like many unmoderated comment sections, the Wolfenstein II trailer is the purest argument against the notion that a marketplace of ideas will improve the world. It’s a free-for-all between people who don’t know or care about each other, can’t figure out who’s serious, and are having their entire debate under a video about a man named “BJ Blazkowicz” who’s been fighting cyborg Nazis since before many of them were born”

The curious case of Hipster Hitler

In 2012, this writer had the opportunity to interview Archana Prasanna Kumar and James Carr, creators of a webcomic called Hipster Hitler, which portrayed Hitler as an entitled, eccentric hipster caricature complete with oversized glasses, T-shirts with in-your-face slogans and a nitpicky fondness for organic food, art supplies and so on. The anonymously written-and-drawn webcomic had become really popular in 2011-12, and the duo had decided to use their real names and give interviews for the first time — there was a Hipster Hitler book forthcoming, too.

From Hipster Hitler

From Hipster Hitler

Hipster Hitler is in many ways, the perfect comic strip for the Internet era — the hipster parody angle just works, whether it’s Hitler’s binge-drinking friend Broseph Stalin, his “I Love Juice” t-shirt, or other shirts that say stuff like “Death Camp for Cutie” (a reference to the Ben Gibbard-led indie band Death Cab for Cutie) or “Eastside Westside Genocide”.

As the creators told this writer back then, “The whole idea for the comic emerged because we noticed the uncanny correlations between Hipsters and Hitler. Hitler was a vegetarian (and mocked and berated others for eating meat), an animal rights activist, and a failed artist. He relied on his father's money (until it ran dry), and had ironic facial hair.”

Sadly, after the Hipster Hitler book was released, a Jewish group in London called ‘London Stands With Israel’ declared that they were offended, and threatened to stage large-scale protests against stores selling the book. Among other things, it was alleged that the book promotes “borderline fashionable Nazism” — a rather ridiculous claim, not least because that’s precisely the phenomenon Kumar and Carr were satirising, making fun of people who “conform to non-conformism”, as they put it.

The furor over Wolfenstein II or Hipster Hitler shows just how divisive the Führer remains in the 21st century. Perhaps the best way to understand the inexplicable backlash against these stories is another internet “law” — the oft-cited Poe’s Law: Unless one is using emojis/emoticons or explicitly stating one’s intentions, it is impossible to create such an obviously identifiable parody that it will never be mistaken for an un-ironically sincere expression of the views being parodied. Creators looking to re-imagine and/or satirise Hitler would do well to remember that.

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Updated Date: Apr 22, 2019 11:41:35 IST