April 15, 2024

Source: Bigstock

Growing up, I was genuinely obsessed by Adolf Hitler and his Nazis. If I ever found myself daydreaming in class, I would doodle swastikas and cartoon drawings of Hitler’s head all over my pencil case and schoolbooks. To look at them, you would have been forgiven for thinking I was a neo-Nazi myself. Every April 20, as Hitler’s birthday came around the situation only got worse.

In woodwork class, we once had to design novelty pencil-holders. Mine was a large wooden block cut and painted in the shape of Hitler’s head, with holes drilled through the sides so that, when you stuck your pencils into them, they appeared to pass right through, as if he had been speared by an angry mob.

In Religious Education lessons, we were told to make a board game that exemplified the eternal struggle between good and evil. My own effort was “Hitler vs. Jesus,” in which the two title characters engaged in a fevered race to see who would get to the final square on the board first, where a vanload of Jews were waiting, to either be saved or exterminated, depending upon which character won (actually, it was rigged so Jesus would—He had access to several Christ-only shortcuts in which He walked on water to get there first).

During IT lessons, when saving my work to the computer network’s collective hard disk, I always named each of my files after prominent Nazis. One day, following a systems failure, we all had to go one by one into the IT technician’s cupboard and tell her which files were ours so we could be reunited with our own work. I still remember standing there, identifying Excel and Word files with names like “Heinrich Himmler,” “Herman Goering,” and “Rudolf Hess” to an increasingly bemused and distressed female member of staff.

“Most comfortable sleepwalkers in the Western world today do not really believe in the past existence of Adolf Hitler.”

Once, we were told to make some posters to make our math classroom look bright and cheery. Studying percentages, the task was to draw adverts demonstrating certain goods and services were now on offer to the general public at a discounted price. Knowing the Nazis had attempted to exterminate the disabled, I revealed a sale at somewhere called “The Happy Orphanage.” As my detailed illustrations showed, this was a 1930s German establishment, run by several gentlemen in SS uniform, who were offering disabled children for sale to childless foreigners in order to ease the financial burden these “useless mouths” were placing upon the Reich. In the middle of the picture was a “bargain bucket” filled with 5-year-old amputees, offered up for sale to the desperately infertile at an amazing 25 percent discount per missing limb.

Back then, most of my teachers were still sensible enough just to laugh. These days, I think I would have been placed on some kind of terror watch list.

Lessons From History
Later on in life, by which time I had begun to realize my (thankfully abortive) adolescent attempts to grow a toothbrush mustache and comb my hair down over one half of my forehead could very easily have been misconstrued, I too became a teacher. A Nazi-friendly one.

One Holocaust Memorial Day, around 2006 or so, when I was still training to become a professionally qualified corruptor of youth, all of the student-teachers at my college were shipped off to one particular high school to teach its students about extermination camps through the awesome power of immersive, live-action drama. My group’s unfortunate idea was to sit the children down at a table in small groups and re-create the rough proceedings of the 1942 Wannsee Conference—the infamous meeting of top Nazis at which the practicalities of arranging the Final Solution were arrived at.

As the conference’s convener, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, I greeted the incoming pupils fully in character with a Nazi salute and cry of “Sieg Heil!” which they were exhorted to return. Wearing an improvised SS uniform (i.e., a black suit with a colored armband), I then handed out laminated pieces of card decorated with Nazi insignia and containing several different options for the forthcoming extermination of the Jews; should they be shot, gassed, hanged, or worked to death? Should they be transported to special death camps, or simply killed in situ, in the ghettos? If they were to be transported to death camps, should this be done by road, rail, or canal? Several pros and cons for each option were detailed in neat little bullet points, and the children, playing the roles of other top-ranking Black Knights of the SS, had to debate which idea was best and why.

Predictably (albeit not to us at the time…) the whole exercise was a disaster.

Several students—all of them male—thought the whole thing was a big joke, goose-stepping to their seats, shouting “Heil Hitler!” whilst sticking their right arm into the air at each available opportunity, and barking their every word in a ridiculous ’Allo ’Allostyle German accent.

Other, more sensitive souls—all of them female—simply found the whole exercise morally repugnant and refused to pretend to be Nazis or return my Hitler salutes at all. When asked questions like “So, how do you think we should dispose of the subhuman Jewish scum, SS Obersturmbannführer Frau Eichmann?” they narrowed their eyes and said things like “We don’t want to exterminate the Jews at all, you racist!”—a response that, if I was truly committed toward remaining in character, should have resulted in me immediately shooting them.

The professional Holocaust educator called in to deliver lectures on the whole matter, a young lady from an organization that arranged educative trips to Auschwitz for British schoolchildren, was little better. At the time, there had been a recent news story about the England soccer team being given a tour of Auschwitz, during which some became bored and made jokes. The lady was adamant this was a most disgusting thing, and that Auschwitz, of all subjects, was no laughing matter. Then she showed us all a slapstick slide of her falling over in the death camp during one of her previous trips there when it was icy underfoot, and laughed about it whilst pulling a silly face. I couldn’t help but feel she was giving out some rather mixed messages to her audience here.

Armchair Generals
How could each and every one of the alleged adults involved in this debacle not have realized how misguided the whole thing was at the time? Well, we were all then aged in our early 20s, and the answer, I think, is that—a bit like Jean Baudrillard with his famous book about the First Gulf War being primarily a media event, not a physical real-world military one for 99 percent of the globe’s slack-jawed population, sitting safely at home and watching it all unfold excitingly on TV—none of us really believed WWII had ever actually ever taken place at all.

As time passed, post-1945, so did the visible effects of the war on the world around us. A European child born in 1945 would still have been able to play in bomb sites; a child born in 1985 would not. Gradually, WWII has become something we have only ever seen on TV or at the cinema, read about in books, or experienced vicariously during a videogame.

In the modern age, there are now two Nazis, and two Hitlers. There is the real Third Reich, which actually existed, but which very few of us ever directly knew. Secondly, there is a kind of Virtual Reich, presented to us through the mass media. The Nazis in this Virtual Reich fulfill two key recurring pantomime villain roles: crude and Manichean embodiments of evil, or else figures of risible comic fun. Through exciting movies such as the Indiana Jones series, the kind of sources from which I first really “learned” [sic] about Nazism as a child, I was given the rather strange message that both such presentations were not in any sense contradictory; that it was normal to laugh at that which you were also simultaneously being exhorted to consider wholly evil.

A Pole’s Position
If my own adolescent acts of Nazi-related classroom juvenilia were tasteless enough, then a more recent gone-viral piece of schoolwork from a Japanese high school student known only as “Takumi” makes me look positively PC. Asked to write a letter in English to a famous person from history, this is what Takumi wrote:

Dear Hitler,

My name is Takumi. I’ve been a big fan of yours since I learned about you in the History class. I love your war. You know how to fight! Your wars were beautiful. I want to know you more.


That sounds like a teenage girl writing a fan letter to her favorite pop star, not one to history’s most famous genocidal dictator. The further you travel away from actual 1930s–40s Nazi Germany—both temporally and geographically—the worse the whole problem becomes, it would seem.

I cannot claim to be a big fan of Poland’s current pro-E.U. gauleiter Donald Tusk, but I did rather agree with him when, back in March, he warned that Europe and the U.S. might well be in some kind of “prewar” scenario with Russia without really even truly believing it.

Raised as we spoiled post-1940s Westerners have been in a postwar world in which, or so Francis Fukuyama once lied to us, history had ended once and for all, and where threats like the Nazis gradually came to seem every bit as remote and cartoonish as the Vikings or the Huns, younger generations seem constitutionally incapable of recognizing that military conflict is once more a real-world possibility after all, and not something that only still happens in films or far away, as in Iraq. Probably we will go on believing this, until the first enemy missiles land down upon us.

Tusk recalled a photograph that hung in his family’s house as a child; it showed crowds of happy people laughing on a Polish beach, taken on 31 August 1939. A few hours later, Hitler—the real Hitler, not the comical cartoon one people like myself and Takumi grew up knowing—invaded, and WWII broke out. Tusk then spoke of a recent encounter with a Spanish official who demanded that the European Council henceforth drop all usage of the word “war” when discussing the present conflict in Ukraine; the term sounded far too “abstract” to voters, he said. It is just such a blind failure to prepare for war, to believe that it is even possible, that is the most common prerequisite for creating the conditions in which it actually will happen.

Putin may attack the West, if pushed too far; it is not impossible. The problem is that most people just do not believe they live inside history anymore—because, for so long, they have not truly had to. Most comfortable sleepwalkers in the Western world today do not really believe in the past existence of Adolf Hitler. Do they really believe in the present existence of Vladimir Putin, either? One day, like the dead atheist faced with an angry God, I fear they may be forced to do so.


Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates!