BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anti-Defamation League Director Abraham Foxman was delighted when the videos came down. He said that they were offensive, that they trivialized not only the Holocaust but World War II. Hitler, he said, is not a cartoon character, which raises an altogether different point. If Mark Twain was right and humor is tragedy plus time, then how much time needs to pass before we can all make fun of Hitler? Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, says that timing is tricky when it comes to the Fuhrer. Welcome back to the show, Ron.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thanks, Brooke. And, actually, with all due respect, I have to disagree with Abe Foxman because I think the parodies were actually picking up something cartoonish and trivializing in the film itself. The film itself was an exculpation of the German people by making Hitler into a kind of comic psycho monster and thus blaming all the evil of the Holocaust on Hitler and the other people in the bunker. And, and the people who made parodies out of that were picking up on it and I think in some way critiquing it. There was a deeper truth in these parodies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, you’re suggesting that that was perhaps an unconscious kind of meta-commentary on a portrayal of Hitler. But, of course, going right back to 1940, you have direct parodies of the man himself. Charlie Chaplin was trying to diminish the man in The Great Dictator, knock him down a peg.
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, in fact, there’s a school of historians that I think have a sharp take on this, which is that Chaplin’s portrayal of Hitler contributed to the West’s underestimation syndrome, as they call it. In other words, he portrayed Hitler as nothing but a clown, and basically a harmless clown, someone who danced with a balloon, maybe even likeable in a funny Chaplinesque way.
HYNKEL: Democracy is fragrant.
[GERMAN] Liberty is odious.
[SOUND TRAILS OFF/END CLIP]
RON ROSENBAUM: People in the West, who at that very moment had to decide whether to resist Hitler or not, would say, oh, why bother, he’s just a funny little comic tramp and that Chaplin, in fact, contributed to Hitler’s success by trivializing him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hm. And then after the war, and after all was known about Hitler, did he then transcend the possibility of parody because of the horror that he had unleashed?
RON ROSENBAUM: I think that there are problems in the representation of Hitler, in general, because if you try to represent him straight on inevitably you kind of humanize him. You know, you give him a psychological depth or you suggest that he had a troubled childhood. On the other hand, as in Downfall, you can go too far and dehumanize him and make him unrealistic, as if evil were just some psychopathic manifestation. I think we have a real problem with it, and not surprising that we should because Hitler, in a world of relativism, is sort of like the fixed pole of evil, where you could say, well, I don't know whether this is evil or that is evil but Hitler is evil. And, of course, that itself has lent itself to abuse, as the well-known Godwin’s Law has illustrated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well let's talk about Godwin's Law, the principle that suggests that once you mention Hitler, the discussion, whatever the discussion is, is over.
RON ROSENBAUM: Godwin's Law grew out of the tendency of commenters on blogs to always take things to the Hitler level. And, in a sense, once you do that it ends all discussion because beyond that, where do you go?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once someone invokes Hitler, then that means the possibility for rational discussion has come to an end?
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I don't think that one should, therefore, rule out Hitler from being a referent in any historical argument. I think there are silly and pernicious ways of introducing Hitler into an argument, the way many of the tea partiers will draw Hitler moustaches on Obama. And it’s offensive, in a way, to Hitler’s victims to claim that these people who feel they're overtaxed are somehow victim of a tyranny akin to Hitler.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If not enough time has passed for Hitler to become a figure of parody, how much time do you need and how have some people somehow gotten around it, like Mel Brooks in The Producers?
RON ROSENBAUM: You know, I find that Mel Brooks movie to be a great mystery, in a way. How did he do it? I didn't find it offensive. I found Springtime for Hitler, when they burst into song, hilarious.
[CLIP FROM THE PRODUCERS]:
MEL BROOKS [DUBBED]: Springtime for Hitler and Germany…
[SINGING UP AND UNDER]
RON ROSENBAUM: It was the very disparity between what everyone knew was the genuineness of Hitler’s horror and his evil and the fatuousness of show business that was being really parodied and maligned that made it work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The whole thing is infused with a Jewish sensibility, obviously, so there’s a certain element of, of revenge in that film.
RON ROSENBAUM: Or survival, in a sense, that the fact that Jewish culture can do this indicates that its spirit has not been destroyed by Hitler. The Producers came out in ’64 and the Eichmann trial was in ’61 and that, in some way, was the first post-war international media foregrounding of Hitler’s crimes, which made it more daring. And I still find it an amazing feat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what moment are we in now? Is there a right way to use Hitler satirically to talk about something in our current lives?
RON ROSENBAUM: Well, I think it’s wrong to make rules about art. I think that the watchword for everyone should be something that Emil Fackenheim, who was a brilliant Jewish philosopher, said to me when I was doing my Hitler book, which is, “We should give to Hitler no posthumous victories.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mel Brooks gave no posthumous victory to Hitler.
RON ROSENBAUM: I agree.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron, thank you so much.
RON ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Rosenbaum, a columnist for Slate, is author of Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil and a forthcoming book on the new age of nuclear war.