The problem with Nazi allegories in fiction

The First Order from Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm)

Not long after The Force Awakens came out, I remember having a discussion with a friend about how the movie took inspiration from the Nazis for their villains, the First Order.

You can see it in the visual cues – there are rallies modelled on Nuremberg, a colour scheme and logo that invokes the swastika, and a salute that’s surely going to remind you of one thing alone. At almost every step, the movie invites comparison to Nazis as a way to underscore and emphasise just how villainous and evil these characters were.

It struck me then – I’m not sure about now – that this was, if not exactly lazy, certainly simplistic. Reaching for Nazis as inspiration was a cliché, almost – and, more to that point, lacking in relevance. There were surely other, more current, allegories to draw? With hindsight, obviously, it’s clear how much can change in a fairly short space of time – and I wonder if this sort of fictional version of Nazism acted almost to obfuscate.

Of note – simply because it’s right around the corner, and a pretty good indication of what I have in mind – is the upcoming CW DC crossover event. Crisis on Earth X is set to unite the Arrow, Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow heroes in one great big extra-dimensional fight against their alternative selves from Earth X – a secret world where the Allies lost the second World War, and all our heroes are thus Nazis.

There’s something uncomfortable about this, I think, in a way that’s not necessarily easy to articulate. It’s not that it’s normalising Nazis, exactly, because it isn’t. Rather, it’s rendering them as objects of fantasy, villains that exist only in secret alternate earths – when that isn’t really the case. It doesn’t matter if you refer back to the idea of the awful atrocities committed (and the special crossover does seem set to put concentration camps in a key role), there’s an implicit suggestion that these are ultimately just cartoonish figures by placing them in that role.

Nazi Supergirl from Earth X (The CW)

People will probably note, and indeed probably will be right to, that it’s maybe a little silly to expect a huge level of nuance from Arrow et al, particularly when it comes to this sort of thing. I’d contend that, if they can’t handle something with nuance when it deserves such a level of consideration, then perhaps they shouldn’t do it all – but equally, it’s not like this is a problem limited to just these programmes. It’s a broader issue in our cultural consciousness, one that’s clear in plenty of other types of media.

In fact, I suspect that it’s this sort of fictional depiction of Nazis that leads to – or, if not directly leads to, certainly contributes to the opportunity – the normalisation of actual Nazis. If we find ourselves in a position where we only recognise Nazis as cartoon villains, or as Daleks, or as Kylo Ren’s pals, then that is the first step to saying “well, this person isn’t waving around a sink plunger and yelling ‘EXTERMINATE’, he likes Seinfeld, maybe he’s not so bad after all?” – a dangerous perspective, even if it isn’t self evidently so (as much as it should be, and as much as we would hope it might be).

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t use Nazis as villains in fiction, or that they shouldn’t be a source of inspiration. After all, they are villains in real life, and in of itself there’s nothing wrong with reflecting that in fiction.

But there’s a need to be careful when you do so – to be sure that the villain doesn’t instead end up a caricature, and in turn doesn’t diminish the magnitude of the real thing, because at that point, fictional fascists will be far less of a concern than real ones.

Related:

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Why it’s important to advance Doctor Who’s Nazi allegory into the 21st Century

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