As a Jew, I’m torn when I read debates on whether it’s right to write stories with sympathetic Nazi characters.
On one hand, I understand the argument that romanticizing Nazis downplays the evil they did (and continue to do). On the other, portraying Nazis as totally evil obscures the fact that Nazis were (and are) regular people doing horrible things. That wouldn’t matter, except erasing the terrifying normality of Nazis allows actual Nazis to get away with their shit by not being 100% completely evil monsters.
I feel the pull in both directions: I don’t want might-be sympathizers to look at a romantic hero and think, “Hey, maybe Nazis weren’t that awful/maybe Jews (and PoC and Romani people and LGBTQ people and neuroatypical people and…) should concentrate on the good things that came out of the Holocaust and not the negative parts.”* And I don’t want might-be allies to look at the menacing villain and think, “My neighbours aren’t like that. They can’t be Nazis. All those alarmists are overreacting.” Most of all, I don’t want might-be Nazis to look at themselves and think, “These beliefs I have don’t make me a Nazi — I’m not like those straw men screaming at Indiana Jones.”
Clearly, what matters is context: who is telling this story, and what is their perspective? Do they ever lose sight of the horrors of violent hatred and systematic genocide, or do they gloss over it? Which way are we supposed to see it: “sure, this guy’s a Nazi, but he’s actually pretty cool,” or “sure, this guy’s actually pretty cool, but he’s a Nazi“?
I haven’t read (and don’t want to read or link to) the romances and children’s books that are sparking discussion of this topic, but many critics’ dismay and disgust seems to stem from the impression that they’re constructed in the first way: sure, he’s a Nazi, but he’s not actually a bad guy.
In contrast, one of my favourite musicals, Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, purposely plays us in the other direction to make a point about the terrifying ease of falling into Nazism. When we first meet the main Nazi character, we have no idea what his political affiliations are. It’s only afterwards, once we already know and like him, that we realize we’ve erroneously assumed that his friendliness makes him an ally.
Cabaret has many moments designed to make us question our potential for complicity, and many characters who laugh off the impending Nazi threat until it’s too late. In fact, none of the characters comes away smelling like roses: apart from the Nazis, the sympathetic characters embrace denial, save themselves at the expense of others, and run away. Nobody fights back or challenges; nobody is willing to sacrifice their own lives for those of abstract strangers.
This kind of humanizing is necessary; otherwise, those of us who live in relative privilege never have to confront the complicity arising from our desire to be comfortable and happy.
But to work, the musical also needs us to recognize the innate, uncompromising horror of Nazism. It’s about how people react (or don’t) to evil, and in order for that to make sense, we all need to agree that Nazism is evil, full stop. The show never tells us that’s the case. It starts off from the assumption that we already know.
And yet, I understand the tension between divorcing Nazism from actual Nazis. Nazism is not a malevolent external entity, a corporeal demon snaking out its shadow tendrils to ensnare innocent people going about their daily business. Nazism is people. It’s people making terrible decisions, filling themselves with hate, hurting others. If there were no Nazis, there wouldn’t be Nazism.
For me, shows like Cabaret shed light on how evil gains power, but the buck goes only so far. Somebody originates that evil. We have a tendency to blame it all on Hitler — who deserves blame and more — but Hitler didn’t, couldn’t, create all that evil from nothing. Hitler’s evil doesn’t 100% explain away his followers’ evil any more than the remarkable courage of leaders fighting for love and human rights explains away their followers’ courage. It works both ways.
So I think my personal line, the one between romanticizing Nazism and humanizing Nazis, is whether I’m supposed to empathize with this character despite them being a Nazi or whether their Nazism is a calculated move design to jerk me out of that complacent empathy into sympathy. Am I meant to share their feelings and journey? Or am I supposed to understand their feelings without feeling them myself? Do I have the space to be critical?
Because I need that space to be critical — and I want other viewers, readers, listeners to have that space too. As much as I want us to be able to understand these Nazis as human, I want the safe distance of perspective between us and them. I don’t want anyone to feel encouraged to jump the gap.
* Aka, the HOLY SHITBALLS TAKE YOUR PRIVILEGED TEARS POLLYANNA BULLSHIT ELSEWHERE view of historical genocide . See: current Canadian political, ignorant racism.