Whomever is handling publicity for Adolf Hitler these days is, admittedly, doing a nice job. After all, since 1933 the world’s most notorious homunculus has always been treated like an unmentionable monster, a historical leper, incurably too far gone for spin doctors.
And yet, Hitler has never received this much favorable attention—arguably not since he was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938. Alt-right fanboys are “Sieg Heiling” him from the hinterlands of America. Black Hebrew Israelites are combing through “Mein Kampf” for helpful Jew-hating tips.
There’s the documentary touted and tweeted by Kyrie Irving, which, among other blood libels, denies the reality of Hitler’s most appalling achievement: the elimination of two out of every three European Jews. An Illinois congresswoman praised him in 2021. Kanye West celebrated this past Thanksgiving by announcing that he likes Hitler and loves Nazis.
Get ready for goose-stepping as the latest cardio-fitness trend.
Suddenly, Hitler has a Favorability Score the envy of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Jeffrey Epstein combined!
How is it conceivable that of all people, Hitler and his Master Race delusions are receiving a pop-cultural makeover? Hitler is suddenly kosher for non-Jews, no longer demonized by everyone, but now lionized by far too many. Less than 80 years since he succumbed to cyanide in that Berlin bunker, Hitler has improbably been resurrected—mentioned favorably, even by famous people.
Since the Golden Age of cinema, Nazis have been the proverbial bad guys—worse than black-hatted cowboys or mobsters toting Tommy guns. It used to be the case that when you saw the uniform of the Brown Shirts, Storm Troopers or the dreaded SS, you knew instantly who the movie hero needed to vanquish—and in a hurry.
This was true in romance fare like “Casablanca,” or high-octane action flicks like the Indiana Jones franchise, or revenge-porn such as “Inglourious Basterds,” or in the heavies in Marvel’s “Captain America” and “Wonder Woman.” When Charlie Chaplin turned his lovable Tramp loose against the Teutonic despot in Germany, he spoofed the Fuhrer as a psychotic, narcissistic buffoon in “The Great Dictator” (1940). So unlikable and un-bankable were the Nazis that Mel Brooks wrote a satirical movie, and then a play, about a Broadway musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” that was sure to fail.
Indeed, Hitler was so diabolical that he himself was usually not depicted in films. Sure, his handiwork and henchmen were on the screen, but he was in the shadows, rarely given an opportunity to step in front of the camera. He was simply too despicable, too dark for the spotlight, too inhuman for flesh and blood treatment.
Indeed, in the rare occurrence where he received top billing—the television mini-series, “Hitler: The Rise of Evil” (2003), the films, “Max” (2002) and “Der Untergang” (2004)—critics, Jewish groups and audiences largely rejected these productions precisely because they sought to humanize Hitler, make him more sympathetic and kind hearted in his treatment of children, secretaries and even dogs.
Notably in these more Hitler-friendly times, “Jojo Rabbit” (2019), a satirical comedy in which Hitler is portrayed as the imaginary friend of a boy in the Hitler Youth, the Third Reich is deemed no worse than the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. The film earned three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture.
What is the meaning of this madness?
For one thing, standards for nearly everything have collapsed. Inflammatory, guttural language is splashed around like holy water. Not a day goes by when an innocuous faux pas isn’t mischaracterized as an indictable offense. Half the population believes the other half are morally defective. Language loses all meaning when charges fly so effortlessly.
Moreover, it doesn’t help when ordinary political discourse is so coarsened that opponents are casually referred to as “evil” and led by generic “Hitlers.” When the truly vile is trivialized and monsters are normalized, the hierarchies denoting the “worst of the worst” topple over into an all-purpose, indistinguishable villainy. Evil is suddenly relativized, the kind of banality Hannah Arendt got wrong—Adolf Eichman and Hitler, most assuredly, were in a league of their own.
Hitler’s manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” entered the public domain in 2016. It sells briskly, and might also explain how Hitler’s persona and worldview penetrated the public sphere.
And then, of course, there’s Donald Trump, an authoritarian by nature who admires political strongmen. Trump was no Hitler, no matter how much his political enemies sought to draw the comparison, but the demagoguery, mass rallies and even his attacks on the press were straight out of Hitler’s playbook. The “fake news” of today was Hitler’s lügenpresse (lying press). The only difference is that Trump was largely right about the Fourth Estate that reports on the news today.
Early on, Trump seemed reluctant to criticize the more violent factions of the extreme right. He claimed not to know who David Duke was. During a debate he directed the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” His reaction to the fascist side of the Charlottesville rally was tepid, at best. He obtusely, if not disingenuously, ignored that some of his supporters wished to reenact Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch, which, tragically, is what the riotous elements of Jan. 6 resembled most.
We have now reached a new low point. Trump incongruously invited Kanye West (”Ye”) and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes to Thanksgiving. Imagine if he had dined with someone who openly declared that black Americans were never enslaved in the United States, that the southern plantations were, in actuality, winter colonies for vacationing Africans?
To deny the Holocaust is the “N-word” for Jews. Breaking bread with Hitler lovers and Holocaust deniers is breaking a bond with the Jewish people. Worse still, rather than apologize, Trump is now lashing out at Jews for their “lack of loyalty” toward him.
He is, and remains, a man of such incomparably thin skin. So needy of flattery, he would deny no one an audience if it resulted in a compliment.
This time he made a serious mistake. Despite what Ye might think, Jews don’t hand out blank checks. Trump’s unprecedented support for Israel is greatly appreciated, but it does not render him immune from charges of complicit antisemitism. There is no lifetime exemption from justified criticism and outrage, especially when he exercises such poor judgment in composing a guest list.
Trump’s self-destructive impulses prevented him from regaining the White House in 2020. All he had to do was keep his mouth shut. In 2024, it might come down to his failure to do the same thing with his front door.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled Saving Free Speech… From Itself.