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Is it OK to laugh at Hitler now?

By Jeremy Wilson

Anybody watching a neo-Nazi rally in east Germany over the past decade will have been presented with a startling sight. Aside from the usual array of skinheads, there is what at first glance appears to be a more ominous presence at these demonstrations: the organised ranks of the Front Deutscher Äpfel.

Apfelfront, a satirical political group

Decked out in immaculate black uniforms with red, white and black armbands and flags, members of the Apfelfront give sinister salutes and chant in unison.

“What gives power to the youth? Apple juice! Apple juice!”

The Apfelfront might be a satirical political group, arguing for the purity of German fruit, but it’s hard for those seeing them for the first time not to find their act shocking. And then, on realising the pseudo-fascist symbol on their flag is actually an apple, to burst at laughing at how ridiculous the whole thing is.

Mocking the Nazi’s

In one act of parody, the Apfelfront strip all wannabe totalitarians of their delusional self-importance. Put simply, they are doing the one thing that could have stopped an objectively ludicrous man from wreaking havoc on their country: mocking Nazis.

Of course, this has been done in the past, most notably by Mel Brooks. But never before has there been so much Nazi material, and so many Third Reich parodies, floating around.

Everytime the Apfelfront appears, it’s a powerful reminder of how satire could have protected against the rise to power of such buffoons as Muammar al-Gaddafi. But there’s no getting around the fact that treating Hitler with light hearted humour is a tricky business.

Trivialities

It’s delicate subject that’s being brought into focus as a new generation look to the past without the burden of a close emotional connection, and, increasingly, with no living relatives around to tell stories.

From books to films, the Nazis are becoming fair game for light-hearted ridicule, as approach Nazism with fresh eyes.

Controversial best-selling novel Er ist wieder da

The best selling German novel Er ist wieder da has caused something of a stir with its dissection of the cult of personality that once surrounded Adolf Hitler. The plot sees Hitler wake up in 2011 with no memory of anything that happened post-1945. Interpreting everything he sees from a Nazi perspective and with no-one believing him to be Hitler, his YouTube rants turn him into an overnight celebrity and he pursues a career in TV and politics, campaigning against dog muck and speeding.

The author of the book Timur Vermes wanted to show show that Hitler would have as much chance to succeed nowadays as he did in the forties, albeit on more trivial ground.

In the immediate aftermath of historical atrocities, people comfort themselves by imagining the perpetrators as evil monsters, not as human beings who did evil things. But can treating them as comic figures risk obscuring historical facts? Perhaps, but we’re still not comfortable with dealing with with historical fact – not openly, at least.

Casual fascist reading

All of which brings us to the real reason Hitler is hitting the headlines again. For years, his incoherent and hateful rant Mein Kampf has only been available to those willing to brave checking it out from the library, or being seen with it on the Tube.

Kindles are not just for raunchy chic lit now

Kindles are not just for raunchy chic lit now

But things are changing. The Kindle, an anonymous plastic lump that allowed the execrable drivel Fifty Shades of Grey to become a runaway hit (because no one knew what you were reading and could snigger at you on the bus), has driven resurgent interest in the taboo volume. As of this morning, Mein Kampf continues to edge its way up to the top of various e-book charts

It’s hard to note this sudden, widespread interest in Hitler’s political ramblings without concern. The far-Right is becoming resurgent across Europe at the same time this casual acceptance towards Nazism is becoming acceptable in mainstream fiction.

Technology has been a boon for the education and empowerment of many

This isn’t to suggest curious e-book readers are immediately flocking into the arms of fascist political parties like Golden Dawn just because they, out of curiosity, flicked through Hitler’s book. But widespread consumption of the Nazi manifesto at time when people increasingly don’t trust their governments is troubling.

We are in a time of populism. Technology is allowing people to read what they want, and to indulge their curiosities – from BDSM to Hitler. And from the Tea Party in the USA to Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, populist political parties from both sides of the spectrum are rapidly gaining traction against mainstream politicians who are seen as effete and out of touch.

We like to celebrate the democratising and anonymising virtues of the internet – and it’s almost certainly true that technology has been a boon for the education and empowerment of many. But, once in a while, it gives us a glimpse into the secret lives of ordinary people, particularly at times of political apathy or pain. And that doesn’t always make for comfortable viewing.