Nazis – The Ultimate Bad Guys
“… you don’t have to agree with what the Nazis did, but, yes, to be honest about it, they did have the best uniforms.” – Andrew Eldritch
What do Sound of the Music, Inglorious Basterds, Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List have in common? Nazis as antagonists. Nazis have played a role in dozens of movies and novels of varied genres, ranging from war stories and thrillers to comedies.
And for a good reason. As disgusting as they are, Nazis are high concept. They demonised ethnicities and minorities and organised their destruction so well that it would be impossible to believe if it wasn’t history. Add to that the background of the WW2, the Aryan übermench concept, alleged occultic interests (like Hitler’s fixation on the Spear of Destiny), Lebensborn breeding program, doctor Mengele, the escaped SS men, and there’s a wealth of story material.
There’s also the big question of how could something like this happen. How could a small group convince an almost entire nation to adopt their ideology? Why did the people participate in something so awful?
One reason why the movie industry loves Nazis is because they are visually impressive with their pompous uniforms and propaganda. The over the top rhetorics and weird plans (like counterfeiting pounds to crash the British economy) make them perfect comedy material. Charlie Chaplin was the one of first to notice this potential in his movie The Great Dictator (1940). Although when the scale of the Nazi atrocities was revealed, there was an almost 20 year pause before other films dared to make fun of the era.
Chaplin called Nazis “machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts”. This quality makes them easy enemies if the writer wants so. You can treat their indoctrinated attitude and behaviour aa a given. Caricature Nazi antagonists can be devoid of emotions and human weaknesses or anything that the protagonists might relate with. In more recent movies, there have been symphatetic Nazis, like the captain played by Thomas Kretschmann in the Pianist (2002), and Downfall (2004) showed the human side of Hitler.
In Dungeons & Dragons’ alignment terms, Nazis are a great example of a Lawful Evil empire. The opposite would be a Chaotic Evil villain like Joker, Batman’s arch nemesis. Evil organisations are often riddled with cliches like backstabbing, corruption and bad motivation. The management terrorises underlings who in turn terrorise the locals. The people are oppressed and ready to rebel. It’s easy to see their weak spots.
On the other hand, the good guys dress clean, obey the rules, give their all for the greater good and have an effective organisation. The Nazis conquered, killed and robbed across Europe but they did so with German punctuality, high work morale and controlled behaviour. Their most important qualities are those of the good guys, just taken to extremes and without the morality.
Nazis symbolize the potential for darkness in all of us. Humanity has a long history of fearing and oppressing different people and Nazis took it to whole new proportions. That makes them the ultimate bad guys.
What do you think of the popular culture’s depiction of the Nazis? Have you watched movies or read books where they have a role?