Monday, June 20, 2005

The Mary Poppins-loving Nazi

I visited the RCMP Museum today. In a section devoted to the Second World War I found an exhibit of all the articles found on a Nazi spy who was found in Nova Scotia in 1942. The case held his uniform, his transmitter, his identification, a comb, a gun, and some books: a U-boat guidebook, a codebook, a comic book, and Mary Poppins. In English.

I stood for a long time, pondering over this discovery of Mary Poppins. Why would he be reading this particular book? Was he using it to learn English? The comic book was also in English. At first I thought that the inclusion of this book was a mistake. I knew that the image of a Nazi reading Mary Poppins was both considerably amusing and disconcerting to me.

And that reminded me of when I took my Master's-level Weimar Germany class, for which I sat in on a third-year class. Dr. B and I co-taught the rise of Hitler -- he early life, and I from his release from prison to his acquisition of power. In the course of Dr. B's lecture on Hitler's early life, he mentioned that Adolf Hitler was particularly good at gymnastics. My class (especially Lynniec) found this fact to be amusing, especially when Dr. B himself took a moment and said that it's odd to imagine Hitler running around in a gymnastics uniform. We then took a moment to discuss why this was funny: first because Hitler worked on presenting a particular image of himself to the public; secondly because our society has mythologised Hitler to the point that he has no human characteristics. Giving him human characteristics seems simultaneously humorous and offensive, as if we're detracting from the horrors of the Holocaust.

This anxiety pervades the historiography of the rise of Hitler: Ian Kershaw addresses this issue in The Nazi Dictatorship. Historians have a lot of trouble addressing whether Hitler and Nazism were a product of their time and society, or whether they were some sort of historical freak, something outside of their historical context. The way I put that makes the latter argument sound crazy, but that's what we do: we set them apart and put them in boxes, separating ourselves from them as much as possible. We set them apart as such an absolute "other" that we make it seem impossible that anything similar could happen again.

This treatment of the Nazis as the absolute "others" means that it seems strange that there should be a possibility that someone who was a spy for the Third Reich (regardless of the fact that he was later a double agent for the Allies) should enjoy the same book I do. I admit that I also felt vaguely troubled when a German woman at the choir festival sentimentally told me about her brother who died fighting for Germany in the Second World War. Somehow my paradigm did not allow those who fought for the Nazis to have kind sisters who still wept for their dead brothers.

I knew that this field was messy when I switched from Canadian history. However, after a few years of specialisation, I am still experiencing the anxieties of German history.


Chris Reed said...

If it brings us anxiety imagine being them. How do they mourn for their dead who have been so villified?

Janny said...

I think people don't like to find humanizing qualities in Nazi because that would mean that anyone is capable of that kind of behaviour. They just do not want to admit it.

LynnieC said...

That was the best class ever. aaah. Gymnastics Hitler. So good. By good I mean, evil.
Evil in leotards.
And maybe Mary Poppins was just that guy's cover. You know, "I'm not a Nazi, look at what I'm reading!" Or maybe Hitler wrote it while he was in prison. "Mary's Kempf"

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Oh, Mary's Kampf. So troubling.

Yeah, Janny, that was the point I was trying to get at. If we make them entirely "other" from ourselves, it means that we aren't capable of that behaviour. And that's pretty troubling.

It's like when people take Hitler entirely outside of his historical context -- make him free of influence from his society -- or make him solely responsible for the Holocaust. Making him singularly evil makes everyone else far less culpable. Which is more comfortable, but also impossible.

Becca said...

i agree... good stuff to think about -

Ky said...

Evil generally DOES come in leotars, right?

But wait! According to all comics, so do superheros!!!

I'm scared.

Ky said...

I meant leotards. Not leotars. Sigh.