The Problem With Writing Nazis

Nazis are a common punching bag, with good reason. If you need a bad guy, then the Nazis are easy to go for, because they’re so clearly reprehensible, and no one is going to get mad about it except the kind of people that you’d want to offend. All that I have no problem with. The problem, at least in my view, is that people write Nazis wrong, especially when they’re using them as the primary villains or antagonists. As with most blog posts, I don’t write them often, but when I do, it’s because I have something that’s been bugging me that I don’t want to bore other people with. No promises on the depth of research here, as I’m not a historian, and will not be citing sources.

The Worst Laid Plans

The Nazis had a lot of plans, which provide a lot of fodder for works of alternate history. Many of these plans were stupid or unworkable, designed by people who cared more about propaganda or appeasing their higher-ups than actually getting shit done, and some of the plans that actually went into effect were just laughably inept. The problem with how some people write the Nazis is that the Nazis are portrayed as being competent but evil, which really does not seem to have been the case. One of the things that Nazis (and fascists everywhere) try to push is this idea of fascist efficiency, the thought that so much could be done if only those pesky bureaucrats weren’t always getting in the way of things. By stating or implying that all these grand plans would have come to fruition, a writer is buying into the idea that no, this wasn’t all megalomania and propaganda, that yes, a firm hand really could have accomplished all that they’d imagined they could.

It drives me nuts.

The plan for Berlin, should the Nazis have won, was to remake the city as the capital of the glorious German Empire, renaming it to Germania. At its center would be the Volkshalle, the largest dome in the world, so large that clouds would form inside it from peoples’ breath. It was meant to be dominating and awe-inspiring … and quite a few writers uncritically put it into their alternate histories. To be clear, the Germans never built this thing. To depict them as having done it is to give them organizational and political credit that you should think really hard about giving them. You know what I would like to see? An alternate history where they try to build the Volkshalle, but in the processing of rushing it to appease Hitler, introduce structural flaws that cause it to collapse. Or an alternate history where it ends up being decades behind schedule because spending all that labor and capital on such a stupidly huge thing is actually pretty dumb and a symptom of all the problems with Nazism. I want to see an alternate history where the Volkshalle is a boondoggle that everyone has to pretend isn’t horribly overbudget and a drain on other, actually important public works. I want a Volkshalle that sits half-built or mutilated, not the monument to Nazism that Hitler and Speer had hoped it would be, but a monument to the failures of ideology. I want people to not give the Nazis credit, or to at least understand that it was structurally a bad ideology.

The problem extends beyond the architectural plans for Germania though. Tanks are another good example. The Panzer IX and Panzer X were super-heavy designs created for counterintelligence and propaganda purposes. The Ratte was a tank even heavier that was canceled before any were built. The E-100, the Maus, the Löwe … the Germans had a lot of incomplete or canceled tanks, and these get put into alternate histories all the time, completely uncritically. The Germans had a love of big tanks which far exceeded their practical use, and suffered a lot of problems because of it. The Tiger II was rushed into production, and suffered a number of different problems, many of them related to its size. It probably would have been better to spend less money on more tanks, but that went against the symbolism and ideology that the Nazis had going on. If you put it to them directly, they probably wouldn’t have said that they would prefer to lose if winning meant having a smaller tank than the other guy, but that was the direction their ideology and mindset pointed them. Some of the tanks that they put actual time, effort, and resources into were so large that they wouldn’t have been able to cross a lot of bridges, hamstringing them. The giant tanks were about stoking the ego of madmen, rather than winning the war. They were, or should have been, symbols of the problems of Nazism, rather than symbols of the terrifying power of the enemy.

So why give the Nazis credit for these tanks? Why repeat the lies that the Nazis told? A large part of it must be sheer narrative pressure. If the Nazis are the bad guys, the main antagonists, then showing all the flaws makes them less fearsome. Stories love and underdog, and part of having an underdog is having a ruthless, competent, and efficient antagonist who is rich, smart, and good looking. Unfortunately, in the case of the Nazis, this is both false, and has some unfortunate implications with regards to what it implies about fascism.

So yes, give me super-tanks that suffer from breakdowns, or that are marooned by poor supply lines, or that have obvious problems. To some extent, I want a Nazi Death Star, because it’s a good critique of the ideology to show something that was built for propaganda purposes and suffers from practical considerations. In Star Wars canon, the Death Star is a terrible idea, built only because Emperor Palpatine wanted complete control over the destructive power of the Empire, loved those big splashy symbols, and had no one who could say no to him. It suffered its fatal flaw because of the way the Empire treated its people, the slave labor it employed, the corners that needed to be cut to sate the murderous people on top … this is a good way of handling things! It’s at least something that shows there are internal, inherent problems within this society, and that it’s not just a matter of scrappy underdogs having the will of god on their side.

Nazi Super Science

Special mention must be made of Nazi super science, which is an old and well-worn trope. How it’s usually handled is that the Nazis were great at either science, the occult, or both, and that allows them to develop … well, it depends on the franchise, but the results range from super-soldiers to giant mech to time travel.

Part of this must come from the same narrative impulses as above. People want “the enemy” to be fearsomely strong, and super science is a way of doing that. There are lots of interesting worldbuilding and science fictional possibilities that might come from it, that much I can admit. But it’s still giving Nazis credit for stuff that they didn’t do, and worse, it’s framing a lot of what the Nazis actually did in a much more favorable light.

The twin studies at Auschwitz-Birkenau are a prime example. They were massive, inhuman … and some people just stop there, imagining that as implemented, this was research that any scientist secretly dreams of, the kind of experiment that just isn’t done because of those pesky ethical rules. Think of the data you could get if you weren’t reliant on submitting documentation to an ethics committee! I can kind of understand this line of thinking, but it’s wrong to project it onto the Nazis, because the majority of what they were doing was not even science. Most of it was torture dressed up as science, sometimes thinly. There is a tendency in both alt history and loose historical fiction to portray the people doing these experiments as working for what they thought was the greater good, or showing them as dispassionate sociopaths who felt no empathy. In reality, a lot of these ‘experiments’ were just excuses to get off on doing vile things to captives. The data was bad and sometimes made up, and science wasn’t the actual aim. Some of this is just because if you put the kinds of people who would actually do this stuff in charge of a program, you’re not likely to attract curious intellectuals, you’re likely to attract the worst of the worst. Some of it was because those elements of science drag were more important than any actual science. And some of it was because all that ‘science’ was absolutely required to support party positions, and if it couldn’t or didn’t do that, the person in charge of the science would be ousted.

But if you frame Nazi super science in a certain way, you’re buying into defenses that were given at Nuremburg, and uncritically repeating propaganda points. If Nazi super science results in super soldiers, new power sources, and giant mechs, then what you’re implying is that yeah, more progress would be made if we put our affairs into the hands of monsters, what’s best is fascism, if only the fascists weren’t evil. You’re saying that the Nazis were right about pretty much everything, except maybe hating Jews, and giving credence to the myths that they told about themselves.

Similarly the occult stuff … I get it, it’s interesting, it’s a hook for different speculative fiction stories. But the associations between Nazism and occultism should, by virtue of the fact that occultism doesn’t actually do anything or produce anything of value, be a symbol of what’s wrong with the Nazi mindset (this is setting aside for a moment how ahistorical and fantastical a lot of the claims of occult connection actually are). So if you’re writing a book, and you have Nazis doing occult stuff that actually works, that means you’re depicting them as not being rubes, but rather, people with a lust for power who knew something others didn’t. This ascribes to the Nazis something that isn’t actually true, and if you’ve made it this far, you know why I might take issue with that. I especially take issue with the implication that the Nazis were in possession of secrets and truths that the rest of the world never knew of. Their big secret was the senseless murder of some eleven million people, and that one came out in the end.

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The Problem With Writing Nazis

3 thoughts on “The Problem With Writing Nazis

  1. This post got me thinking about Raiders of the Lost Ark. A common criticism is that Indiana Jones has no real effect on the outcome of the story. Spielberg is perfectly in line with your advice: the Nazis don’t know what they don’t know about the occult. The American G-men are equally incompetent but at least they seem to know that (better days, right?).

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