Ah, the Nazis. Without them, our movies wouldn't know how to dress their threateningly British bad guys, and our angriest Internet arguments would have no climax. But Nazism has given us more than Godwin's law and the Galactic Empire: It's given the world a clear image of pure human evil, unrivaled in the annals of history.
Well, the Nazis were definitely as evil as the devil's own taint sweat, but that doesn't mean Hollywood and bad teachers haven't filled your head with allll kinds of bullshit about the Third Reich. For example, you probably don't know that ...
The worst thing you can say about our favorite form of government (democracy) is that it brought a cockburglar like Hitler into power. It's a sobering lesson in human gullibility and the madness of crowd psychology, one so obvious, even George Lucas picked up on it:
It's a message clear enough that a Star Wars prequel couldn't fuck it up: Charismatic dictators are great at popularity contests, and what is an election but one big-ass popularity contest for control of the police and the best houses? You may not know much about Hitler's rise to power, but you know he body-surfed into the Reichstag over a sea of enthusiastic, brown-shirted German voters.
But guess what? That's not how it went down. The Nazi party never took more than 38 percent of the vote in a free election. Hitler didn't win so much as a presidential election, and even George W. Bush won one of those. Liberty "died" in Germany exactly the way you'd expect it to die: in a series of underhanded backroom deals that saw Hitler appointed chancellor.
Now here's where it gets kind of sad: Hitler assumed power in 1932, and the very next year Germany held nationwide elections. That's the sort of thing dictators everywhere do; there's nothing like a show vote to prove the legitimacy of your reign! He went about "winning" this election with every trick in the toolbox of oppression: violent thugs at the polls, waves of propaganda, ballots that looked like this:
This ballot is actually for the annexation of Austria, but you get the idea.
So what did the Nazis win, 99 percent of the popular vote?
Try 42 percent. That's the best the Nazis ever managed, and that's with the repressive might of a burgeoning evil empire behind them. Not even one in two Germans thought this whole "fascism" thing sounded like a good idea. Saddam Hussein held more-competent sham elections, and he's widely considered the Pauly Shore of violent dictators.
Sure, Hitler got way more popular after conquering France and Poland, but the whole idea that he was swept into power by a mass of fanatic brainwashed Germans has no basis in fact. Most Germans were too sane to want to march around like the Demon Boy Scouts and worship racist Charlie Chaplin. The problem was, they were also too sane to start a fight with a bunch of crazy people.
"Eh, this'll probably just boil over."
And that's why World War II happened!
The Nazis raised propaganda to a level of art never seen before. Chances are you've all watched clips from the blockbuster 1935 propaganda film Triumph of the Will. Here's a hint: It's the movie that looks like this:
One day this will be the last remaining blockbuster movie without a remake.
Nazi propaganda gets all kinds of credit for being groundbreaking and evilly effective, but even at its height, the Third Reich never came close to Hollywood. The best Nazi propagandists couldn't even make a movie that would rivet their own brainwashed subjects. When Triumph launched in 1935, it wasn't even one of the 10 most popular films of the year in Germany.
Nine of the films that beat it at the box office were made in America. In fact, you could argue that Triumph wasn't even the most successful piece of Nazi propaganda that year. That title rightly belongs to this lovely piece:
The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, despite starring an American and being based on a British military unit in India, was filled to the brim with the kind of themes fascists love. It had the stoic leader (read: fuhrer) with unshakeable conviction, rivers of martial virtue, buckets of manly honor, and a good deal about the importance of shooting brown people. Joseph Goebbels considered The Lives of a Bengal Lancer the model of an ideal propaganda film.
So yes, Paramount beat the King of Propaganda at his own game. And that wasn't a fluke; Hollywood films were wildly popular in Nazi Germany right up until that whole war thing happened. Whether you're a mindless lapdog of fascism or not, films with a sense of goddamn pacing always win out over endless loops of marching assholes and angry speeches.
No facet of National Socialism was as compelling as Gary Cooper's jawline.
Somewhere, lost to history, is the German intelligence officer who made what might be the official Worst Decision Ever. He needed to pick a man to infiltrate a group of political radicals calling themselves the German Workers' Party and figure out if they meant to overthrow the government. He sized up the men available to him and decided that a young Adolph Hitler would be the best man for the job.
Ironically, he was voted "Least Likely to Start a War That Kills 60 Million People" in school.
Yes, Hitler started his Nazi career as a spy and then moved on to "guy who gives speeches" when he realized it had much better odds of putting him in a castle. Anton Drexler, founder of the German Workers' Party, was the 1920s equivalent of an angry nerd arguing about politics on Facebook. He created a group to talk about his wacky ideas, and one day this little German soldier came in and started a violent argument.
Hitler was a douche, but he was a douche who could give a rousing speech, and Drexler was pretty hard up for party members at this point. So he invited Hitler to join the German Workers' Party. The future Fuhrer gradually gained power and eventually changed the name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party. In the interest of not prolonging World War II movies, everyone agreed to abbreviate that as "Nazi," and the rest is ... well, the bloodiest pages of human history ever written.
Man, what is it about shitty political theorists and shittier mustaches?
Drexler's tragic life should be a warning to people who start shit: don't. It never ends well.