Schwarzenegger and Hogan's Heroes

Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s early admiration for Hitler not threatening to most Americans?

November 22, 2003

Why is Arnold Schwarzenegger's early admiration for Hitler not threatening to most Americans?

For Americans, laughter is probably the best medicine against any dangerous ideology.

During the Cold War, Americans often diffused the communist threat by portraying Russians as a bunch of imbeciles with funny accents in various Hollywood flicks — such as the famous 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

Soviet propaganda at the time was far less sophisticated. In Soviet movies, Americans were shown in dead earnest. In fact, they were cast as genuinely evil. And these malicious Americans forever tried to recruit honest Soviet citizens by blackmailing them — or offering them bundles of U.S. dollars.

In retrospect, the American approach of portraying the absurdity of communist ideology worked much better than the more serious Soviet approach.

Americans remained staunchly anti-Communist throughout the Cold War — despite unceasing Soviet efforts to build up the U.S. Communist Party.

At the same time, when the Iron Curtain collapsed, it turned out that quite a few Russians admired the United States and its political system.

A similar approach has been used to portray Nazis in American pop culture. In recent decades, there have been relatively few serious films about World War II. Despite movies such as Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, comedies about the war and the Nazis have been remarkably popular.

The trend began in the mid-1960s, some 20 years after the end of World War II.

The sitcom Hogan's Heroes featured a bunch of uproariously funny, clueless Germans, led by Kommandant Klink and Sargeant Schultz. It premiered in 1965 — and ran for six seasons.

The series, in which American POWs outsmart their German captors again and again, is still enjoying a considerable loyal following in late-night re-runs.

Another example is Mel Brook's 1968 movie, The Producers, which featured basically the same type of humor. Its recent revival in the form of a Broadway musical — garnering the record number Tony Awards for best theatrical production — shows that the joke has not yet worn thin.

The strategy of making light of Nazism has succeeded — perhaps even too well. It certainly may have helped Arnold Schwarzenegger overcome the — albeit slight — handicap of his Germanic accent.

More seriously, even his family's Nazi ties to the Nazi regime — and Arnold's own alleged early admiration for Hitler — do not seem very threatening to most Americans, but merely amusing.

Of course, relying on a thick Germanic accent has been a feature in U.S. politics for a long time. After all, Americans of German extraction still make up the largest proportion of the Caucasian population of the United States.

Americans also grew used to a heavy Teutonic accent in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Henry Kissinger was first National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, and then Secretary of State.

Needless to say, Mr. Kissinger, who had to flee Hitler as a child along with his Jewish parents, is by no means linked to Nazism. On the contrary, his German accent — which some critics claimed was deliberately exaggerated for someone who had been speaking English since the age of 15 — gave his pronouncements a tone of scholarly gravitas.

Nor is Governor Schwarzenegger's Germanic accent — and even the unproven allegations of his Nazi sympathies — the real problem.

What has been largely forgotten — while American popular culture has been poking fun at the Nazis — is that Nazism was far more than those men in funny uniforms speaking broken English.

And that it even went beyond anti-Semitism, which led to the annihilation of six million European Jews. Nazism also stood for the militarization of society — and for the fervent admiration of men in uniform.

It also placed blind trust in national leaders who march their nations forward to destruction without a shadow of doubt in their minds. It was also about the feeling of being embattled, and the carefully maintained sentiment of getting a raw deal from everybody else — friend or foe.

Now, Mr. Schwarzenegger is a cultural hero of sorts — and he has contributed mightily to the resurgence of the macho action genre.

His Terminator movies may be tongue-in-cheek, but they nonetheless glorify brute strength and are chock full of poor-taste jokes about killing — sorry, terminating — people.

His adoption of the "Hasta la Vista, Baby!" line as a virtual campaign slogan during the gubernatorial election in California is a case in point. In his movies, the line is used before putting away the bad guys for good.

In the end, Mr. Schwarzenegger's accomplishments in Hollywood — and, so we are told, in Sacramento in the future — speak for themselves.

But in some small part, his run for governor has been aided by the fact that links of Nazism — real or just alleged — no longer carry the weight they once did in American politics.

At a time when Americans' knowledge of history is becoming ever more tenuous, there also lies a real danger in playing up the "funny" side of Nazism too much — at the expense of fact-based education.