THE LITTLEST NAZIS
Little Nazi growing pains....
NEW YORK PRESS Vol 18 - Issue 8 - February 23-Mar 1, 2005
THE LITTLEST NAZIS
Wisconsin's youth did the goose-step with style.
By Jim Knipfel
This may be an uncomfortable subject, one most people don't care to admit or consider. I can also see, even before I start writing, that this is likely going to be misinterpreted in outrageous ways. Still, what I'm talking about is true: Kids love Nazis. Or at least they did when I was a boy.
Perhaps this fascination wasn't quite as widespread in New York or other major cities as it was elsewhere in the country. But when you grew up, as I did, in a community whose population was almost exclusively German and Northern Europeanin a town that had only one Jewish family and no black families (outside of those associated with the football team), the kids could get away with doing and saying things that could, in 21st-century New York, result in some sort of prosecution.
There was nothing surprising, for example, in seeing kids scrawl swastikas all over their notebooks or in the margins of their homework. I was guilty of it myself. It wasn't considered a big deal. If you saw a swastika scrawled on the wall in a stairwell (which wasn't at all uncommon), it was seen as nothing more than stupid, uncreative vandalism, not an attack on anyone and certainly no kind of threat.
A friend of mine named Norby might've taken things a bit further than most. I guess you could say he was quite smitten with the iconography and the style. In fourth or fifth grade, I remember, he moved beyond simply scribbling swastikas or writing "Sieg Heil" on things to making himself little fashion accessories out of paper. He made a paper armband and a paper tie. Even a little paper Hitler moustache, which he taped below his nose. The tie was my favoritedown below the large swastika emblazoned across the middle of the tie, he'd written "JA!" in thick black block letters. This I found both absurd and hysterically funny.
He wore this to class a few days in a row, and none of the teachers ever said a word to him. Nor did they say anything to any of the other kids who were also fascinated with the Third Reich. It's not that the teachers were themselves collaboratorsinstead, they simply recognized (and rightly so) that there was nothing political behind it, nothing anti-Semitic or racist. (The racism in town was something quite independent, developing along strange and twisted paths all its own.) I'm guessing the parents didn't say anything either because they simply believed their kids had taken up an unexpected and healthy interest in history.
But it wasn't history. And no, it wasn't racist. It had nothing to do with "white power" or any other such nonsense. It was at heart, I believe, nothing more than a question of esthetics, not unlike the early days of punk rock. I might suggest that this whole Nazi flirtation thing was our own brand of punk rock before punk rock existed. We had no idea what National Socialism was all about. All we knew was that there was something forbidden and dangerous (and therefore attractive) about it, even if we didn't know exactly what or why. It was "evil," and that was enough.
We were a generation growing up with no direct memories of WWII. The Nazis were fictional characters to us. Comic book villains. "Hitler" was as much a mythological figure as Paul Bunyan or the devil. What we knew about the Nazis came from Hogan's Heroes, Captain America and that Star Trek episode. They cropped up in movies an awful lot, too either as slickly evil madmen or bumbling idiots. In either case, they always lost in the end, but they still had style. Cool uniforms and eye-catching symbols. And the characters on Hogan's Heroes never discussed gas chambers or death camps.
The history classes in our schools didn't get around to World War II until 11th grade. And despite all the books I'd read (there were a remarkable number of books about Hitler and the Third Reich aimed at pre-teens), I had no idea what the Holocaust was until the miniseries aired in 1978. Many of the kids I knew watched Holocaust from beginning to end, but as will happen with kids, they did so for all the wrong reasons. It had nudity, for one thing (and at that age, you don't notice the nudity is associated with horror). Lots of gore, too. What more could a 12-year-old ask for from a tv show? (I'm not even going to get into what they did with Roots.)
Yet, in spite of the boobs and the blood, the message began to sink in. At least for me it did.
Again, you have to understand, I never went to school with any Jewish or black kids until my junior year of high school (at which point I met one of each). Throughout most of my childhood, "Jewish" was an alien conceptto me, and to most of the folks in town. But while it was alien, there was no animosity connected with it. The collective animosity in Northeast Wisconsin was saved for the people who were around: mostly Poles and Indians.
I'm not trying to justify anything, just describe it. Kids love monsters, even when they don't fully understand what those monsters represent or the full ramifications of the monster's actions. I liked monsters more than most. And whatever attraction I may have felt to the Nazis had less to do with any kind of hatred than with this simple love of monsters. And to a kid at that time and in that place, the Nazis were monsters with style.
The more I read, however, the more it became clear that these were men, not monsters. "Banal," as Hannah Arendt would call them. Soon enough, my fascination passed, and I moved on to my next phasedesigning packages for fake products, like "Donkey Oaties" breakfast cereal.
Most all of us came to our senses before too long. Everyone except for my friend Bob, that is. But Bob wasn't really a Nazihe just liked to piss people off. Memories of poor Norby's paper accessories may have contributed, too. When the Dead Kennedys released their "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" single in 1982, Bob came to school wearing the armband that accompanied it. And while the red slash through the swastika was clear and obvious, it still caused a bit of a stir (though not as big a stir as the time he wore his Circle Jerks "Group Sex" t-shirt).
In recent years, I've met people who grew up all over the country at roughly the same time I did, who report the same kind of experience, that same early fascination. Kids from Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, New York, Californiaall report some sort of Nazi phase when they were young before moving on to punk rock. In some cases, there very much was a racist element attached to it. Some got over it sooner than others, and most are hesitant to admit to it nowadays.
But I guess that's why the History Channel exists.
Volume 18, Issue 8