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Making Fun of Hitler: A Brief History

September 11, 2009

Hurray, The Butter is Gone

I wrote this for my company’s blog, Social Media World, but they haven’t posted it yet. Maybe I’m the only one who thinks Dada has something to do with the Internet?

Hitler can get really mad. This shouldn’t come as much a surprise, considering the well-recorded history of World War II and the Holocaust. From his attempts at genocide to trying to take over Europe (not to mention some of North Africa), the man must have had some serious, deep-seeded anger. So it’s no wonder that when he gets banned form X Box Live, when his favorite band split up, when his favorite soccer team lost, he’d have an outpouring of rage. You would think he’d get angry too when he found out that he’d been made fun of for his many fits, that they had spread like wildfire across the Internet, archived for ever on YouTube. And you’d be right. Since early 2007, nearly 2,000 clips have stacked up on YouTube of Hitler—as played by Bruno Ganz in the 2004 film The Downfall—yelling about something or other. The German-language film—the first to include Hitler as a central character—features cleverly (and sometimes not so cleverly) altered English subtitles that re-imagine Hitler’s rant as a reaction to any variety of bits of contemporary news and culture.

Video mash-ups like this have these have been popping up on YouTube since the website launched in 2005, with parodies of Brokeback Mountain being another popular meme. But when it comes to Hitler, satire and collage, the history reaches much further than the short if not highly influential life of social media, the Internet and even the first computer (baring the abacus), back to the dying days of Weimar Germany.

Languishing after the ruin of the first World War, the years of Weimar Republic are remember as a chaotic and debauched time for Germany—its cities full of cabarets (the film Cabaret is set in Germany, during this time period) and prostitutes (identifiable and coded through a complex system of colored boots, so you knew exactly what you were getting into), the economy in turmoil due to hyperinflation. The general chaos was captured in the driving art movement in Germany in the years between the World Wars, German Expressionism. But once Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party began their ascent into power, culminating in 1933 with the beginning of the Third Reich, it was the Berlin branch of the Dada art movement that captured the zeitgeist of fear and resistance of the opposition in late-Weimar Germany.

Started in Zurich in 1916 by Tristan Zara and a group of expats who read unintelligible sound poems and gave other absurdist performances at the Café Voltaire, Dada is an art movement that in the beginning embraced the idea of illogic. With its founding members all affected in one form or another by World War I, they banded together through their suspicion of language and logic, those so-called trustworthy foundations of society that had watch lead to the utter destruction of the Great War.

Dada went through many incarnations between Zurich in the Teens and Berlin in the late ’20s and early ‘30s. Lead by John Heartfield, Berlin Dada was infinitely more image-based and often took the form of collage. But Dada in Berlin continued to follow the anti-war stance of Zurich, with Heartfield and the other Dadaist creating ironic and often darkly humorous collages criticizing Hitler and the Nazi regime. Both the technological developments in printing and the prevalence of Nazi imagery and propaganda made collage a natural and highly effective medium for the Berlin Dadaist to work in.

Just as YouTube users have taken advantage of contemporary technology to put new words into Hitler’s mouth, Heartfield used the technology of his age to similarly co-opt and re-contextualize the Nazis to equally ironic ends. One of Heartfield’s most famous images, titled Hurray, The Butter is Gone, shows a German family sitting at a dinner table chewing on various gigantic pieces of metal—weights, bicycle parts, a Swastika-bearing ax—with a quote from Hermann Göring responding to food shortages in Germany running below the image: “Iron has always made a nation strong, butter and lard have only made the people fat.”

If only Heartfield and the Dadaist had the glut of videos and images—all those Leni Riefenstahl YouTube clips—that social media provides us access to today . . . Then again, they did quite a good job on their own and Internet users, knowingly or not, continue to keep the Dadaist tradition of making fun of Hitler alive.

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