The Power of Symbols in History

Adolf Hitler is one of those historical characters who will forever fascinate us.  There is something that keeps drawing us back to Hitler and his Nazi cohorts.  Perhaps it is because Hitler was a sort of Horatio Alger hero, the small town boy who everyone disliked and thought would never make anything of himself, only to grow up to become a greater villain than the fictional Emperor Ming the Merciless?

Maybe we are attracted to all the pomp and ceremony that was so much a part of Nazism.  Hitler was a master of propaganda, especially when collaborating with the dwarfish Joseph Goebbels, the very lovely Leni Riefenstahl, and the very talented architect Albert Speer.  They all had in common a degree of megalomania that empowered their creativity.  Hitler was a talented but rejected artist, Goebbels a failed novelist and playwright, Riefenstahl a brilliant pioneer of the cinema, and Speer a psychologically damaged individual easily dominated by Hitler’s much stronger personality. Together they staged a drama more alluring than a Wagner opera.

The continued fascination with Hitler and Nazi Germany was brought home to me during the recent midterm elections.  Two images in particular caught my attention.  One was that of Ohio Republican Congressional candidate and Tea Party favorite Rich Lott dressed in a Waffen SS uniform.  The second was a campaign flyer put out by North Carolina Democrat Tim Spear, which mistakenly used a photograph of re-enactors dressed as German soldiers. 

There was nothing wrong or newsworthy about Mr. Lott’s participation in historical re-enactments.  Many men and women enjoy dressing up in historical garb and playing as if they were once more children.  It’s no different than adults who play with model train sets.  Lott’s knowledge of history is no doubt more extensive than the ad agency that produced the campaign flier for Tim Spear.

Today when “news as entertainment” is more to the public’s taste than actual news, market savvy “reporters” can turn a cat in a tree into a major news story.  I do not mention these two images so as to further embarrass either Mr. Lott or Mr. Spear.  I did not think then, nor do I think now, that either is a Nazi wannabe.  Neither do I want to suggest that the political ideas held by each, however bizarre, are as sophisticated as Hitler’s, or as evil.

If the truth be known, the macho military types among us seem to have a special admiration for the German army.  General Rommel, the Desert Fox, and General von Paulus who commanded the German 6th Army during the decisive Battle of Stalingrad are more romantic historical figures than any of the American generals, except perhaps Generals Patton and MacArthur.  Patton with his pearl handled pistols, and MacArthur with his corncob pipe were dashing figures, indeed.

 We Americans tend to have a soft spot in our hearts for lost causes.  Take, for example, the most popular of all the lost causes, the Confederate States of America.   No respectable Southern home is complete without portraits of General Robert E. “Bobby” Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.  If there is not enough room on the wall for both, then one is allowed to substitute a copy of the famous G. B. Matthews lithograph of “Lee and His Generals.”

Humans are just naturally programmed to respond to symbols.  Symbols have a powerful allure because they have meaning beyond themselves.  I recall a comment by an art critic during the debate over removing the Confederate battle flag, the so-called “Stars and Bars,” from the Mississippi state flag.  He said that it would be difficult to come up with a more appealing image, artistically speaking.  The combination of colors, triangles, squares, and stars is very pleasing to the eye, even for a Yankee like me.

The same might well be said about the United Kingdom’s flag, the “Union Jack,” or even our own “Stars and Stripes.” They are emotive symbols.  Like the Confederate flag, we are attracted to them, whether or not we identify with the historical reality they represent.

Likewise, Nazi symbols have a certain artistic quality, or aesthetic appeal, to them.  Exhibits of Nazi memorabilia attract many visitors.  Last November the National Socialism Documentation Centre in Cologne put on exhibit a small portion of an enormous private collection of items illustrating how the Nazis attempted to take Christ out of Christmas by turning the holiday into a pagan winter solstice celebration.  On display were such items as swastika-shaped cookie cutters, recipes for Nazi and Germanic shaped breads and cakes, iron cross tree ornaments, Nazi and patriotic themed cards–the list goes on and on. 

The mystery of Hitler’s appeal is the subject of a current exhibition at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.  Lines formed before the museum doors opened at 10 a.m. on October 13, the opening day of the exhibit.  An estimated 3,000 viewed the exhibit on the first day, and many since.

Before leaving this subject, I should make clear that I am not equating the Confederate States of America with the Third Reich.  The Confederacy was a rebellion on the part the Southern planter aristocracy who claimed to be defending what after the Civil War was often called “states rights.”  Of course the constitutional arguments were but a ruse meant to ward off threats to the South’s “peculiar institution.”

The Third Reich, on the other hand, was a descent into the abyss.  There is nothing quite its equal in history.  The quest to try to understand how a people, who before the First World War were thought to represent the highest level of Western Civilization, could commit such atrocities will never be fully realized.

Well, I have wandered into areas I am not qualified to address.  I have no training in the science of aesthetics, if in fact it is a science.  My artistic knowledge is limited to knowing what I like and don’t like.  But I do know that we human beings are attracted to symbols, symbols that evoke emotions we cannot begin to comprehend.  Remember, Hitler did not invent the swastika.  It is a variation of the ancient sun wheel, found everywhere in the world from the dawn of human history.  In fact, until Hitler’s use of it forever changed its meaning, it was, like the four-leaf clover, regarded as a good luck symbol.  

Enough seriousness!  In my next entry, I shall return to something humorous.

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