Internet memes featuring Hitler and imagery from the Holocaust are normalizing and even trivializing a very disturbing period in history.
That was the message of the opening night event at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue for Holocaust Education Week (HEW), which ran Nov. 2 to 9.
Organized by the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre, the 36th annual HEW has become one of the largest events of its kind in the world.
In keeping with this year’s theme, the future of memory, Fairfield University professor Gavriel Rosenfeld gave a talk titled “Between Tragedy and Farce: Normalizing Nazism on the Internet.” The lecture was based on his latest book, Hi Hitler.
By looking at how Hitler and the Third Reich are often portrayed on the Internet – via horrifying alt-right websites and supposedly satirical memes – he explored the “normalization of memory.”
It’s a concept he described as “the process in which a specific historical legacy loses its moralistic aura of exceptionality and gradually becomes viewed as a past like any other.” The web has accelerated this process in relation to Nazism and the Holocaust, he said.
Rosenfeld began his presentation with two images: one was a cat with what looked like a Hitler moustache and the other was an image from the web cartoon Hipster Hitler.
Memes such as these elicited nervous titters from the audience, but things got even more awkward when he showed a three-minute clip from the 2004 German film Downfall. The scene depicted Hitler having a meltdown, but a YouTuber changed the subtitles to show Hitler reacting to a change in United Airline’s rewards program.
Rosenfeld noted how people laughed because of the incongruity of juxtaposing Hitler, the embodiment of evil, alongside a relatively trivial subject. Yet, videos such as this can humanize the Nazi dictator, because most people can relate to his airline-related frustrations, he said.
Other examples that made the room uncomfortable included the aforementioned Hipster Hitler as well as the website Thingsthatlooklikehitler.com
“The creators of these kinds of memes, they claim that they’re mocking Hitler, and they claim that they’re trying to undercut his mythic power through satire,” said Rosenfeld. “But in fact, to be honest with you, I think this is truly an exaggeration.”
Of course, this type of normalization and trivialization happens throughout pop culture, in movies, shows and literature. Neuberger Centre chair Shael Rosenbaum addressed the crowd and noted that one of the ways he first started learning about the Holocaust was via films such as The Producers, and later, through shows such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and its infamous survivor scene.
Besides these obvious satires, in a conversation with Neuberger Centre scholar-in-residence Ron Levi, Rosenfeld said there’s a tendency for Internet users to use Nazi symbols to be controversial for the sake of it, because controversy leads to more clicks on the web, and that’s a good thing for content creators. But by spreading this content, it can become trivialized.
The web, of course, can also help hatred proliferate. And the ubiquity of the medium spreads anti-Semitic material that would otherwise remain confined to niche groups.
Rosenfeld noted this content can help illustrate how certain groups are remembering the Holocaust right now. And as he pointed out, he called his book Hi Hitler in reference to a meme featuring that phrase, which some people apparently think was the actual Nazi salute.
That’s where this year’s theme comes in. As Carson Phillips, managing director of the Neuberger Centre said, the opening night program raised some timely and serious questions.
“How is memory being formed today? How are people remembering the Holocaust? Or, how are different aspects of society remembering the Holocaust?” he asked.
For HEW, he says, it’s about balancing new material with survivor testimonies, a balance that’ll become even more delicate as we move further into the future.