Saddam Hussein and the myth of Hitler's survival.

The history behind current events.
June 2 2003 11:44 AM

Adolf's Alive!

Saddam Hussein and the persistent myth of Hitler's survival.

(Continued from Page 1)

One set of stories argued, in all seriousness, that Hitler was hiding out at the South Pole. Real-life Hitler look-alikes continued to get stopped at customs, and as late as 1969, German authorities were still rounding up men who resembled Hitler—including one retired miner, Albert Pankla, whose refusal to change his hairstyle or shave his mustache led to his arrest, he claimed, on some 300 occasions. In more recent times, the trope has been fodder for an endless catalog of bad (and some good) art, from the delightfully trashy 1976 novel (and 1978 movie) The Boys From Brazil (which had Josef Mengele surviving Berlin's fall to undertake Hitler's resurrection) to George Steiner's novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.

The persistence of the survival myth suggests several interpretations. It reveals a worry over the rebirth of Nazism, a fear that all the sacrifices of World War II still might not have permanently expunged this horrible evil. It is also a vehicle for admitting a perverse kind of awe for Hitler, a way to acknowledge his power without seeming to profess admiration. Or, as McKale suggests, it may betray an unwillingness "to allow Hitler to have the peace of death."

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But there is something more universal in the survival myth as well. The trope of the monstrous villain that won't die has a long lineage. In Spenser's Faerie Queene, when St. George slays the dragon, the onlookers at first refuse to believe it is dead. In almost every Hollywood action or slasher movie of the last 20 years, the bad guy, when presumed dead, rises one last time to give the audience a final scare. Our emotions in watching the war are not so different. In the Onion's recent parody "Military Promises 'Huge Numbers' For Gulf War II: The Vengeance," Donald Rumsfeld is quoted as saying, "In the original, as you no doubt know, we defeat Saddam Hussein, only to let him slip away at the very end," and promises to finish the job this time around.

As is often the case, the Onion may be onto something. I suspect that for all of our triumphalism, we are actually ambivalent about total victory. There is pride, of course, in having achieved Saddam's quick removal, just as there was in ending the Third Reich. But it makes sense, too, that we should at some level want to see our victory as less than complete. Swift and total conquest brings the disconcerting shock that our military might is even more potent than we knew. It induces an anxiety about the ease with which we decide to topple a regime. And it leaves a let-down and dissipated sense of purpose after an all-out fight against an arrant villain. After all, if Saddam is really dead—if evil personified is permanently put down—what's left for the United States and its military to do?

Thanks to Donald McKale's Hitler:The Survival Myth and to Ron Rosenbaum and his book Explaining Hitler.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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