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."

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.