7:36 a.m. April 9, 2013

War Nerd: The Cheery, Ordinary World of Fascism

Introduction by Gary Brecher:

After the Oscars I wrote a column about how American squeamishness about bad words has paid off for us as a world power.

My argument was that if you look back at the 20th century, the military powers who did best, the USSR and USA, were both specialists in smiley-faced, think-positive images. Other powers like Germany and Japan were probably better soldiers, but never understood the Dale Carnegie approach, making friends and influencing people. It was no century for Spartans; the Axis powers, Germany, Japan, and Italy, who tried to look fierce and scary, lost big, and the smiling backstabbers flourished.

It was what you could call a clever thesis. And like a lot of clever arguments, it wasn't entirely true. I realized that when I got a couple of emails from a friend of mine in Italy. This guy is scary, one of those European polymaths that make you feel like Fred Flintstone, only dumber. He does math for a living, ultramarathons for fun, and military history as bedtime reading. And he knows a whole lot more about the culture of fascist states in the 1930s than I ever will.

I was so humbled by the info he sent that I asked him if he'd let me publish it with his name on it, but he veto'd that because, unlike yours trooly, he actually has a career to worry about. So we agreed that I could print a version of his comments under a fake name. So I'll call him "Annibale," after another great military mind who kicked up the dust along the Appenines.

Annibale wanted me to understand that fascist images were just as cheery and bland as anything American and the USSR cooked up, and that if you can actually imagine living in the world of the typical 1930s Italian or German, you'd be amazed how normal it was. Some of their military imagery might have been designed to be scary, but then so is some of ours. If you look at the stuff they showed their own people, even the ones who joined their armies, it's remarkably cheerful, "modern," and bland.

The example Annibale focused on was the "Tigerfibel," the instruction manual issued to beginning tank crewmen assigned to the Wehrmacht's heavy Tiger tank, first produced in 1942. This was the German tank enemies feared most, and you might think the manual would be full of swastikas, skulls, and ranting. Well, just listen to what Annibale has to say, and click on the links he provides, and you'll see how wrong you are.

So from here on, you're reading what Annibale wrote, give or take a few grammar quibbles from me...

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If you want to see the strangely cheerful, familiar world of Nazi propaganda, just look at the Tigerfibel, the instruction manual issued to soldiers being trained to operate the Tiger 1, the fearsome German heavy tank that entered production in 1942.

As you will see, it's not exactly what you would expect for a German Army instruction manual. It's colorful, with lot of silly vignettes, and many short, catchy ditties to help the new crewman memorize things. There are also lots of mild sex jokes, and plenty of crude but not particularly gruesome humor about the "enemy." These all follow common stereotypes: Brits are drunkards, Americans are either blacks or Jews, and Russians are big and ignorant.

Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the Tigerfibel's vision of life back home. We imagine wartime Germany, particularly after 1941, as a terrifying round of furtive war-factory labor and hiding from the bombs. That's not what you see in these illustrations. The opening page features a topless blonde having a bath, with a little teacher's ribaldry about how "Danger lurks in the depths, so read your manual well!" Sex sells the lessons all through the manual. In the section, "Getting Started," there's a German soldier—smiling as usual—peeking shyly at a lady getting dressed behind a screen. When the women aren't grabbing the soldier boys' attention by undressing, they're busy with vacuum cleaners, while off-duty tankers are prowling the night clubs. It's all very familiar to anyone who's watched 1940s films, and very cheerful, especially for a training manual aimed at young men who were training for the most desperate tank battles in history.

The Panther-Fibel, the manual for those learning to operate the Panther tank, is very similar. If anything, the Panther-Fibel is even lighter and more relaxed. It starts off with a couple of cute, chubby-cheeked German soldiers chatting at a bar while the bartender works the cocktail shaker. And the smiling, harmless-looking Wehrmacht guys just keep coming. There are soldiers daydreaming, imagining the reunion with wife or girlfriend, and playfully holding one thumb out to guess target range. Compared to this Disney-like comic book, US Army manuals are like Schopenhauer.

The manual is designed to reassure the very young soldiers Germany was forced to use after 1942, many of them still high-schoolers. And since German kids got the real deal, a classical education, the manual is full of light, classical analogies designed to teach tank fighting to teenagers raised on Greek heroes.

By 1943 and early 1944, the average age of new trainees in the Panzerwaffe was dropping steadily (even leaving out such glorified cannon fodder as the 12th SS Panzer "Hitlerjugend", the ultimate, pre-surf-era teenage clique, all cool black leather jackets, smart haircuts and their girlfriend's names written on the tanks' gun barrels ). There is none of the dark, grim imagery we've come to expect of the Wehrmacht.

The same cheery, light tone characterizes Signal, the propaganda magazine used to win "hearts and minds" by the Propagandastaffel.

Issues of Signal, translated into Italian, were very easy to find when I was growing up, so I became acquainted with the magazine at a very early age.

It's not at all the scary Nazi screed you might expect. In fact, except for inevitable differences in language, uniforms, and landscapes, Signal is really just a European edition of "Life" magazine, with a lot of anti-Communism and some anti-Semitism thrown in. After all, the whole point of Signal was to make Nazi Germany look cool in foreign eyes. And they were intelligent enough to realize that you couldn't do that if you showed German soldiers killing, raping, and looting. So the soldiers in Signal are always smiling, always slim, fit, and cheerful (especially when posed laughing at a photo of the bloated Winston Churchill).

For a while, Signal succeeded. It had a circulation in the millions, and even a Russian edition of tens of thousands of copies, designed to keep Germany's Slavic collaborators collaborating enthusiastically. It may be hard to believe now, but more than 100,000 young men from Western and Central Europe volunteered to go and fight in the Eastern Front. It wasn't just because they were born Nazi lovers. Signal and other German propaganda played a huge role in recruiting for the Wehrmacht. The confident and relaxed images young European men saw in Signal made Germany look modern, cool and invincible. The imagery in Signal is actually very similar to what you see in wartime American magazines.

Ah, but I hear you saying "Waitwaitwaitwaitwait, that's wrong or at least not relevant! Where's Leni Reifensthal and the death's head, and all the ‘death and night and blood' stuff that we always associate Nazism/Fascism with?"

A quick reply would be that this kind of imagery was present, but never as ubiquitous as you might imagine. Actually, it was something that the early fascist movement got from Romantic art, which was huge in Germany and Italy — far more influential than it was in the rest of Europe -- and was hijacked by the Fascist movement. Remember that the "Death's Head" was in use as part of German and Italian military imagery long before the Nazis began employing it. Skulls have been associated with war and armies in cultures all over the world, for millennia, and were in use by non-fascist German and Italian forces in World War I. The death's head was the symbol of the Italian "Arditi" and German "Stosstruppen," the original WWI shock troops who broke the trench warfare deadlock late in the war. It was out of admiration for the performance of these earlier units that the death's head became the emblem of the early Fascist / Nazi movement. But these dark images were used largely by the "spearheads", the "avant-garde" of fascism. Fascism could never have become a popular mass movement if it had used only that sort of image.

There's a more basic reason that German iconography was so sharply divided between the grim death's head we remember and the sunnier, smiling images we've forgotten.

"Germany" as a homogenous unit didn't exist until the late 19th century. To simplify a very complex political map, Germany comprised roughly four different entities – Prussia / Pomerania in the NE, Westphalia / Hannover / Holstein etc in the Northwest, Saxony in the center and Bavaria / Baden Württemberg in the south (with Berlin as an independent cultural entity). This is without even attempting to enumerate the hundreds of tiny polities that existed before the Thirty Years War. But the ultimate difference, the most important (if oversimplified) division, is between the North (Prussia) and the South (Bavaria)—with all the other free-floating components of the brand-new German nation moving constantly between those two poles.

Prussia and Bavaria are as different as any two European countries. Northern Germany is a grim, gray, sad place, and I don't think it was any better before the war. The culture there was deeply rooted in feudal / aristocratic traditions (very much as it is in Britain) and there's a distinctly warlike feeling. And of course it is mostly Protestant.

Bavaria is nothing like this. Bavaria (I use the term in the broadest possible sense : ie South East Germany plus bits of northern Austria) is rich, opulent, very bourgeois, and has seen very little actual fighting since the end of the 30 Years War. It's strongly Roman Catholic, of the traditional type, sunny and green – by German standards, at any rate. The people are relaxed, cheerful, oversexed, and quite proud to indulge in all kind of fun activities despite being – outwardly – solidly bourgeois. Contrary to the German (actually Prussian) stereotype, these Southern Germans are not especially hardworking. Working overtime in Munich is severely frowned upon.

And yet Nazism was born in the South, not the dour, warlike North. Prussia provided the ideology for First World War Germany, Imperial Germany. That ideology is only vaguely remembered now, because it was essentially indistinguishable from the ideologies of Imperial Britain, France, and Russia. The Kaiser's German Empire simply felt itself (with some justice) to be stronger, more intelligent, and braver than the weak, decadent French and British, or the brutish Tsarist Russians.

Nazism was a very different and distinctly Bavarian ideology -- a bizarrely aesthetic, art-heavy mutation of fascism.

What you see in the pages of Signal is Bavarian culture, with their deep love of food, sex, and drink combined with a dangerously intense feeling that this Germany is the Germany, and that Germany is the proper template for the world. I deal constantly with Bavarians, and they never tire of telling me, as an Italian in need of clarification, that Bavaria is the true Germany. They consider Northern Germans grim philistines, lacking all aesthetic sense, and as for Berlin—well, as they explain, it's nothing but commies, Jews and homosexuals As far as the Barvarians are concerned, no other sort of German is a true German, neither the "Germans abroad" like the Swiss (stupid, silly, and speaking a barbarous German) nor the Austrians (ignorant peasants or snotty intellectuals ). The center of "real Germany" is Bavaria, and the center of Bavaria is Munich.

It was these cheerful, hedonistic Bavarians who nurtured and protected Hitler, enthusiastically supported him, and hosted, a few kilometers outside Munich, one of the worst concentrations camp of the Nazi era – Dachau. What are those people like? A bit of Wagner here, a torchlight parade there, but it's mostly clean streets, flowered balconies, tidy houses, well regulated prostitution and lots of free time to indulge in sex, beer and chopped pork. Not particularly grim or bloody. Prussia may have made the German Army what it was, but it was Bavaria who controlled the politics , and Bavaria who was responsible for generating the most effective fascist imagery.

It was the same thing with Italian Fascism. Yes, it came out of the Arditi movement and all the D'Annunzio nonsense, along with all the black, deathly images associated with WWI. It exploded in Rome because of its association with the glories of the old Empire, and the fact that the whole power network was based there. But where did it originate? Romagna and Tuscany – two places now associated with the left. They are sunny, cheerful places well known for food, tourism and the arts. Indeed, most pre-war fascist imagery was a mix of bright modernism and cheerful middle-class values, very positive and reassuring, even when dealing with colonies and colonialism. In fact, you will see more "colorful" and positive images of Africa and Asia, and less overt racism, browsing through Italian Fascist-era magazines (pre 1938, of course) than you'll see in any British magazine of the same era.

This is because that was what the public wanted, and because both Hitler and Mussolini needed popular consent to control the state – it wasn't possible through propaganda or the secret police alone. Yes, Mussolini wanted his portrait with those notorious "granite-like jaws," to be seen everywhere. But he also made sure everybody knew about the thousand women he was shagging on a regular basis (as did Berlusconi). We may have used a lot of mustard gas on Ethiopian rebels, but we never made a big deal of it back home – except to say we were fighting in self-defence (remind you of anything?). Propaganda, whether fascist or ostensibly democratic, always stresses the carrot, not the stick.

But if this is so, why do we now associate Fascist propaganda with all those skulls, all that darkness? As I have said, the answer partly lies in the Romantic origins of Fascist aesthetics; but there is a much simpler explanation. We remember these images because it suited the Allies to stress them when presenting their version of Axis propaganda to American, British, and Slavic audience. The UK and US had to make their people believe that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were all stick and no carrot.

I always laugh when I hear that terrible line in that awful "The Great Dictator" movie when Chaplin / Hitler says that the parades and the rhetoric are meant to make people forget they're starving. For God's sake, they weren't starving at all! Of course, both regimes were based on murder, lies and everything else that's wrong in this world, but the one crime you cannot attribute to them is that the people were starving! Stalin, yes; Hitler and Mussolini, no. On the contrary.

Germany and Italy were actually far more lax, hedonistic, and pleasure-centered than many of the allied nations, particularly grim inter-war Britain and Stalin's USSR. Germany and Italy were among the first nations to screen full frontal nudity scenes in movies! In Italy the groundbreaking nude film was "La Cena Delle Beffe," with the actress Clara Calamai. She was used much later in a stroke of genius as the elderly, crazed killer in Dario Argento's "Deep Red," a movie that brilliantly plays with Fascist wartime images.

Yes, you would get the occasional historical epic to remind people about the past glories of the nation, or outright propaganda like Genina's "The Alcazar's Siege" about Franco's army resisting the godless Red hordes in Spain, or even stuff from your old friend Ayn Rand; Rand's novel "We The Living" was first filmed in Italy.

But these grand, serious patriotic films were by no means the norm. A huge 80% of movies produced in Italy during the 30's and during the war were farces and "telefoni bianchi" ("White Telephones") – a metonymic term for light, screwball comedies with no political content, but plenty of sexual innuendo and beautiful actresses. They were always set in some luxurious flats decorated in vaguely modern, white-on-white style (hence the name of the genre) and were usually set in some fictional European country, the "Ruritania" of comic opera — or, if a real country was needed, in Hungary. That's because a lot of women cheated in these movies, and the official position of the Fascist State was that female infidelity in Italy was unheard of (yes, you read that right). That was something which Italian audiences could and did enjoy, but only when it was carefully placed abroad, in the land of dreams or, at the very least, among those decadent Hungarians.

Nazi German cinema constantly produced a very similar sort of film, and it was as popular there as it was in Italy, just not as good. And it was never quite as freewheeling as in Italy, because Hitler was a bit of prude and didn't like to see dubious morality in films. (Mountain climbing, yes; naked calisthenics, possibly; but people cheating on each other, no.)

The point is that though it might be comforting to believe that the Axis countries were Mordor, and their people veritable orcs, it was never the case. The banality of evil has become a cliché, but a closer look at the imagery of 1930s fascism demonstrates something far more disturbing: its sunny, cheerful familiarity.