The Hitler parody videos began proliferating around 2006, a couple of years after the release of “Downfall,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film about Hitler’s final days in Berlin. In the movie’s climactic scene, Hitler rants in his bunker while generals and adjutants look on in horror. In the parodies, alternate subtitles were inserted, to absurd effect. Amy Davidson Sorkin surveyed the genre in a 2010 New Yorker piece, and the meme is still going strong a decade later. Recent contributions include “Hitler Reacts to the iPhone 12 Pro,” “Hitler Reacts to the NVIDIA GeForce,” “Hitler Reacts to Being in Quarantine,” and, in recent days, a series of videos in which Hitler reacts to the 2020 Presidential election, spouting Trumpian lines. In one, the Führer screams, “Count all the votes? How dare they to do this to me. Of course I can’t win if they count all the votes.” When a secretary in the corridor outside comforts her distressed colleague, she says, “Don’t cry, Jared. Dictators still love him.”
Comparisons between Trump and Hitler ring false on many levels, as I argued at the end of a 2018 article about recent biographies of the dictator. Although the soon-to-be-ex-President has done staggering damage to American institutions, he has failed to bring about the kind of wholesale destruction of democratic process that Hitler accomplished in a few weeks in 1933, not to mention the immeasurable horrors that followed. Nevertheless, the occasion of Trump’s defeat permits a certain amount of historical license. It might be argued that, although Hitler at the height of his power was a phenomenon without parallel in modern history, what he became—the cornered man in the bunker—was a psychologically commonplace creature. The spectacle of a power-hungry narcissist receiving his comeuppance is irresistible, and it has played out innumerable times in history and fiction.
Hirschbiegel’s film is based on a 2002 book by Joachim Fest, and both works have the same title in German: “Der Untergang.” That word has long been commonplace in literature about Hitler’s final days. The second volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Hitler, which has just been translated into English, is subtitled “Die Jahre des Untergangs, 1939–1945.” The usual translation is “downfall,” although the various implications of the word—literally, “going-under”—are difficult to capture in English. In some contexts, Untergang simply means descent: a sunset is a Sonnenuntergang. But it carries connotations of decline, dissolution, or destruction. Oswald Spengler’s famous book about the decline of the West is titled “Der Untergang des Abendlandes.” Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic essay “Jewishness in Music” ends with the word Untergang—the composer’s dream of a day when Jews will disappear from the earth, whether through assimilation or through some other means. Untergang can also be a state of transition or of spiritual transformation. In Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” the title character undertakes an Untergang, a going-under into the worldly realm.
In the context of Hitler, the scene of Untergang gives comforting moral closure to a story of limitless horror. No matter how high the dictator might have risen, the fable suggests, he was destined to fall in the end. History supplies no such neat ending in the case of other genocidal dictators, such as Stalin and Mao, both of whom died of natural causes. The endless fixation on Hitler’s last days therefore offers a too-easy narrative gratification: the devil is dispatched to hell, as in “Don Giovanni.” Moreover, the replaying of Hitler’s Untergang compensates for the fetishistic fascination with Nazi iconography that is present all through contemporary culture. The publishing industry continues to exploit Hitler’s design aesthetic—Gothic type, black-white-red color scenes, swastikas—to sell books. (Knopf’s edition of the Ullrich biography, expertly translated by Jefferson Chase, departs from the pattern, going for hazard yellow.)