The Law of Ironic Hitlerization Lives!
In my book, Hi Hitler!, I made the case for the existence a new internet law: according to which the more popular a meme, the more likely it is to “Hitlerized” in ironic fashion. (Simply google "Hitler" plus Pikachu, My Little Pony, the Teletubbies, and Hello Kitty to get a sense of the tip of the iceberg).
Today’s Onion proves that the law is alive and well. In a new piece entitled, “New Alternate-History Drama Examines What Would Have Happened if Nazis Won 1991 NBA Finals,” the satirical website deftly combines Hitler and counterfactual sports history to produce an absurdist romp through an NBA that might have been.
The piece is a medium form, "transplant counterfactual" that places the Nazis of the 1930s and 40s into the NBA of the 1990s. There a few funny scenarios: Josef Goebbels talking “smack” to Scottie Pippen after a “powerful dunk” and by telling the Bulls they are “of inferior breeding" and Hitler becoming the NBA’s ambassador instead of Michael Jordan and debuting “Air Führer sneakers.”
But overall, the laughs are scarce.
Not because the piece is particularly offensive. A reference to Coach Heinrich Himmler’s “Final Solution” response to Bulls’ coach Phil Jackson’s Triangle Offense skirts the boundaries of good taste – but, then again, it’s The Onion.
It’s more that the references are dated. Unless you were an NBA fan in the 1990s, there’s little chance you care about references to Hakeem Olajuwon or the “prospect of an alternate version of Space Jam in which Hitler helps the aliens to enslave and eventually exterminate Bugs Bunny and his friends.”
So what’s the significance of the piece?
In all likelihood, it was inspired by (and implicitly satirizes the growing number of counterfactual Nazis that have been proliferating in popular culture, whether Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, or Jordan Peele’s recently announced Amazon show, “The Hunt” (see yesterday’s Counterfactual History Review for a comment).
The question remains: does being satirized mean that the counterfactual Nazi bubble has burst? That the wave has crested? That the topic will fade from this point on?
If past is prologue, it’s unlikely. Comic and tragic depictions of the Nazis have coexisted in popular culture since the 1960s. Probably, they will continue to coexist with one another going forward in a “dialectic of normalization,” in which humorous and serious narratives reciprocally inspire (and generate) one another in an endless cycle of thesis and antithesis.
One final thought come to mind:
The piece might have been a bit more subversive if it had delved deeper into the significance of an NBA franchise called “The Nazis.” After all, it could have made the point that “Nazi-like” team mascots exist today.
We’re familiar, of course, with the fact that Native American history has been appropriated by the American descendants of Europeans who conquered and killed them. Consider the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Chiefs, and so forth.
But those team names refer to the victims of colonial depredations. By contrast, The Onion piece’s invocation of the NBA franchise, “The Nazis,” refers to the perpetrators.
It strikes me there are analogies to be found: Minnesota “Vikings” anyone? Oakland “Raiders?” Tampa Bay “Buccaneers?” It seems that the thieving, raping, and killing perpetrated by these (now Bowdlerized) groups is routinely ignored by sports fans.
Might the same thing have been conceivable in a world where the Nazis won World War II?
Something to think about….