Prince Harry, the younger son of the Prince of Wales and the late Princess Diana and third in line to the British throne dressed up as a Nazi at a costume party last week. You may have seen something in the press about it. In Britain the media has been full of the business for days. Actually, Harry is a bit of a mixed up kid (he’s now 20). The uniform was supposed to be that of a soldier of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, and yet he also wore a swastika armband, which no such soldier would have done. Also, the theme of the party was “Colonials and Natives” so the costume was inappropriate in more ways than one. His historical knowledge seems to be as sketchy as that of most young people today. But he did accomplish one thing by donning this costume. The photograph in the Sun that started the furor showed him not only clad thus but also holding a drink (vodka and cranberry juice, reportedly) and a cigarette. So now we know: in spite of the suspicions of some of us, it’s still worse to be a Nazi than a smoker.
But the fuss over Harry’s costume was ludicrously overdone. Any media skeptic will have seen at once how far this was manufactured outrage. The occasion of such a “gaffe” always appeals to the journalistic mentality as an opportunity to trot out yet again the media’s ever-ready self-righteousness. No one supposes that Harry is really a Nazi. Indeed, if he were, donning Nazi regalia is the last thing he would do. And the claim that the royal family must be mindful of their status as “symbols of the nation” only reminds us of what the nation has become. For the Nazis turned into camp figures a generation ago and more, and those who now claim to be offended must have gone to sleep about 1965, when Hogan’s Heroes debuted on American television, and have only just woken up. “I think anybody who tries to pass it off as bad taste must be made aware that this can encourage others to think that perhaps that period was not as bad as we teach the young generation in the free world,” said the Israeli ambassador. But whatever “we” may teach, the dominant popular culture teaches just the opposite.
Indeed, as more than one commentator pointed out, when Harry became a fancy-dress Nazi, the musical version of The Producers was simultaneously in the midst of a smash hit run in London’s West End while Jerry Springer — The Opera, which also employs comic Nazis, had a much debated TV appearance on the BBC. But what was debated in the latter case was the naughty words. Nobody thought comic Nazis a debatable subject until Prince Harry tried to become one. Then, his status as a celebrity, and a royal one at that, invited the press to have a bash at him. Really, their phony outrage only masked their delight that the Prince was living up to his reputation as the naughty royal — formed in the last year or so when he got drunk and slugged a photographer — and so confirmed that he will be providing them with fodder for headlines, probably, for years to come.
It seems to me that any outrage going ought to be deployed against the media for trivializing the Holocaust by pretending to think that such “symbolism” betokened anything real. As Mick Hume pointed out in the Times, “the farther into history the Second World War retreats, the more obsessed with Nazis the news seems to become.” This, he thinks, is because the Holocaust “has become perhaps the last moral absolute in an uncertain world. At a time when it seems hard to create a consensus about what is right and wrong on anything from euthanasia to GM food, it is comforting to remind ourselves of the one issue on which we can agree: that there remains a clear line between good and evil.” He goes on to decry other familiar uses of Nazi symbolism in the media, such as comparing any stray bit of authoritarian behavior as “fascist” or the slaughter of chickens as a “Holocaust.” He might also have mentioned the comparisons in recent weeks between the Asian tsunami and the Holocaust.
In other words, Nazi comparisons are as much a routine feature of the hype industry as outrage at Nazi comparisons. The media are the ones who first thought up the idea of dressing what would otherwise be seen as the routine if melancholy disasters of nature in the clothes of such an extraordinary event in human history as industrialized mass murder. That’s how you get people excited enough to buy your paper or tune in to your TV show. Harry was just following their example.
The Western world has a long history of titillating itself with the specter of evil. The devil in the medieval mystery plays was always a comic figure. But in our own time, the media’s readiness to employ the symbols of evil on every conceivable occasion has certainly contributed to the inevitable tendency of the popular culture over the past 40 years to convert the previous generation’s symbols of horror into comedy, from the mock Nazis of the original film of The Producers (1968) to the mock vampires of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) to the mock zombies of Shaun of the Dead (2004). It’s just like the media to have suffered a sudden bout of amnesia about their own massive contribution to the phenomenon they now further enrich themselves by deploring.
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