Don’t Push the Hitler Button? I’ll Drink to That.
“Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish.” – Matthew 9:17
This one caught me by surprise.
I read an article, recently, about an Italian winery that produces and markets Adolf Hitler Wine. All in good fun, says the wine-maker, Andrea Lunardelli. It’s not about politics, he says, and has nothing to do with “eulogizing Hitler.”
Yet most buyers of the wine, Lunardelli admits… are German.
Make of that what you will. But it raises an interesting question.
There aren’t many things that offend me. And while I am careful, myself, to not be offensive, it annoys me when others claim to be offended by something. Because I believe that in some cases the emotional reaction of taking offense to something is, by and large, self-righteous and misplaced. But I do tend to get my back up when talk comes around to The Holocaust.
It’s a sensitive subject. As is Hitler.
When CJAD became a part of Astral Media we had a meeting with the company lawyer, an affable, smiling, perfectly bilingual francophone who simply wanted to let us know what the company policy was regarding on-air conduct. To wit, there were simply certain things we could and should not do or say on the air. The one, very specific caveat he gave us: “Just don’t push the Hitler button.”
It would seem to be a stupid question. It should be painfully obvious why not. It’s offensive. To quote Lisl in The Sound of Music, “the flag with the black spider on it makes people nervous.” So just don’t push the Hitler button.
But is there ever a time or a context when Nazi regalia, a Hitler moustache, a swastika, the Nazi salute, or any verbal references to same, could ever be used acceptably?
In October of 2009 there was a language protest in Montreal. Hardline separatists gathered on the streets to protest some nonsense or other about English encroaching on French or whatever else they’d been whining about. That’s not important. What is important is the fact that some of them were carrying flags. Canadian flags. And over the maple leaf… a black swastika. I wondered, at the time: between 1939 and 1945 just how many Francophone Quebeckers were put into concentration camps, gassed, and then burned in Nazi ovens. And the Anglophones were no better. There was a time when you could find, scribbled on walls here and there, a graffito that looked like this: 101 =卐, referring, of course, to Quebec’s language law.
Last summer during the student protests in downtown Montreal I had quite a visceral reaction to a photo of protesters raising their arms in the Nazi salute to police. It was an emotional, perhaps knee-jerk reaction, and it was justified. One Facebook friend who felt the same way made reference to the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld, a character I was never completely comfortable with. Soup hopefuls lined up before the mustachioed gate-keeper. With a finger he’d either dismiss or call forward at will those to whom he would serve soup, and those who would be sent soupless to wherever the soupless end up. Tell me I’m reading too much into it, if you like. But the scene was reminiscent of Josef Mengele who, with a wave of a finger, chose would live and who would die. At CJAD we had a secretary who was the “Kitchen Nazi.” She was charged with keeping the kitchen and the office fridge clean. Cross her, and lose your lunch. There was also an assignment editor referred to as the Scrabble Bitch. Someone had drawn a dominatrix in Nazi regalia and stuck it to her bulletin board. This was supposed to be funny.
Context is everything. Or is it? When I was a graduate student classmates would argue back and forth whether context could justify the use of either sexist or racist language. I maintain that context is everything. Still, I’d never use the N-Word because, to quote Maya Angelou, it’s poison. I’d never use, nor would I condone the use, of the word Kike, for the same reason.
But there are times, aren’t there, when we forgive, or even agree with, the use of such provocative symbols. Indeed, the blogosphere is currently alive with vociferous debate over Roger Waters’ use of symbols of various kinds, the most galling of which is the Jewish Star of David, to make his political points. This would seem to be the polar opposite of the Nazi swastika; the use of either, depending on the context, can be offensive to Jewish sensibilities. Waters has his reasons for co-opting the symbol of the Jewish state, and by extension the Jewish people. And the African-American community, particularly in the Hip-Hop domain, have successfully appropriated the N-word to make it a source of empowerment rather than a source of shame and pain.
But what of the Nazi swastika? Can it ever be ironic? Can its use ever be contextualized, co-opted or appropriated to make a political point?
I ask the question because the other night I was watching one of my favourite videos, a live version of Green Day’s Holiday. It’s from the band’s 2005 UK tour. “This next song’s a big fuck you to all the politicians,” Billie Joe Armstrong says, introducing the anarchist, anti-war anthem. It’s a fantastic version of the song, and a great performance by Amrstrong. He commands the crowd, rousing them all in the name of rock n’ roll, in the name of something that turns Triumph of the Will on its head. Then he gets to the part in the song where he raps “Sieg Heil to the president Gasman, Bombs away is your punishment,” while giving the Nazi salute. It comes from the same deep, dark place that spawned American Idiot, an anti-redneck anthem. The middle section of Holiday is spoken in words that are not to be taken as Armstrong’s, but as a character’s words, the words of an apparently war-mongering politician who will brook no opposition or protest. “Pulverize the Eiffel towers Who criticize your government. Bang bang goes the broken glass and Kill all the fags that don’t agree.” Do we saddle Green Day with those views, or do we accept the use of the ironic to make a statement?
And if so, do we excuse either the protesting students, or the protesting separatists, for trying to make the same statement? Is it even the same thing? Or does one succeed and the other fail?
The Hitler wine is part of a line that includes labels with images of Himmler, Göring, Eva Braun. The problem with the vintner’s assertion that it’s all in good fun is that his apparent intention stays behind when the bottles leave the plant; neo-Nazis, Nazi punks, and white supremacists would happily raise a glass to the cause, to their führer, and to a world where those who would take offense to the wine would no longer exits. “It’s history,” says Lunardelli, “not propaganda.” Except that the two are inextricably tied. New wine, perhaps. But old bottles, to be sure.