“Hitler’s Stomach” in Beijing: A Review

Today in Berlin, I was cruising through the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, the businessman’s preferred paper, for German response to the Wen Jiabao visit when I ran across an article so completely fascinating that I decided to translate it for inclusion on the blog, as it actually adds something new to the giant slapping waves of somewhat repetitious commentary in the area of China’s relations with Germany.

This translation represents 脑力劳动, which is to say, it is mental labor which has not been strained through the Google-translate machine.  Critiques of any sort are therefore welcome.  Link to the original German is here.

Poster for “Hitler’s Stomach” in Beijing — Photo courtesy Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung

Mark Siemons, “Wenn das der Mao wuesste! [If Only Mao Knew!],” Review of the Beijing Production of “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子], Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, 28 June 2011, p. 33.  [Translation by Adam Cathcart.]

Hitler as a tai chi-practicing pensioner with a birdcage in his hand, Hitler listening to rock ‘n roll with Eva Braun, pregnant Hitler: All of this can be seen in the Beijing “Pioneer Theater of the East,” not far from the central commercial mile of Wangfujing, led by Meng Jinghui, one of China’s most celebrated theater directors.

The premise of the play, as if Beijing were trying to overtake the Berlin Volksbuehne by point of subversive trash, arises out of no particular provocation.  In Meng’s young work, “Hitler’s Stomach [希特勒的肚子]”, the historical Gestalt [form/形状] of the title character never really emerges: when it comes to ideology or crimes against humanity, nothing in the least is said. There are, however, plenty of Hitlerian logos: the uniform, the mustache, etc., and a sly joke connected to contemporary China: Hitler as a curious foreigner, but one that everyone knows.

Before the commedian Liu Xiaoye takes the stage, films are posted of air attacks on Berlin, and two young men read news reports from the last days of the [European] World War.  But then the entertainer arrives, saying: “Don’t take this all so seriously, I just want to talk with you a little bit.” And straight away, he has the public — mainly youth wearing floral summer clothing —  laughing at his omnipresent lies: “Today, everything is stable.  The economy is stable, the prices of goods are stable.  And the most stable thing of all is speech.”

It is as ever in the traditional improvisational Beijing theater, but then into the conference, suddenly, comes Hitler: He slumps in his uniform, screams in German about the Day of the Party [Parteitag] and is greeted by two young dancers with the Hitler salute.  Later, the commedian also arrives wearing a costume of Charlie Chaplin, whose film “The Great Dictator” Hitler requests and watches a future scene play out of his suicide in the Fuhrerbunker.   Two metrosexual Wehrmacht solders get into a fight which comes to resemble lovemaking during which the stage is full of dancing and Hitler’s pregnancy is made clear like a flatulent joke that farts its way to the very end of the play.  Before his suicide, Hitler asks to be sold to the Chinese as pork.

The author notes everything that is grotesque, as a form of persiflage [bantering / 逗嘴] with history.  Perhaps the desire also here is to make fun of the contemporary [Chinese] dictatorship via the historical mirror.

But as to the degree to which history is used as a premise — and done so completely without analysis or critique — forces one to ask, unavoidably: How is this possible?  How is it possible that in Beijing, in the year 2011, that a director in intellectually respectable circles can depict the recent 20th century this way?  And, moreover, how is it possible that in these circles, no one finds anything objectionable about this?

The answer can be found elsewhere, in the fact that in China, Hitler remains a somewhat unreal figure.  Recently, a posting on Kaixin, the Chinese Facebook, reported that Hitler had been raised in Vienna by a Chinese family.  As a consequence, Hitler for his whole life maintained a grateful attitude toward China, and his greatest wish was that Germany and China could dominate and divide the world together after the war.  Almost none of the four thousand commenters on the page cast this idea in the slightest doubt.  On the contrary, 4.6% said they took Hitler as a personal hero, and 38.8% said they believed Hitler had been raised by a Chinese family.

Of course in the portrait of history put forth by the Chinese Communist Party, there is little sympathy for German National Socialism (e.g., Naziism).  Indeed, Party history is rather straightforward: If anything, it enjoins Japanese revisionists to take up the German method of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung (“coming to terms with the past”). But the material collateral of Naziism, its propaganda, its function in the moral and political realm, remains as a kind of folklore in China, in spite of its absence from the official CCP ideology.  Many Germans who have traveled to China have had the irritating experience of being confronted with the Hitler Salute — intended as a sign of goodwill from the Chinese, not as criticism.

Ignorance thus mixes with a rude historical Darwinism among those who are impressed by, above all, how strong Hitler made Germany.  In the internet form “Baidu Zhidao [白度知道 / “Baidu Knows”] the question is frequently asked: “Was Hitler a great man?”  Many answers will take your breath away, with their cold-blooded and relativistic approval of power.  “Any victor would be criticized for being a criminal,” writes one. Another says, “Had he united the world, he would have been the greatest man in all history.”

Hitler thus appears as a reincarnation of China’s First Emperor [Qin Shihuangdi / 秦始皇帝], whose uncontested brutality was considered by a few — not least of which was Mao — to have been the necessary precondition for unifying China.

One also gets the impression that here, Hitler is taken less for his actual historical uses than as a reflexive turn on a Chinese theme, one put forth particularly by the Communist Party, of duty to lift china out of the humiliations of the 19th century and vault China back into great power status.

Another internet commentor describes not Hitler, but instead the Versailles Treaty, as responsible for the Second World War.  The Treaty of Versailles, in which Germany failed to relinquish its colonial possessions to China, but which instead were taken by Japan, sparking patriotic movements for restoration in both China and Germany.  This is the connection between the real Hitler and the one played on stage, one totally missed by the absurd fantasies played among some Chinese.

Otherwise, the propaganda principle holds: Even the evil Hitler, describes one forum reader, was an environmentalist who respected women, loved art, and read philosophy.  Thus is it is no surprise to read an immediate response on the forum: “Hitler is as great as Mao — more positive points than mistakes.”  With this as premise, the kids in the theater can almost take the play as an exhibition of opposition.

Translator’s Note: Although the article was written in early June, and run of the play has now been completed, it is an interesting commentary itself by the somewhat taciturn editors of FAZ to release this piece today, just as it was clever statecraft by Angela Merkel to welcome Wen Jiabao in Wansee at the lakeside estate of an artist,  Max Liebermann, who had been censored and silenced by the Nazi Party in 1933. To be quietly criticized by Germans, as anyone who has performed here knows, is almost as painful as an explicit rebuke.  But more about the Chancellor, and the Artist, and the Premier, in another post…

6 thoughts on ““Hitler’s Stomach” in Beijing: A Review

    1. You are so correct, Nathaniel! Corrections to follow, it’s a bit too much Berlin of which I know too little crowding into my Gehirn these days.

      I did manage to finally learn about Joseph Bueys, the German conceptual artist to whom Ai Weiwei is justly compared (but never with any explanation!) at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis earlier this month. Sitting in the sunken well of the floor with a black and white documentary about him, him giving a long interview about wolves and the Wall Street Journal, was also very instructive. Obviously I have some more work to do with the folks of an earlier era deemed to be “entarte,” as well as Thaelmann.

  1. Respectfully, “Wenn das der Mao wuesste!” translates as “If Mao only knew about this!” – suggesting gravely gyrations in the Mao mausoleum at the thought of Adolfian antics in Wangfujing. Your mistranslation backtranslates as “Wenn Mao nur auch so unbekannt waere!”

    But, more relevantly, why would it be expected that the anxieties and taboos associated with “Adolf Hitler” – understandably pitched so tautly in Germany and resonating deeply in the rest of the greater “West” – have a similar resonance in a culture as distant from its European epicenter as China? The Holocaust is a defining trauma for western civilization – but it would be surprising if it were equally so for a society in which “Jew” and “Gypsy” (for example) are as remote from common experience as “Avar” or “Tutsi” or “Cham” to ours?

    And in any case, building a “story” out of the comments and responses, inexhaustible and undernourishing as pieces of cartilege and slivers of shell – out of the thin gruel of internet fora, frankly, lazy. Was there another thesis in this article other than to suggest that modern, young (or most?) Chinese are historically ignorant and culturally / morally somewhat not-quite-so-korrekt? And was there other evidence other than the existence of a play and of internet comments (One forum reader, you see, noted that Hitler loved art! Rejoice, Germans all, however understatedly and sanctimoniously, in the great moral leap forged in the smithy of our Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung!)

    It might have been more enlightening – and interesting from the perspective of the “surprising meeting of cultures” – to attempt to experience the play, and the very idea of avant-garde theater in China (surely a fun subject in and of itself) from the perspective of a Chinese theatergoer, with Chinese references, and to consider what is universal in art or theater or politics or provocation or humanity or whatever. For example.

    As always, I hold you, Adam, personally accountable!

    With warm greetings from the fjords of the Pacific Northwest …

    1. Rejoice, indeed! Thanks for the comment — I totally would have gone to this show had I known about it, and had I been able. Unfortunately it closed when I was in Hong Kong and my arrival in Beijing thereafter was full of Foreign Ministry forays which I have yet to unleash onto the blog. Thanks for reading and the critiques as ever; hope the fjords are warm (but still bracing in the way that a splash of water stimulates clear thinking) and welcoming.

      1. No no! the “It might have been more…” admonishment was meant for Herr Siemons. your blog post – with the exception of the mistranslated title – was well nigh perfect. But still I am curious, was there any greater thesis to the story than in my perhaps too dismissive summary?

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