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“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…

Viewing Japan and China, circa 1937-38, via Nazi Archives

photo by Adam Cathcart

Among other things, I’ve spent a couple of days back in the Bundesarchiv here in Berlin, and found a new trove of materials in the R55 section, which is the Reichsministrium fuer Volksaufklaerung und Propaganda.  These are, in other words, documents from the Propaganda Ministry run by Dr. Goebbels.  To my knowledge, these files have never been used as the basis of a study of German relations with Japan, much less Japanese colonization of northeast China after 1931 or the murderous war that was going on in China in 1937-1938.

What good is a historian without fresh documents?

Among the files I’ve found thus far include:

1.) Reports from the front, describing the Japanese invasion of China in 1937-38. These reports are particularly rich when it comes to the embattled city of Wuhan, but they also deal with Nanking in the aftermath of the infamous Japanese invasion of that city in December 1937.  Among other things, there are critiques of the lack of discipline among Japanese soldiers, indicating that John Rabe’s protestations to Hitler (protests which along with saving 30,000 lives, earned him the moniker “The Good Nazi of Nanking”) were less of a lonely cry for help than part of a pattern of information flowing into Berlin about what was going on in the lower Yangtze River valley.

Japanese soldiers, for instance, assaulted a German doctor in Shanghai in February 1938, prompting reports back home and protests to the Japanese Consul-General in that city.

This document makes me wonder again why has no one bothered before to compile German news reports from such journals as Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung as a new source for historians to piece together Nanking and its aftermath?

Sample Citation for 1.: “Deutscher Protest in Schanghai (German Protest in Shanghai),” 27 February 1938, in “Meldung aus Japan, Hongkong, und China (Reports from Japan, Hong Kong, and China, 1938-39”), Reichsministirium fuer Volksaufklaerung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Propaganda), R55/21577 (Fiche No. 7), Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), Lichterfelde, Berlin.

– 2.) Files About Japanese Diplomats. On one file marked with an urgent “Secret” (“GEHEIM!”) in pencil, the Japanese Ambassador to Berlin (Oshima) is described:

Oshima is a soldier of the best Japanese samurai-type, who is in fact more soldier than diplomat.  Intellectually, he does not surpass the average; he is a man of will…He has, more or less, made enemies with everyone in his Mission.  He has his own politically loyal circle, including especially the Adjutant working underneath him, the Lieutenant Nishi, and also the First Embassy Secretary Uchida, both of whom have finely-tuned minds who unquestioningly give the Ambassador everything they have…The Business Section head Matsushima and the Embassy’s Trade Officer (the latter named Nagai, who is a half-Japanese with a German mother), go totally their own way.  As the head of the Cultural Section, everyone agrees that Sakuna is totally a diplomatic flop and will soon go home.

Oshima didn’t understand that he could win great sympathy from the Japanese colony in Berlin….An influential Japanese told me in a bitter tone, that Oshima practices politics like a man at the horse races who has placed all his bets on the horse named “Germany.”  His friends in Germany are sentimental, but not political.  Thus Oshima has not the slightest idea about the spiritual and cultural Germany.  German music, theater, arts, literature and the like make him obviously bored, even though he shows a little interest to those who have hope that he does.  Apart from that, he tells the local Japanese that he, in their eyes, is totally blind to Germany’s weak points.

Oshima honors the personality of der Fuhrer (e.g., Hitler) from the bottom of his heart and is, “like a good National Socialist,” convinced that der  Fuhrer “will make everything beautiful (again).”  In other political matters, he has nothing to say.  His honoring of der Fuhrer goes so far that Oshima has stated in advices to his regime that nothing passes in der Fuhrer’s politics, even via his (e.g. Hitler’s) foreign minister, that escapes his necessary energy.

In the Japanese circles, the unseemingly (strong) role played by the wife of Toyoko Oshima is very often discussed.  She in fact lives in the background, but she has, however, had her finger in all of the political activities.  She is only interested in her husband’s career, as, in the event that everything goes well, he would surely receive a high post in the Japanese government (upon his return).  The young staff at the Embassy live especially under the real Terror of Mrs. Oshima, who mixes herself into all of the Embassy’s duties.  Mrs. Oshima’s most intimate friends are Mrs. Viktor de Kowa, the Japanese singer Michiko Tanaka, the divorced wife of Julians Meinl of Vienna (“Coffee Meinl”).  This (information) is won from the impressions gathered from my discussions with the Japanese journalists, who look upon that truly dangerous line between political and military news.

Citation for 2.: “Reiter” zu Staatsskretaer (“Reiter” to State Secretary), Berlin, 13 September 1944, in “Beurteilung des japanischen Botschafters in Berlin, 1944 (Assessment of the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, 1944)”, Reichsministirium fuer Volksaufklaerung und Propaganda (Reich Ministry for Propaganda), R55/20786, Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), Lichterfelde, Berlin.

There is much, much more where this came from, including:

– the strange case of Heinz Baruch, a Jewish classical music imprassario in Tokyo who the Germans essentially forced into deportation to the United States (via wartime Shanghai, pre-war Philippines, and Australia, charging him to renew his Jewish “shield” at every step) so that they could plan to bring the Frankfurt Opera to Tokyo (in a vastly overambitious and expensive plan that failed anyway);

– the Germans who accompanied a Japanese opera company on a tour of Manchukuo;

– the book entitled “Der Gelbe Gefahr (The Yellow Peril)” published in Berlin in 1942;

– dispatches about Japan from a journalist directly in the employ of the Propaganda Ministry

– “Writings from the People Suggesting Improvements to War Propaganda, Especially the Piece ‘A Word on Enemy Air-Terror’ by Dr. Joseph Goebbels from 27 May 1944”;

– A visit to Japan of the “German Boy-Scouts” in 1934;

– Fees for Chinese translators for Germans in Nanking.

All translations from the German by Adam Cathcart.

from the German Bundesarchiv, R55/20562, f. 6-7, photo by Adam Cathcart

Nazi Propaganda and Fox News

In researching a previous post, I became curious about the following image used by Glenn Beck in his bizarre equation of President Obama’s health care legislation with Nazi eugenics policies:

“]Nazi Propaganda [source:  Fox News] To summarize: Beck fought back tears as he related how this specific image caused him a great deal of personal pain, on the grounds that the hand of the disabled man in the Nazi poster reminded him of his daughter’s own hand. (As Beck revealed in a spectacular play for sympathy, and as a means of establishing his emotional investment in the issue, his daughter suffers from cerebral palsy.)

Because I am a university professor who partially makes a living analyzing wartime propaganda, and because I am always looking for reasons to use German, I did some research about the image used by Beck.

I found that the Fox Network does not simply pull up Nazi propaganda from the past to impugn Obama, the network actively manipulates images to make them even more racist than even the Nazi propagandists intended.

The image in question was originally published in Germany in 1938 as an two-pronged advertisement. First, the image and text point out (and Glenn Beck is entirely correct in this particular characterization) that disabled citizens cost the tax-paying public money, and then questions the need for such expenditures. But the second message, in large type on the bottom half of the image, is in fact the main point: “Read ‘Neues Volk [New People]’, the monthly publication of the Ministry for Racial Politics of the Nazi Party.”

A copy of the original image is held in the German Historical Museum in Berlin as part of an exhibit on euthanasia. Generally speaking, when we look at art or propaganda, we need to ask ourselves about the context in which it was viewed. Unfortunately it remains unclear to me if the advertisement was a stand-alone poster which an average German would see on the street in Berlin in 1938, or a one-page advertisement in Neues Volk or other Nazi periodicals. (The museum describes it as a “Werbplakat,” which can mean both “advertisement” or “poster.”)

But that is beyond Beck’s portfolio. He’s fine so far; he hasn’t gone over the line yet.

Here’s the problem:

Here is how the image looks on the German Historical Museum website and the associated, somewhat clearer image on Wikimedia Commons, which is almost certainly where Beck got it, unless he sent a staffer to Berlin to snap a photo:


Compare the above image, the original, with the one used by Fox News and Glenn Beck. On examination, it is obvious that the Fox News graphics staff decided to whiten the face of the disabled person in the poster and darken the face (though not the hands) of the nurse behind him.

Let’s put this in the context: The host of a nationally syndicated television show goes on the air, raises parallels between Obama’s health care proposals and Nazi euthansia, and does so with the accompaniment of a Nazi propaganda image. Not only does the host explain the meaning of the propaganda (and accurately so), he makes a deeply emotional appeal identifying himself and his family with the man pictured in the image, the man seated in front of a doctor/nurse figure who is, presumably, going to put the disabled man to death. The subtext here is that Obama, representing the state, is going to put “undesireables” to death if the new system is implemented. And what better way to drive this point home than to darken the face of the doctor/nurse/custodial figure in the Nazi propaganda, closing the circuit fully?

I’m stumped and dismayed by this and would like to hear some explanation from Fox News as to why this is encouraged or allowed. Obviously Glenn Beck is more intelligent than this, and some flimsy explanation will be made about the graphic, or I and others will be accused of stirring up racial paranoia. No. I simply saw a discrepancy in the images and, given the context, I think it speaks of one subtle piece of a much larger and broader effort by Fox News and others to heighten perceptions of Obama both as some kind of incipient dictator and as racially and nationally something “other.” And the facts bear this out.

This is no small feat. Someone who is able to heighten racism in Nazi propaganda has got to make a serious effort; like turning an amplifier from 10 to 11, there is usually no way to amplify Goebbels, but Fox has succeeded in this particular case.

Why do I think this is important? Today I write from Bismarck, North Dakota, the state where blazing through the night in my Hyundai west on I-94, I was regaled by conservative talk show host Cunningham who immodestly calls himself “A Great American” and who complains that any criticism of President Obama now risks being labeled as racist.

That’s fine, Mr. Cunningham, and other more intelligent conservative writers have made a similar point.

It’s just when people on your side start putting blackface on Nazi propaganda while talking about eugenics and Obama, it sort of wrecks the whole notion of neutrality and brings me down. Let’s have an honest, factual debate about health care, the wars, and everything else, but don’t resort to making Nazi propaganda even more racist than it actually was. That’s odious.

One final note on the image: Fox and Glenn Beck might have been alerted to the image from an editorial by conservative Pamela Hennessy, a Fox News guest who used an unedited version of the Nazi advertisment in a 2006 editorial about the Terry Schiavo case.

Nazi Propaganda, East Asian Dictators, and Glenn Beck

Today I spent some time leafing through a solemn black notebook filled with sketches made primarily in the stacks at the University of Washington Suzzalo Library, reminding myself that not all good research is immediately digitized.

Suzaalo Library, U. Washington, Seattle

Suzaalo Library, U. Washington, Seattle

Notes from a Jackson School lecture

Notes from a Jackson School lecture

Sometimes it takes a few months before a certain concept can swim down to the bottom of one’s consciousness and take root.After all, in the intervening time between the initial scribble and the considered return, new experiences are had which illuminate old notes freshly.

For instance: one casually turns on a cable-equipped television in the United States in August 2009, and is assailed by programming on a major network of what amounts to gross historical distortion, hate speech, incitation to violence, and the unrelenting equation of the country’s first African-American president with the genocidal German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

(Having once thought this line of thought to be too obviously ridiculous or self-referential for anyone to take seriously, I found in a conversation with a fellow hard-working American in the Long Beach Airport bookstore that there are people out there who eager lap up the above line of reasoning. Moreover, these poor people will sloppily and readily interchange Adolf Hitler with his existential foe Franklin Delanoe Roosevelt in deciding upon historical parallels for our current president.)

It does seem awfully odd to be lectured by someone who speaks neither German nor holds a graduate degree about how the Obama years are simply a replay of the Weimar era in Germany. Wouldn’t that make G.W. Bush the Kaiser of a defeated state? In these weird historical comparisons, Bush is somehow absent: only Obama holds the match to the Reichstag when “the future crisis” occurs.

Incessantly arbitrary distortions of the past and marshalling of pure hatred for the head of state make Fox look worse than Xinhua. This is pure propaganda, reminiscent of an anti-Japanese paroxysm in North Korea or China (on guard against a fascist revival!), but directed within. Why is it necessary to torpedo any semblance of rational debate by implying that the President of the U.S., sworn to protect the country and uphold the constitution, is a foreign communist engaged in some sinister plot to revive the Holocaust? It’s just not funny anymore: We are losing face as a country because of jackasses like this.
In any case, Hitler was my the brain thanks to the propaganda trust at Fox, and my own foolish curiosity to see just what some Americans were watching as “news.” (Apparently meeting Fox news anchor E.D. Hill face-to-face in May 2007 at Hiram College, the same one who later analyzed Obama’s greeting of his lovely wife after his acceptance speech in St. Paul was “a terrorist fist jab,” and basically hearing her call for an invasion of Iran while Christianizing China wasn’t adequate for me.)

Hitler Reflects on East Asia

Last spring, in search of references to Japan in World War II, I spent a couple of hours taking notes during the reading of transcriptions of Hitler’s monologues at his headquarters [Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Fuhrerhauptquartier (Hamburg, 1980)].

Hitler recalls a moment in his adolescence when he first identified with Japan (watching Chechen children weep in his classroom with hatred for Russia, recalled in a conversation of 21 September 1941) and goes on to spell out a few clichéd ideas about Japan’s role in race war. He likens the Japanese to the Dutch as “a people of small capitalists” who therefore “do not wish for a National Socialist revolution” (conversation at Wolfsschanze, 31 December 1941).

”]Adolf Hitler visits an exhibition of Japanese art in Berlin, September 1939 [Source: Bundesarchiv, Berlin]But perhaps most interesting in our current condition is Hitler’s expressed notion of states and charismatic leaders. At the end of a long rant on the night of January 3 which extended into the early hours of January 4, 1942, Hitler identified himself with the Japanese emperor. Noting that the state religion in Japan centered around the emperor, Hitler asserted that the state had to be personified by an individual: “Die Volksfuehrung under die Stadtsfuehrung muessen in einer Person indentifizierst sein!”

We see the same form of hero-worship running though German culture in the late 1930s; even enunciations of German praise for Chiang Kai-shek centered around this notion that an individual could incarnate the will of the nation. And Chiang ate it up, as we can see in his China’s Destiny.

And this notion of a state cult centered around an individual suddenly took on more clarity for me in the light of another essay I have been turning over recently, one by Brian Myers.

North Korean Dictatorship and the Shadows of Imperial Japan

In his recent work, Myers argues that likening the North Korean state system with its imperial Japanese predecessor yields an understanding greater than simple comparison to a Stalinist system or South Korean dictatorships. We really need not take juche seriously, he notes, because the North Koreans themselves do not really take it seriously. What we ought to pay heed to instead is the racial and racist aspects of North Korean nationalism, and these clearly are rooted in Japanese ideologies of the past rather than supposedly race-neutral Stalinism, for instance.

If the violent and paranoid wing of U.S. public opinion which is not wholly encompassed by the Republican Party is able to do so, they might take a closer look at North Korea through this prism. President Obama is a democrat with a small “d,” which is to say he is a consensus-builder, not some supreme dictator. To liken Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler or Kim Jong Il is to diminish the historical lessons of the Second World War and to grossly underestimate the sickness of totalitarianism which is afflicting the DPRK. Reinstating the old bracket of tax deductions for Americans making over $250,000 per year is not the equivalent of Mao’s killing 700,000 landlords, etc.

It is almost as if, lacking a monarch, the desire of some individuals to be controlled by some strong hand has been thrust upon Obama in the Jungian phenomenon of transference. And the desire to rail against state power, repressed during the war whoops and drowned out like speech while stealth bombers fly over the World Series of the Bush years, has somehow returned.


Adolf Hitler, Monologe im Fuhrerhauptquartier (Hamburg, 1980).

Brian Myers, “Ideology as Smokescreen: North Korea’s Juche Thought,” Acta Koreana Vol. 11, No. 3 (December 2008): 161-182.

E.D. Hill, Commencement Address at Hiram College, Ohio, May 12, 2007.

Foreign Ministry [Auswaertiges Amt] Files, Inventar 64, German Bundesarchiv, Berlin.

Coda: Someone inculcated with propaganda might watch this clip and recall that (unlike Hitler) Kim Il Song was also great with kids. I would prefer to take it for what it is, a good conversation between two citizens of different ages about the state of education in the U.S.