Dressing up as a Nazi mirrors the past in more ways than one

Nazi uniforms at the Lofoten War Memorial Museum, Norway (source: Wikimedia Commons)
Nazi uniforms at the Lofoten War Memorial Museum, Norway (source: Wikimedia Commons)

This Halloween, a goose-stepping student dressed up as a Nazi at Jones College Prep, a high school in Chicago – The Ninth Candle‘s home town. It wasn’t an isolated incident. In New York City, a man went into a bar dressed up as a Nazi. Another dressed up as Hitler and walked around the UW-Madison campus. It wasn’t the first Halloween that people wore such costumes, either. In 2019, an elementary school kid in Utah dressed up as a Nazi. In 2016, a high school sophomore in California did the same thing. The list goes on.

Some say that these incidents “glorify” the Third Reich, others that they “trivialize” the Holocaust. For me, both arguments miss the point.

Let’s start by underlining that whether the person who’s dressed up actually believes in Nazi ideology doesn’t matter. The act of dressing up reduces Nazism to a symbol whose only purpose is to cause shock and outrage. Historically, shock and outrage had negative connotations. It’s a tenet of civil society that we shouldn’t deliberately upset other people by shocking or outraging them.

In the social media era, this tenet is crumbling away. Shock and outrage have become tools for getting attention, and attention is the door to fame, our century’s Holy Grail. This is turning the ability to cause shock and outrage into an aspirational goal. For some, the reward is a degree of power that they’d never have achieved otherwise. (Consider the success of triumphantly talentless people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert.)

This shift mirrors the Nazi past. Sure, their Party formed on another continent over a century ago. But they saw attention as a shortcut to power, and they knew that the easiest way to get it was to shock and outrage people. Hence, they became specialists in creating empty but provocative slogans, and in using the latest media tech (which, in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, meant radio and cinema) to peddle them to the public, along with disinformation, hatred, and lies. Sound familiar?

In his 1925-26 book My Struggle, Adolf Hitler wrote that “I took up the standpoint that it was immaterial whether they laughed at us or reviled us, whether they depicted us as fools or criminals; the important point was that they took notice of us.” Reflecting on the Nazis’ use of shock and outrage, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels said “people started talking about us. We could no longer be ignored or passed over in icy contempt. However reluctant and furious they were about it, people couldn’t avoid mentioning us.”

And the similarities between past and present don’t end there.

Whatever its origins, Halloween in the United States today is a family holiday associated with gentle humor. Dressing up as a Nazi for Halloween specifically turns humor into a device for excusing hatred.

The Nazis used humor in the same way, and it played an important role in the Holocaust. They put a large Star of David on the gas chambers in Belzec. They decorated the gas chambers in Treblinka with a ceremonial curtain looted from a synagogue. Obscenely cruel jokes like these dehumanized the Jewish victims and increased their suffering. But they also seem to have helped the Nazis to live with what they were doing. Recent psychological research has shown that humor can be a “cognitive distraction” – a protective barrier that stops uncomfortable truths from hitting home too hard.

The reason not to dress up as a Nazi for Halloween isn’t because it glorifies the Third Reich or trivializes the Holocaust, although to some extent it does both of those things. It’s because causing shock and outrage to get attention, and using humor to excuse hatred, are backward steps dragging all of us toward the Nazi past.

Our only hope is to overhaul the way we teach the Holocaust. Schools must stop using stories that deliberately blend fact and fiction and start using inquiry-based learning instead. This method shows kids how to analyze documents, do research, and assemble coherent historical narratives. It empowers them to tell “what feels true” from “what actually is true,” a critical skill for everyone in the post-truth era. Just as important, it enables them to see fascist behavior – like causing shock and outrage to get attention, or using humor to excuse hatred – for what it really is.

About the Author
Luke Berryman is the Founder of The Ninth Candle, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to end antisemitism by sharing knowledge. He holds a PhD on Nazi propaganda and writes widely about the Holocaust.
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