The annual crossover “event” for the Arrowverse starts tonight on the CW, and this year that storyline is called “Crisis on Earth-X”. In DC Comics lore, Earth-X was the Earth where the Nazis won World War II, and only a small band of heroes in a rebel group called the Freedom Fighters oppose them at all.
So, why do so many Nazis keep appearing in fiction?
The thing about Nazis is they are automatically accepted as evil by the overwhelming majority of people, such that they make easy shorthand for bad guys. Superheroes have been punching Hitler in the face, literally in the case of Captain America on a cover that actually predated America’s involvement in World War II, for decades. There aren’t many groups that writers and artists can use as go-to examples of villains quite so readily. What the Nazis did is still within living memory for many people, and the effects of their genocidal war efforts are still being felt around the world. Slap a swastika on someone and you have a villain, and a villain so foul no one will care what our hero does to him or her.
So, knowing the heroes of the Arrowverse are going to Earth-X to fight Nazis, there’s no need to establish much of a motivation for their evil. They’re Nazis. We know what the Nazis did. They’re evil.
That does lead to some level of cartoonishness in the depiction of some fictional Nazis. We can brand them.
Or scar them with a bowie knife.
Or any number of other things, and they totally deserve it because they are Nazis. Nazis are the go-to example of evil in the world, and there’s a reason Godwin’s Law exists. These can still be fun depictions, but that doesn’t change the fact that Nazis were used, and they can be disposed of in any way we like because who cares what happens to a genocidal supremicist?
If anything, I’ve found that understating Nazi evil can be problematic. I have a set of DVDs depicting the old Universal Horror series, and the Invisible Man set was rather interesting. Mostly, this was because the set included a host of films where all they really had in common was Universal showing off its invisibility special effects. As such, the set included a comedy and a sci-fi spy film. The latter was called The Invisible Agent, in which an American man was dosed with invisibility so he could go deep undercover behind enemy lines in World War II. As movies go, it was probably the weakest of that set, coming across as a rah-rah propaganda film where Hungarian-born actor Peter Lorre was, for some reason, playing a Japanese man (that reason was called “racism”). But at one point, the invisible agent gets the drop on a high-ranking Nazi and decides to tell him off, saying how the Nazis were destined to lose. His reasoning? The Nazis were bad and a bunch of bullies.
I saw this movie at about the same time I was reading the historic novel that served as the inspiration for Schindler’s List. Everything that character said seemed both overly simplistic and far too mild considering what the real Nazis were up to at that moment.
The point is, Nazis were real and they were evil, but it would be wrong for us to both underestimate how evil they were while forgetting they were still human beings. There are many people in this world capable of the acts the Nazis perpetuated. Let’s not pretend we abolished evil when we defeated Hitler. They may be easy targets for Indiana Jones or the Justice Society, and they continue to resonate with audiences today, but the biggest thing we should take away from Nazis in fiction is not that they are easily disposable, but that that sort of evil never really goes away. Perhaps we need to see Nazis less as canon fodder and more as cautionary tales.