Hitler is a historical figure famed for leading a racist, bigoted movement to power in Germany, leading ‘the bad guys’ in the largest conflict of the last century, and efficiently slaughtering terrifying numbers of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Handicapped throughout the bits of Europe he got his hands on.
You’ve probably heard of him. He’s pretty much universally considered to be a quite nasty person.
The odd thing is, for someone so far to the ‘evil’ side of just about any moral spectrum, people tend to compare each other to him more often than not.
A meme is generally defined in one of two ways. There’s the slightly more academic answer, that it’s the cultural equivalent of a gene, ie a replicable unit of information that can be passed on. And there’s the more common internet answer, that it’s ‘something on the internet that made me laugh’.
The two are actually intertwined. Internet memes tend to be a sort of morphing running gag. A simple catchphrase, image or gesture (not necessarily physical) gets replicated and evolved. It is copied and transformed. It becomes a familiar part of the web lexicon.
Once again, we’re talking about cats with funny phrases written underneath them, or occasionally postmodern philosophanthroposociologists.
It’s worth noting that internet memes ARE memes. They are not the only kind of meme, but they are a beautiful representation of this kind of thing. One unit of information (eg the phrase ‘all your base are belong to us’) gets transmitted and copied a thousand times. Adapted and deformed and shifted and multiplied and mutated. It really is an evolutionary process. The survival of the funniest (or rather, the most replicable).
Hitler is most definitely a meme, in both senses of the word. You’ve got ‘riffs’ on Hitler such as Godwin’s Law and Reductio ad hitlerum. You’ve got that moustache, which is such an obvious signifier that pretty much nobody can arrange their facial hair thusly and get away with it. The infamous salute itself is a meme that is banned in Germany.
These little details and running jokes and bits of cultural information are all part of the whole of representations of Hitler. On one particularly weird level, Hitler has become a model for understanding the notion of evil. Hitler is like a bogeyman, wheeled out to remind people that humans are capable of vile acts (on an industrial scale). Hitler is no longer the historical figure, so much as a symbol of Naziism, racism, fascism and totalitarianism.
And of course, one reason for this is that it’s what he made himself.
By rebranding as the Fuhrer, Hitler tried to create himself as an idea more than anything. Heil Hitler was the formal greeting for everybody. His name and image were recognisable flags for people.
Hitler turned himself memetic, to better enforce his personal will as an ideological force.
It worked, and in a way, it’s still working today.
Ideas are poweful, and sometimes dangerous.
Loose memes sink ships.
Illustration by Anna-Kaisa.