Monday, March 31, 2014

His Kampf

Not long after moving to Wellington, Justine and I went into a second-hand shop in lower Cuba Street and were confronted by a large Nazi flag. It wasn’t tucked away at the back of the shop either, but displayed – fully unfurled – behind the counter. Our first instinct was to leave, but then we went back and asked the owner if he would please take it down. The request, I’m sorry to say, was delivered poorly and in a shaky voice. Much more calmly and assuredly, he replied that if we wanted it taken down, we’d have to take it home, and it would cost us $50. We left for good.

Now I go home to Italy once a year and the second-hand stalls of our city centres sell Fascist memorabilia. Trinkets, mostly, or party membership cards, but occasionally larger items as well, including the odd bust of Mussolini, whose semblance also graces the pages of calendars sold in the odd sympathetic newsstand. The normalisation of Fascist nostalgia is one of the most visible signs of our ongoing political and ideological crisis, and is so endemic that it would be pointless to confront individual purveyors of the stuff. Somehow around the turn of the century we just let the small-time commerce happen, lost among far larger and more pointed instances of historical revision or the restoration of public monuments like the landscaped forest outside of Antrodoco that spells the honorific of il duce.

Yet there is nothing that is remotely innocent about the nostalgia of Fascist pins or insignia. It indicates, at the very least, a disgraceful level of comfort with the symbols of our collective criminal past. In its commodified form, it also grotesquely mirrors our economic crisis, and the lengths that we will go to extract profit from all the wrong things. But mostly it’s the casual denial of history that should trouble us. It’s a very small step from the superficial, aesthetic fascination with Fascist-era design and iconography to the revisionist statements of our political leaders.

One of the reprehensible lines used in defence of fondly reminiscing about Italian Fascism is that we weren’t as bad as the Germans. German people don’t have that luxury, and although I cannot speak from any direct knowledge of this, it seems they have kept a firmer grip on what can and cannot be published, what will or will not be sold. Neo-Nazism, of course, exists (as it does outside of Germany), but it’s more effectively cauterised from institutions and the wider society than neo-fascism is in Italy.

Which makes it all the less likely that a German person would wear a Waffen-SS helmet as a joke, or do so out of mere ignorance. Kim Dotcom’s explanation for the photo above, taken at a Gumball Rally in 2004, is that someone asked him to wear the helmet so that he could take his picture, and he obliged.

I ask you: who would do that? And not just because the photo may come up again at an inopportune time – it seems safe to presume that the last thing on Mr Dotcom’s mind at the time of that rally was that he might some day enter politics in any country – but generally. What kind of joke is it to wear an SS helmet? What does it say about your understanding of politics and history, about who you are?

That explanation – 'I did it as a joke’ – is the whole damning thing. It’s like with the signed copy of Mein Kampf that Dotcom has admitted to owning: it means nothing more than that he’s the kind of person who would wish to own a signed copy of Mein Kampf. But it means nothing less, either. There is, again, that unacceptable level of comfort with atrocity, and an atrocity perpetrated by your own people to boot. (This matters.) But there is also what participating in this commerce means.

Liberals – not all of them, but many – love defending Dotcom, and they’ve come at this from a variety of angles: that it’s a distraction; that the revelations matter less because they were obviously timed to coincide with the launch of the party, or because some of them come from Cameron Slater, or because some of them come from disgruntled, gagged former employees; that it was just an investment (et tu, Hone); that it’s no big deal and certainly no reason to think he’s an actual neo-Nazi. I even heard someone opine that it’s no different from a library or a museum owning such an object. But the best defence came from Dotcom himself, who explained that he bought that copy of Mein Kampf because he’s really into Call of Duty.
Look, I’m a Call of Duty player, right. So if you know the game Call of Duty, it’s all about World War II, how you play it... and I’m a big fan of that. I’ve bought memorabilia from Churchill, from Stalin, from Hitler.
It’s an extraordinary admission, from an aspiring politician, to be fascinated with Hitler because of a videogame. It’s also a piece of misdirection. The original Call of Duty was released in 2003, and in a Bloomberg interview from 2001 – back when his name was still Schmitz – Dotcom compared the decision to become a businessman he made while under partial detention to the famous turning point in the Führer’s life:
Wasn't Hitler writing Mein Kampf while being arrested? Not that I like Hitler hehe, it's just that strange people can have strange ideas while being arrested.
Another joke, like the SS helmet he would wear three years later, but also evidence of a less naïve, less juvenile Dotcom. His current image of a game-addicted geek is a much better fit with the eligible non-voter whom the Internet Party is supposed to appeal to, and who is also chronically infantilised by the media. Never mind that I suspect that the party will attract more wealthy urban liberals currently voting for the Greens or Labour than disaffected, politically disconnected gamers. It’s really about selling a post-ideological political project reduced to few simple policy-slogans: internet freedom, personal freedom, high-tech jobs. That the figurehead may have flirted with Nazism might not do much for the ‘freedom’ bit, but so long as we can sell it as a Call of Duty-related shopping binge, it won’t hurt the product unduly.

I don’t accept the explanation, and wouldn’t accept it even if it were true. A signed copy of Mein Kampf is no more an ordinary piece of historical memorabilia than that Nazi flag in the Wellington shop was just another antique. Both are powerful symbols of hate, not to be acquired or owned lightly. Every time they are traded among private individuals like mere commodities, they dull our perception of the living link with real history and real genocide. If, in spite of this, you still wish to indulge in the thrill of buying and possessing such totems, you had better be prepared to be asked why, and for progressives to think that you are their enemy.

Credit for finding the Bloomberg interview goes to the indispensable Philip Matthews.