Second Life of Political Leaders

No figure has left his mark on the image of a nation as thoroughly and persistently as Adolf Hitler has on that of Germany. The country, the continent, and the perpetrators, victims, and their offspring still struggle with his memory. How has that memory—and the depiction thereof—evolved in the culture of our modern, globalized, and digitalized society? How does popular culture, especially in the United States, shape the modern perception of Hitler? Arleta Dulkowska, Visiting DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow and PhD candidate at the Willy Brandt Center for German and European Studies at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, deals with these and other questions in her project “Second Life of Political Leaders – A Case Study of Adolf Hitler: The role of images of Hitler in U.S. popular culture.” On November 25, 2014, she presented the initial results of her research.

Referencing the online game “Second Life,” Ms. Dulkowska began to explain how, through pop culture, political leaders such as Adolf Hitler are experiencing a sort of “second life” of their own—one that could potentially permanently reshape their perception for coming generations. This phenomenon is especially prominent in U.S. pop culture, and it is on the rise. Rather than being ideologically motivated, the use or abuse of Hitler’s image serves mainly for purposes of comedy and entertainment. She dubs the mode by which the factual representation of Hitler, as recorded objectively in historical documentation, is altered in pop-cultural iterations as the “Hitler Algorithm.” The scope of Hitler’s documentation in history was evidenced by a number of images from literature, film, art, architecture, and exhibitions of artifacts from that period. A major revelation toward understanding the difference between the European, or Polish, and the American approach to the portrayal of Hitler was the idea of “Hollywood going to war”: American media was the first to ridicule Hitler as a way to boost morale in the fight against him.

This approach may have engendered the ongoing trend that the image of Hitler is used impiously for satire and parody no differently than any other prominent figure. The plethora of videos, photographs, and online images that were presented served to flesh out the incredible scope of hyperbolic, absurd, and sometimes distasteful Hitler references. The sources included film, TV, literature, comics, even apparel or household items—and, most prolifically, websites, online videos, and social media. Many of these depictions portray Hitler in roles other than the genocidal dictator, create fictions about Hitler’s life, or construct whole alternate histories about him. The potential trivialization of Hitler and his crimes, or the conflation of historical fact and parody, especially in the perception of the pop-culture literate young generation, is a cause for concern.

The discussion brought up questions of whether greater censorship in the U.S. of references to Nazi themes and symbols, as practiced in several European countries, would be commendable. However, one may argue that ridicule is a healthy outlet for dealing with the trauma of Hitler’s image and reducing its negative power. Further, it may even help demystify or create new associations with the memory of Hitler, which could help eliminate those harmful nationalized stereotypes and perspectives that hinder reconciliation and understanding.

Please contact Ms. Kimberly Frank with any questions at

November 25, 2014