Performing Nazism: Why would you wear Holocaust like costume?

Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day, Dr Benjamin Nickl, in the School of Languages and Cultures, explores the use of Nazi uniforms in popular culture. He argues that Nazi costumes can wear out our moral responsibility.

The Holocaust is not a costume, so why put it on like one? Just to see if one can get away with it? For the laughs and for the thrill? It is disturbingly easy to procure a full set of Nazi regalia and German Wehrmacht uniforms through popular platforms like Amazon.

In 2005, the former Prince Harry was severely criticised for wearing a swastika to a fancy dress party when he was 20-years-old. As it turns out, in 2003, New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet similarly donned a Nazi-themed costume for his twenty-first birthday party, followed by an apology and admission of being ‘deeply ashamed’.

On Friday, 27 January 2023, we will commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. This year’s theme is “Ordinary People”, for it was ordinary people who looked the other way as their fellow citizens, other ordinary people, were loaded onto trucks and deported to concentration camps and eradication facilities. Ordinary people let ordinary people die. Many decades after, they told journalists that they, too, were deeply ashamed of what they’d done.

Ordinary people have choices. So why do some choose ideological fascist cosplay today, knowing full well the genocidal backstory to these symbols?

Popular shopping platforms such as Amazon make it easy for people to buy German Wehrmacht uniforms.

Why do they choose the attention that a swastika armband gets them at a fancy dress party, or among their adolescent peers at a twenty-first-birthday mixer? Has the attention value of Nazi symbolism and the alleged humour in wearing a Nazi costume become a rite of passage marker for the “shock-jock bro” and the “toxic masculinity lad”?

The philosophy of clothes

The history of racist ideology drag is long and continues to be problematic for those who think it deceptively decorative – much like ripping a page out of the history book and wearing it out of context. And while there are current debates about the ethics of celebrity costumes and calls for cancellations over cultural appropriation in the troublesome tradition of yellow face, black face, and brown face, the ethical issues surrounding “brown shirt” are distinctly sartorial.

Here, it is the very morality of clothing that comes to the fore: the social fabric of a wearable ethicality or lack thereof. In an unpublished manuscript that resides in the National Austrian Library of Vienna, Jewish German thinker and philosopher Günther Anders, who escaped the Nazi regime and fled into exile in California, wrote about this vexing issue of Klamottenphilosophie – the German term for a “philosophy of clothes”. It seems that such a philosophy is much needed today, as digital screen culture and an army of popular social media apps puts us and our outfits on constant and never-fading display.

It used only to be film archives that stored Nazi regalia permanently on celluloid. Now, the internet never forgets our clothing choices as an externalisation of our values. Which brings us to the politics of dressing up like Hitler in public.

The politics of swastikas

Countries like France Germany and Israel have placed total bans on the wearing of any Nazi items. Even with film productions and television, public broadcast content regulation permissions are required when portraying SS troops or Gestapo agents. Why, then, does Australia, despite some steps in the direction of public anti-hate regulation, continue this uneasy costume collaboration with the Nazi look that flirts with eradication entertainment and goes straight to the question of guiltless masses? For if everyone decided to dress up as a Nazi, where would be the harm in that? If everyone is implicated, nobody is adjudicated. After all, if it is the norm among ordinary people, it becomes no crime at all.

This line of thinking goes to the same moral argument that Second Amendment purists in the United States have been pushing, when they insist that guns don’t kill people. And so, we could say: neither do uniforms. But neither guns nor Nazi uniforms are innocent items of clothing or metalwork, nor are they historically neutral technologies. Instead, clothing is a popular public device that broadcasts our intentions and attitudes: serving to send messages to others about who we are and what we support and with whom we align ourselves – and, of course, what we will turn a blind eye to.

Timothy Hale-Cusanelli is a curious case in point. This Trump-sympathising Hitler lookalike took part in the 6 January 2021 riots at the US Capitol. When the courts sentenced him to four years in prison, the prosecutors’ brief stressed Hale-Cusanelli’s “desire for a civil war and antisemitic conspiracies”, and his belief that “Jews controlled Democrats, President Joe Biden and all of government.”

When history becomes drag

As survivors of the Holocaust have repeatedly testified, the persistence of Nazi barbarism in our time depends on the steady weakening of the cultural cage that we put it in. Genocide requires ordinary people to let it happen – to take the antisemitic skeleton out of the closet and put it on as “just fun”, as occurred during the 2020 Sunday carnival parade in the Belgium city of Aalst. This was precisely the point Charlie Chaplin was trying to make in 1940 by “dressing up” as Hitler in The Great Dictator: one puts on the part in much the same way as one wears the uniform.

Charlie Chaplin as Hitler in the 1940’s antiwar political satire ‘The Great Dictator’.

When history becomes a ready-made costume, when it becomes drag and thus drags reality, it blurs the lines between the ridiculous and the real. And each time this happens, the cage opens a bit wider, giving the monster within the opportunity to escape – which is to say, to roam freely around the space of normalised reality. We might laugh about it when it’s safely behind bars, but will we find it equally funny once it is let loose?

Nazi uniforms are devices that de-individualise us. They de-realise us and de-historicise the past. They wear out our sense of moral agency until we no longer feel as though we’re individually responsible for the things that we all do because it becomes impossible to say who is the singular “I” that is responsible for an action. As I said, if everyone is implicated in some way, no one is guilty in any way.

In that sense, Nazi drag becomes an anti-responsibility box that “wears out” our sense of outrage as impossibly famous and powerful people like former Prince Harry and the Premier of New South Wales “wear it out” in public.

Dr Benjamin Nickl is a Lecturer in International and Comparative Literature and Translation Studies in the School of Languages and Cultures. He is a co-producer of the Real is Not Real Enough podcast project, based on the exile diary “Washing the Corpses of History” by Jewish-German thinker and philosopher, Günther Anders.

/University Release. View in full here.