One of the stories we workshopped in class last week had, as a major subplot, a hospital run by Nazis that killed babies and children with mental and physical disabilities. This tugged on one of my favorite tropes in fiction: Nazi bad guys.* The story was a great start for the writer, but I noticed some things about characterization that I feel strongly about.
I divide Nazis into two groups:
- Active forces of explicit evil
- Symbols of the passive banality of evil
The difference here isn’t between explicit and banal, it’s between active and passive. Is the Nazi antagonist going around doing straight-up evil Nazi shit, or is the Nazi antagonist being ordered around to do somewhat evil or even not-very evil shit that, when compounded with all the other Nazi “administrators” adds up to some real straight-up evil shit. Obviously Nazis are capable of doing other stuff, but this, to me, seems to be the most common characterizations.
The piece we read for class mentions Hitler, of course, but it focused on a Nazi doctor in charge of the hospital where kids are being killed. The doctor was described in very passive terms, as a Nazi flunky following orders. Okay, banality of evil, sure. But even Hitler was described in passive terms: he was simply derping his way through the story, signing baby-killing orders that were plopped on his desk. This is where I took issue, because if you’re going to focus on a Nazi yes-man following orders, somewhere up the chain of command you’ve got to say something like “Hitler ordered the murder of kids, because he’s Hitler for christ’s sake!”
Look, I know this is weird and kind of out of left field here. I’m just trying to come up with a language for when a fiction writer decides they need to use Nazis as a shortcut for pointing out that this/these character(s) over here is/are “the bad guy(s).” There’s a lot of powerful things that are being said just from a writer taking their antagonist and putting him in some sharp Nazi duds. But if a writer gets lazy and needs to use “Nazi” as a way to indicate to a reader that this person here is a “bad guy,” then you turn them into Star Trek red shirts, and you rob them of their power as the human embodiment of evil.
* It might seem like I’m being redundant–“Nazi” and “bad guys”–but I’m just trying to make it clear that I’m not a big fan of “Nazi good guys.” Don’t like that at all.