Gavriel D. Rosenfeld is Professor of History and Director of the Undergraduate Program in Judaic Studies at Fairfield University. He received his B.A. in History and Judaic Studies from Brown University in 1989 and his Ph.D. in History from UCLA in 1996. His area of specialization is the history and memory of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. His newest book is Hi Hitler! How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
What initially drew you to your topic?
I’ve long been interested in the memory of the Nazi past, specifically the question of how it has become increasingly normalized over the course of the postwar period. As a cultural historian, I wanted to do a synchronic study of the Nazi era in the contemporary world by looking at how high and low cultural forms of representation (historiography, journalism, fiction, film, and web culture) were altering the Nazi legacy. The imagery visible on the internet offered the most glaring example of normalization (an archive easily accessible simply by doing an image search of Hitler on Google), but I realized that there were subtle signs of it in academic scholarship as well. I tried to bring both worlds together to see what forces were shaping each of them.
How did you develop your archive for this project?
This was an untraditional work of history for me to write in the sense that it did not require much traditional “archival” research. As the book focuses on contemporary history (i.e., events since the turn of the millennium), it was more a matter of conducting cultural criticism in a historically contextualized fashion. Most of the materials were readily available through Interlibrary Loan or the web itself. One becomes quite adept at doing web searches to dig up the most interesting material. Contacting the writers of certain texts is always rewarding when you can get them to open up about their motives for doing what they do.
What are the advantages and disadvantages to writing international histories of memory?
I think it’s important to adopt a comparative perspective in studying memory because the ways in which societies confront their pasts varies tremendously from country to country. Even though there is no ideal standard for determining when a society has adequately or successfully come to terms with a difficult historical legacy, it is clear that some nations have done a better job than others. Simply compare how Germany has dealt with the Holocaust with how Turkey has (not) dealt with the Armenian genocide. Especially since the events of World War II were international in nature, adopting a comparative perspective in examining how they have been remembered is extremely important.
What are some of the difficulties or benefits you’ve experienced in studying internet popular culture? When writing about the normalization of Hitler, how do you evaluate the sincerity or intended effect of internet posts and comments?
One of the biggest problems is how to assess the representativeness of online content. In a world where billions of people use Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter it is hard to measure the significance of images (say, satirical Hitler memes or video parodies) that number in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Where can one safely say that the innumerable Hitler images on websites like MemeGenerator have reached a critical mass, or a level where one feels compelled to determine their relevance? I find that most people respond relatively straightforwardly (often viscerally) to internet content on the Nazi era. They tend to fall into two camps: the “shocked and appalled” and the “endlessly amused.” I don’t think there’s a great deal of dissembling about where one stands. As a footnote to the question: one of the more vexing problems for scholars doing research on web culture involves the murky world of gaining permission to use internet images without violating copyright law. I’ve run into this problem a great deal, with publishers being reluctant to use images that I would regard as lying in the realm of “fair use.”
Do you think that there’s a difference between, for example, internet trolls looking to provoke a response and ironic appropriations of Hitler and the Nazis?
I find that the line is very blurred. Many web users deliberately try and get attention for themselves by uploading transgressive images using Hitler. This gets into what I call the “law of ironic Hitlerization,” which declares that the more one uses Nazi iconography to spoof an existing web image, the more likely one will “shock” people and get attention. Cats that Look Like Hitler, Hipster Hitler, and other websites are testament to this law. So, too, are Nazified versions of cartoon characters, such as Hello Kitty and the Teletubbies, and corporate logos like Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even emoticons have been “Hitlerized.” Irony suffuses these sites, but I would also say that there is an implicit willingness to shock as well. Some web users cross the (admittedly ambiguous) lines of good taste when they resort to blatant hate mongering in creating memes and the like (usually by using racist or antisemitic invective). But in many cases it’s difficult to tell what the motives are. The intent to shock and amuse tends to blur.
What surprised you while writing this book?
I was surprised at how extensive the subculture is of those people who produce YouTube video parodies and internet memes. For instance, there is an entire school of people known as “Untergangers,” people who make video parodies of Bruno Ganz’s Hitler ranting in the Berlin Bunker from the 2004 film, Downfall (Der Untergang). There are literally thousands of these videos available online and they have become a pop cultural phenomenon. There is little about it that can be described as fringe or marginal. So I argue we should contend with its underlying motivations and deeper significance.
What do you see as the future of memory studies? Of histories of popular culture and internet subcultures?
I wrote an essay a few years ago in the Journal of Modern History about the future of the Memory “Industry” where I argued that it had peaked in terms of its popularity and would probably experience a gradual decline (along the lines of a “soft landing” rather than a “crash.”). Memory studies remains a vibrant field and has a solid future, but I would say that it was very much of a product of the “post-political” 1990s, a decade that saw the flourishing of cultural history following on the heels of the popularity of postmodern theory beginning in the 1980s. Since 9/11 and the return of geopolitical tensions on a global scale, memory studies may not have as hospitable an environment in which to thrive, but it will continue to serve as a critical field of study that will shed light on how the past continues to evolve in the present.