Faces of Evil: Totalitarianism in Fiction

The next of my old posts is now up. Hope this provides some enjoyable food for thought. 
 

This post grew out of a comment I made on SpeculativeFaith.com back in January. This, as well as the original article I responded to, are available here. The subject regarded the use of Nazism – and fascistic ideologies in general – as a sort of stock villain in popular culture. The archetype of the Hitlerian dictator (and his regimented followers) is in many ways just as prevalent in contemporary speculative fiction (perhaps even more so) as the concept of extraterrestrial life. Imagined antagonists in this mold include the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars franchise, General Zod from the most recent Superman movies, the United Citizen Federation featured in the Starship Troopers movie, and myriad other villains found at various times within every major literary and cinematic series with fictional plots involving a political theme. If anything, the increasing distance of time from the original historical events has only fueled the cultural obsession. Amazon’s original TV series The Man in the High Castle is wholly based upon an alternate timeline in which the opposite side emerged victorious in World War II (which seems to be the predominating plot throughout the entire genre of alternate history).

Image: Imgur

Officers of the Galactic Empire

Image: Green Ark Reviews

General Zod and his followers on Krypton

Image: NeoGAF

Sky Marshal Dienes of the United Citizen Federation

Image: Rapcea

Lady Liberty circa 1962 from The Man in the High Castle

I’ll take a moment to state that I have many objections to popular entertainment on moral/spiritual grounds that will be familiar to anyone of a similar religious background. But as a fiction writer in the speculative genre, I have additional criticisms that go beyond blanket rejectionism. The entertainment world today (both written and visual) is not just profane and indecent, but profoundly lacking in both originality and genuine imagination. The plot of any major Hollywood film or television series is virtually always based upon recycled, predictable cliches derived from the same political correct sources. Stories in written form are usually better quality but suffer from a similar lack of intellectual diversity. Speculative authors, writing in what should be the most imaginative genre in existence, do a great disservice to their readers by lazily borrowing tropes from their Hollywood counterparts. While this criticism is primarily directed at secular writers, it also applies to the Christian fiction market – much of the content of which represents an attempt to produce nothing more than “cleaner”, “safer” version of familiar mainstream storylines. I can sympathize with this effort and in many ways I support it. But Christian fiction as a genre is going to essentially nowhere if it’s always waiting for its secular counterpart to produce original plots and then playing “catch up” by taking these very same plots and sanitizing them.

Image: Leo Peo

How most Americans picture Nazism – it usually doesn’t get any more sophisticated than this. 

I’ve gone off the track a little bit, so I’ll return to my original point, which is also my main one: Nazi-inspired villains have been used so many times in so many different venues that the concept has lost all originality and become little more than a cartoonish caricature. Few writers show any interest in seriously examining what Nazi beliefs actually consisted of beyond the familiar platitudes about race, militarism and eugenics. How many people are aware of its deep connection with socialist ideology (links available here and here) or radical environmentalism (link available here)? Or that Adolf Hitler’s genocidal hatred of the Jews was based on a paranoid belief that they had created the capitalist system (see ‘Nation and Race’ chapter in Mein Kampf) – which is the basic story of anti-Semitism (and similar hatreds) throughout history (link available here)?


Polar opposites? Hardly. 

Why do most writers show not the least bit of curiosity when it comes to these details? For secular authors, the answer is fairly obvious. Given that artists and writers since the 20th century have overwhelming subscribed to a so-called ‘progressive’ political outlook incorporating many of these very same ideas, these kind of facts would directly threaten their pre-conceived worldviews. But many Christian writers show no higher level of interest. The classic Zion Covenant historical fiction series, for example, spends nine volumes telling the story of World War II and the Holocaust without once touching on the socialist aspects of the Nazi regime or its ideas. To be fair, the historical materials they doubtless relied on carry the same blindness (most contemporary historians adhere to the same preconceived ideas as most contemporary artists and writers). You have to dig deeper into the primary sources to find this kind of information. But in many ways, just that kind of digging should be implied in the craft of writing.

Victims of the Khmer Rouge

This brings me to an additional point. The overwhelming reliance on Nazism as a model for fictional villains obscures the fact that there have been other, just as significant, sources of evil in human history. The obvious one in recent times would be Communism, an ideology far eclipsing Nazism in the sheer number of its victims alone and causing just as nightmarish levels of human suffering. But Communism has nothing like the cinematic image of Nazism in popular culture. As it appears at all, it’s usually with an instinctively sympathetic portrayal. Even those who do not subscribe to Communist ideology generally regard it in the light of ‘good idea, poor execution’. Much of this is due to a sentimental tendency of modern times to consider ideas by their hoped-for results rather than their actual process or consequences. But I would add that most actual Communist leaders and ideologues did not have good intentions from the very beginning – I would further recommend a biography of Mao Zedong as just one example. There’s an additional wealth of source material available to any fiction writer who cares to explore the crimes – and murderous ideas – of Communism. Just a few are included here:


The Gulag ArchipelagoAlexander Solzhenitsyn

The Black Book of Communism 

Death by Government – R.J. Rummel

Murder of a Gentle Land – John Barron and Anthony Paul

The Russian Revolution – Richard Pipes

Lenin: A New Biography – Dimitri Volkogonov

The First Guidebook to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union – Avraham Shifrin

Felix Dzerzhinsky 

This man founded an organization as brutal as the German SS. How many of us have ever heard his name?

The primary distinguishing factor, of course, is historical events (had these been different much else would doubtless have followed). Nazism vanished from respectable intellectual discourse following military defeat and ideological repudiation at the Nuremberg Trials. Communism never experienced anything similar (there was no parallel in post-Soviet Russia or the rest of the former Warsaw Pact to the “de-Nazification” campaign waged by the Allied Powers in occupied Germany). Postwar images of it have been shaped accordingly.

Image: Public Radio International

This is bizarre and offensive. 

…but this is OK?

 

I’m not saying that all (or even most) fantastical stories must be parallels of reality. But the speculative genre (both secular and Christian) commits a profound act of self-impoverishment by drawing inspiration from only a single aspect of history. I think it’s high time we started giving all of it’s monsters their due imaginative representation.

I invite you to join me next week as we continue our journey through the uncharted of Heaven and Earth.

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