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These and countless other examples suggest the arrival of a new Internet law — the “Law of Ironic Hitlerization.” Like “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies” — which states that the longer an online discussion goes on, the greater the probability will be that someone will make a comparison to Hitler — the “Law of Ironic Hitlerization” asserts that the sooner an image becomes ironically ‘Hitlerized,’ the sooner it will rise to meme status.
Beyond the examples already cited, the law’s reach can be seen with the countless well-known visual images that have been satirized via the method of Hitlerization. Children’s cartoon characters have been targeted frequently on the Internet, with Hitler moustaches and Nazi uniforms being digitally applied to such otherwise blameless characters as My Little Pony, Hello Kitty, the Pokemon character Pikachu and all four of the Teletubbies.
In the spirit of the 1960s and ’70s trading cards Wacky Packages, corporate logos and products have also been Hitlerized: Burger King, for example, has been adjusted to read “Führer King.” Even emoticons have been Hitlerized; merely a few keystrokes on a computer keyboard — two backslashes, a colon, an equals sign and a vertical bar — enable one to produce a “typical Hitler,” as seen here: //:=|.
The phenomenon of Hitlerization serves several functions. First and foremost, it attracts attention. Like adding spices to food, adding a Hitler moustache and hairstyle and Nazi uniform to an image automatically lends that image a powerful kick of irony, sensationalism and controversy — and gets it noticed.
In a world where the average Web user spends less than 30 seconds on a Web page before clicking elsewhere, what better way to generate Web traffic than taking the Western world’s paradigmatic symbol of evil and turning him into a laugh line?
This process, second of all, has become something of a competitive enterprise. In the same way that the game of Scrabble challenges players to assemble words out of random letters, many Web users find it challenging to gaze at random objects and figure out how they might resemble the Führer. They compete with one another for bragging rights about who has come up with the most creative examples. (The competitive impulse has been especially visible in the effort of Web users to out-do one another in coining Nazi-related puns, among the more iconic, if tasteless, being “I did Nazi that coming” and “Anne Frankly, I don’t appreciate it.”)
Ultimately, though, Hitlerization satisfies what appears to be an ever growing cultural desire to laugh at the Nazis. In the most charitable explanation, laughing at Hitler by transforming him from a frightening symbol of evil into an amusing punch line demythologizes him and diminishes his aura of omnipotence. At the same time, of course, it normalizes the Nazi legacy by aestheticizing, universalizing and ultimately trivializing his historical significance.
Many of these trends help us make sense of the recent controversy over the JC Penney Hitler teapot. The Web user who posted the original photograph of the teapot on the website Reddit was undoubtedly familiar with the posted images on Things That Look Like Hitler. Moreover, there is the fact that subsequent user comments on the original post tried to outdo each other by creating Nazi-style puns suitable for the controversy (“Schindler’s Mint,” “Ceylon B”). Finally, not only did the original contributor and the website Reddit gain attention, but so did the struggling retailer JC Penney, which, though an unwitting participant in the controversy, sold out all the remaining teakettles in a matter of hours.
It is unclear whether or not the controversy should be seen as innocuous or as a cause for concern. It is certainly true that, in isolation, each individual expression of the Hitler meme amounts to little more than trivial — and often offensive — ephemera. At the same time, the exponential powers of digital reproduction make sure that the meme will reach countless millions of people worldwide. The cumulative effects of this development are unknown. But one thing seems sure: As the law of ironic Hitlerization continues to transform the Nazi dictator into a laugh-inducing staple of Internet culture, we are likely to encounter Hitler in unpredictable places on an increasingly frequent basis.
Gavriel Rosenfeld is a professor of history at Fairfield University and is the author of “The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism” (Cambridge University Press, 2005). He is currently completing a book on the normalization of Nazism in contemporary culture.