About a month ago on a day off from work, I spent part of the afternoon watching the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. As a historian and film fan the movie is practically required viewing; Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography (in the use of moving cameras, multiple views, and aerial shots) was groundbreaking and, in the case of the opening “flying through the clouds” sequence, breathtaking.

But for all of its visual beauty and pioneering technique, one can’t forget that Triumph of the Will was a propaganda film commissioned (and directly influenced) by Joseph Goebbels as a visual record of the events surrounding the 1934 Nuremburg rally, which was officially titled the Nazi Party Congress. And since the film was a Nazi propaganda movie, I don’t suppose I need to tell you who the star of the show was. In fact, the majority of the “Hitler giving a speech” footage you’ve seen in numerous documentaries down through the years is taken directly from Triumph of the Will; this is unsurprising when one considers that the film is in public domain (so no royalties have to be paid for the use of the material). What surprises the modern viewer when one watches the complete and unedited film is that Hitler manages to speak an awful lot, yet say absolutely nothing of any real substance.

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It’s true. As I watched the film, I was struck by the hollowness of the rhetoric. While each paragraph makes something which vaguely resembles a point, the text seldom flows directly into the next paragraph; the points (when present) come haphazardly. Hitler uses a lot of “power words” (what today are known as “buzzwords”) which individually are at best mildly inspiring. But when strung together and spoken with great vigor and force, these buzzwords and phrases can hoodwink an assembly, a mob, a huge crowd, or an entire nation. Some of the rhetoric is chilling when placed in a historical context (“In the past, our enemies persecuted us and have removed the undesirable elements from our Party for us,” is a barefaced exculpation and shifting of the blame for The Night of the Long Knives, in which the Party’s SA leaders were murdered by their SS rivals [with Hitler’s blessing]), but the majority of the text consists of words designed to simply provoke an emotional reaction from the audience.

It’s easy for the modern viewer to sit back, listen to the speeches with incredulity, and cluck their tongues while thinking, “How could anyone have listened to this drivel and followed such a man?” But the awful truth is that today’s society is quite often led astray by empty rhetoric; in fact, the modern educational system virtually guarantees this will occur. High school student aren’t taught to think critically; all that the system requires is that the material provided be memorized by the pupil and parroted back at exam time. Students are taught to accept the material as given and not question it. When I was a freshman in high school, my U.S. History instructor had somehow misidentified Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as a fascist dictator who had helped cause World War II. When test time came and I was asked to name the four fascist dictators who had started the war, I named three and deliberately left Selassie off of my list – because the instructor’s answer was WRONG. But I was penalized regardless. So what’s the lesson here? I was for all intents and purposes being taught (conditioned?) to accept whatever “the powers that be” say is right, even when I know good and damn well that it’s wrong.

And while we’re on the subject of the American educational system, let me tell you a little story.

Late in my high school sophomore year my freshman friend Rick asked me to be his campaign manager for his run at the student council vice-presidency. I laughed my head off. There was no way a freshman would ever win that election, especially because he was running against a gorgeous statuesque redheaded sophomore gal who was one of the most popular people in school (as well as one of the nicest people I’ve ever met). Besides, I didn’t know the first blessed thing about running a campaign.

“Don’t worry; I have a plan,” Rick assured me. “You don’t even need to run a campaign. All you’ll have to do is write a really boring one paragraph speech that introduces me to the student body. You’ll just go to the podium, give the speech that brings me on, then sit back and watch what happens.”

I knew Rick pretty well; he was a fellow history buff and also possessed a wicked sense of humor, so I sensed something more was in the works. He didn’t tell me what was going to happen until a half-hour before the first of two assemblies in which we would speak to the student body (it was a huge high school with about 1,700 students, so we had to do the dog and pony show twice because the entire student body couldn’t fit into the auditorium at one time).

There were four offices up for election with two candidates for each office, plus each candidate had a campaign manager. So the sixteen of us were seated in a line of folding chairs on the stage. I was ninth in line, and I watched and listened as eight other students got up and made little speeches: “I’ve been involved in student government so I’m the right candidate for the position of treasurer” blah blah blah. After each speech the crowd gave a smattering of light applause (if people bothered to applaud at all; many students were dozing through the speeches, as attendance was mandatory and nobody really gave two spits and half a fart about high school student government anyway). My turn came and I gave my little unremarkable ninety seconds (if it was that long) of verbiage.

Then Rick came to the podium. Over the preceding weeks he’d watched every film clip he could find of Hitler’s speeches; this was no mean feat in the 1970’s, years before VCRs and decades before DVD players and the Internet. He’d gone to the county library, to the school library, and to some history teachers to beg, borrow, or steal every sound recording and film he could get his hands on to intensely study how Hitler presented a speech. He then proceeded to practice, practice, practice until he could precisely mimic every tone and mannerism of Der Fuehrer. Now bear in mind that I had no idea he was going to do this until just before the first of two student assemblies began. I reckoned that this little stunt was going to get us both detention (at best) or expulsion (most likely). But I wasn’t the kind to let a pal down by backing out at the last minute.

Rick launched into a speech that was just a rhetorical diatribe which said absolutely nothing of substance. It was all sound and fury, with flailing arms, dramatic pauses, loudly emphasized power words. It was a spot-on parody of Hitler, simultaneously brilliant and horrifying (what little I saw of it, as I had to lower my head and fold my arms so that the student body couldn’t see me laughing).

The reaction was amazing. Those who’d been dozing through the earlier speeches woke right up and took notice. Rick’s initial line or two was met with some incredulous laughter. After a few more lines, some in the crowd started yelling, “Yeah!”. By the time the speech was just half-finished, his every phrase was met with a roar of approval from the crowd. The only thing missing were shouts of “Sieg Heil!” When he left the stage the student body, which up to now had barely applauded any of the candidates, raised the roof with explosive applause and cheers. This “outsider” freshman kid, who practically nobody knew, had the crowd right where he wanted them, eating right out of his hand. And, because there were two assemblies, he did it twice with the identical effect each time.

I had a pretty wild four years in a 1970’s high school, and was involved in a fair amount (okay, a lot) of non-destructive anarchy and pranks of my own, but this was absolutely the most insane stunt anyone pulled during my school years. And do you want to know the craziest part of the story? Rick, a kid practically nobody knew, lost the election to one of the most popular girls in school by a single vote by giving a completely pointless speech in the most dramatic style possible.

Rick may have been half-crazy, but he was no fool. He knew that to win the election he would have to do something spectacular so, as a history buff, he went right to the guy who figuratively wrote the book on how a complete nobody could rise to power practically overnight. Rick had completely used me as well, because he specifically said he wanted me to give a short, deliberately boring speech; it wasn’t until I watched Triumph of the Will nearly 40 years later that I realized I’d been Rudolf Hess to Rick’s Hitler. To this day, I’m not sure whether Rick really wanted to win the election or whether this was just a social experiment using 1,700 students as his guinea pigs. Either way it was brilliant and memorable; for the rest of my high school career (and for a couple of years after graduation) I was frequently asked if I’d been “in on it”, if I’d known what he was going to do before he did it.

There’s a moral to this little parable, especially since the 2016 U.S. Presidential race is officially underway. Pay close attention to what the candidates are saying, especially during debates. Empty rhetoric, nice-sounding but hollow phrases, and “power words” have a significant appeal, but only to the ignorant, the easily-influenced, and to those who aren’t really listening.

Today’s Golden Age comic tale is the last story from the classic 1941 Lev Gleason “one shot” (which became an ongoing series due to its popularity) Daredevil Battles Hitler. Well before America’s entry into World War II, many comic book publishers recognized the dangers posed by the rise of fascism, and offered cautionary tales in their books. This is the most memorable of the lot. Essentially a (very entertaining) propaganda piece, “The Man of Hate” contains a startling mention of concentration camps, illustrating that Americans outside of government were aware of the camps’ existence even before the U.S. entered the war (although, as shown here, it was believed that the people interred in them were political prisoners, not victims of mass genocide).

The page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. To read the pages, right-click on a page and open it in a new tab for a larger view.

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Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Daredevil Battles Hitler,  July 1941

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2015, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.

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