Vignettes of Fascism in Fiction
Alt. History Episodes of Star Trek, Sliders, & Doctor Who
The road behind us and alternate history, the nature and usage of Nazis in fiction.
You know what gets overused in fiction? Evil. I don’t mean on-screen evil; that’s just a necessity for having a plot half the time. No, I mean “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil.” Sure, it’s funny if the aim of the show is comedy, but if every villain is called evil by our protagonist, it gets kind of tired. Evil doesn’t—usually—identify itself as such; that’s why I tend to chortle whenever I see old Marvel references to the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants [ 1 ].
No, that’s not sarcasm. I will describe some horrible things here. Go read one of our other authors if you think there’s a chance this article might not play out well in your mind. I don’t say that as just a disclaimer. I have PTSD myself, and I know how even innocuous things can set it off.
Now yes, I get it. I grew up in the 1980s, the last, great bastion of weekly evil-doers on Saturday morning. Who am I to deny evil to a new generation? Well, I guess I’m not necessarily doing that, so much as I’m saying, “parental guidance suggested. Preferably by competent parents.”
Obviously, evil comes in degrees, methodologies, alignments, and flavors of barley-based tea (no, those teas are never on the side of “the Light”; get used to it). Let’s list a few of the common traits that evil tends to have:
- Purity of thought and purpose
- Willingness to do unspeakable acts
- Lack of empathy
You’ve seen an evil agenda before. The Nazis are the most frequently-used example, but modern hate groups tread this ground also.
Implementation? Can you say “the ends justify the means?”
Purity of thought and purpose has many one-word descriptors: zealotry, fanaticism, fundamentalism, etc.
A willingness to do unspeakable acts is the lack of restraint that prevents any other evil on this list. We’ve heard about people defiling graveyards or abusing animals, but the past century has seen some horrifying things done in the name of otherwise good causes. While this ties back to “Implementation,” it describes more the degree to which a person might be willing to go in their methodology.
Finally, the lack of empathy is pretty common these days. We’ve all seen narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths in the public light. Some of them are even—may the Gods help us all—leaders in commerce or governance. The “not my problem” crowd has had pull even when it markets itself well. I mean, I love the ’80s, but the “I got mine” mentality was way too prevalent then. And this is—possibly—more frightening to see in a crowd than in the monster who might be leading said crowd.
Put them all together and what do you get? All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to ignore the presence of AIPWL!
Okay, not an acronym that’ll ever catch on. Fine.
Now, some would call evil “a profound immorality.” I disagree. I call it a profound absence. Something is missing that would otherwise scream in an evildoer’s mind: “Hey! That’s wrong! Don’t do that! Puppies shouldn’t be kicked, people deserve to exist, and why the hell are you putting creamer in your diet cola?!?”
That last one’s just me, isn’t it? Okay, fine. Let’s just admit I have some evil in my soul and move on.
Now, my brother-in-law has a saying: “I love Nazis. No matter what you do to them, you just don’t feel bad afterwards.” There’s some truth to this. We might not like it when sympathetic villains suffer or die in the course of a story. But Nazis? Does anyone outside the sphere of white supremacists mourn them if they’re killed by the truckload? Thankfully no, at least not that I’ve personally witnessed.
Nazis are the go-to for evil in a lot of our favorite intellectual properties. Hell, they’ve rightfully been that for a long while now. One of the earliest instances I can recall of post-World War II is1951’s Superman and the Mole-Men. In this classic, the Man of Steel verbally defends the obviously inhuman moleman that has been found while wounded. When locals gather in an effort to get rid of it, Superman says: “You’re all acting like a bunch of nazis” [ 2 ]! I’m paraphrasing here, since it’s been a while.
Superman using that word struck me, especially given I was a kid in the single digits, catching it on late-night TV. I mean, that word? I usually only heard it alongside historical artifacts being taken and secret powers being developed. Nazi as an insult, or at least a chiding? This was a new concept for me. People can be called these things. Which made sense once I thought about it. I mean, by that point, we’d gone over World War II in my social studies classes. While most other atrocities in the war weren’t really touched on (except, thankfully, Japanese internment camps; we need to remember here in the U.S. that our hands were not clean), my school made certain we knew that the Third Reich was evil beyond question.
We know these bastards were evil for many reasons. I won’t go into all of them here, but genocide, conquest for its own sake, nationalism, torture, enslavement, and the like are pretty good reasons to label a group evil, especially in the modern era, “where we should know better.” Not saying old Vlad and Genghis weren’t on the evil meter at all, but we tend to give them a pass because for being from a different time.
When a prominent leader in the so-called alt-right, Richard Spencer, was punched after the inauguration of President Trump, a firestorm debate erupted across social media, especially on the left, on the ethics of punching a neo-Nazi; whether or not (and how much) access is someone with a hateful ideology to be allowed in the public sphere, and the acceptability of political violence (and consequently whether that counts as a form of political censorship) [ 3 ]. This obviously gets into the nature and scope of human rights, which is always a controversial issue in itself.
Prominent graphic novelist Warren Ellis commented on the affair firmly in support of the attacker:
All I can tell you is, from my perspective as an old English socialist and cultural liberal who is probably way to the woolly left from most of you and actually has a medal for services to free speech—yes, it is always correct to punch Nazis. They lost the right to not be punched in the face when they started spouting genocidal ideologies that in living memory killed millions upon millions of people. And anyone who stands up and respectfully applauds their perfect right to say these things should probably also be punched, because they are clearly surplus to human requirements. Nazis do not need a hug. Nazis do not need to be indulged. Their world doesn’t get better until you’ve been removed from it. Their agenda is always, always, extermination. Nazis need a punch in the face [ 4 ].
From this viewpoint, Nazism is not an immediate call to violence—it’s a threat to Democracy as a whole. Attacking it is not only morally permissible but morally obligatory, an important statement on the nature of one’s duty and responsibility as a citizen of a free democratic society to attack against things threatening that democracy.
Okay, and a call to violence.
Nick Spencer (no relation to Richard Spencer), a prominent and controversial writer for Marvel Comics, broadly condemned the attack on Twitter saying, “Today is difficult, but cheering violence against speech, even of the most detestable, disgusting variety, is not a look that will age well” [ 5 ]. Surprising no one, the Internet blew up. Again. Because this is the world of 2016 onward, and we seem to be riddled with madness and strife.
This standpoint holds that the very bedrock of a free and democratic society is that the free speech of all must be protected, even if the views held are abhorrent so as to protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority.” Nick Spencer is most notably a writer on Captain America, and many who disagree with his argument mention the iconic Captain America No. 1, the cover of which prominently features Captain America [ 6 ] punching Adolf Hitler in the face as a symbol of his American virtue and as criticism of his position that it is wrong to punch people with (neo-)Nazi beliefs. Spencer promptly responded to this by pointing out Captain America No. 275, which features an ethical debate on the nature of allowing, of all things, Nazis free speech rights and Captain America protecting those free speech rights [ 7 ].
The relationship between fiction, its presentation of Nazis, and how other characters react to Nazis therefore makes a moral recommendation as to how people should react in the face of such unadulterated human evil and capacity for cruel acts on a massive political scale, as well as how society as a whole should act around such a thing. Various fictional universes have pondered the troubling question of the Nazis and how they relate to human nature. Given their documented actions and beliefs—especially their massive importance in shaping the modern political climate—(particularly because the Reich was relatively recent in human history), alternate history has a field day depicting different situations involving the Nazis.
Science fiction, idealistic future SF in particular, has a proclivity for using the Nazis as philosophical antagonists. If a story wishes to promote the best in humanity as the likely or hopeful future, Nazis can be used as exemplar of human evil, and thus a sort of human form of the problem of evil: If man is good, why do horrible regimes like the Third Reich take hold?
Fascism in Star Trek
Nazis and allusions and references thereto have shown up a number of times in Star Trek: the TOS episode “Patterns of Force” (which was not shown in Germany for decades) [ 8 ], the interchange between General Chang and Kirk in The Undiscovered Country (“We need breathing room.” “Earth, Hitler, 1938.”), and Enterprise’s “Storm Front.” But while swastikas and SS uniforms make handy shorthand for “bad guys here,” using them as such risks minimizing the fact that the “bad guys” were real people committing atrocious acts for complex reasons [ 9 ].
This is not to say, however, that the Nazis of Enterprise aren’t taken seriously. Their presentation purely from iconography does pose some level of menace and does give some level of gravitas and importance to the situation.
Parallels in development also give you the Romulans. A genetic offshoot of the Vulcans, they are, ostensibly, another military race whose primary ideology is the destruction of all races that are not Romulan. Every other race is a pawn, a patsy, or a victim. We rarely see them in combat, but their hatred knows no bounds and they have been at the center of some of the most heinous acts in Star Trek canon—some committed by the nominal good guys [ 10 ].
Fascism in Sliders
Another example of Nazis in fiction, though in a very different context, is the episode “California Reich” from season 4 of Sliders. The episode involves the Sliders entering a universe where it is mentioned the Nazis never rose to power; instead, fascism has taken hold of California and threatens to take hold of the entire United States. In this world, any non-white people that the regime finds are taken as slaves and have their mouths removed so they can no longer respond to anything.
While the episode does not directly feature Nazis, it does raise the unfortunate question of how as fascism might have become more socially acceptable had the Nazis never come to power. The question of human evil is also posed directly from Rembrandt to a character from that world: “There are some things that are just so… evil, that you can’t believe a human being is capable of doing them” [ 11 ][ 12 ].
Fascism in Doctor Who
Some very recent SF narratives have taken to subverting common expectations regarding the Nazi Reich and its relative importance in both the presumed narrative sense and in the historical sense. For instance, in the Doctor Who episode titled “Let’s Kill Hitler,” they proceed to not actually kill Hitler. There is, however, a highly satisfying scene where Hitler is punched quite hard. Despite the title, the episode has very little to do with the Nazis or Hitler specifically. In fact, Melody wants to kill Hitler in this episode not for any grand purpose or anything but, “I was on my way to a gay gypsy Bar Mitzvah for the disabled when I suddenly thought, gosh! The Third Reich’s a bit rubbish; I think I’ll kill the Führer. Who’s with me” [ 13 ]? Likewise, while the Teselecta [ 14 ] does seek to punish Hitler, it considers his crimes to be relatively minor and it’s later established they view River Song as more dangerous [ 15 ].
Not assigning a special evil value to the Nazis is seen subversive to the point of having potential comedy value. However, let us not forget the most obvious expression of fascism of the Doctor Who universe: the Cybermen. They stand cold and ruthless in the most obvious places. The story arc that brings humanity away from its emotional roots to become cold emotionless robots of destruction with an agenda of assimilation or death for all humanity is so much like the Nazi ideology that it is hard to miss. They espouse all of the most repugnant (to us) Nazi ideas. No individuality, no love, no warmth, a programed drive to “upgrade” every human into one of them, and if they cannot, then the only other option is death [ 16 ].
Some might say the Daleks would also fit the bill as they started out as just an “upgraded” version of the people of Skaro. They’re both Nazis—just at different stages of development. The Daleks’ developmental level far outstrips every other instance in the Whoniverse, as they will almost always commit suicide if their DNA is “tainted” with that of another race. That right there is true dedication to the cause [ 17 ].
The last group of fascists in the Whoniverse is the Time Lords themselves. By attempting to impose their will on the rest of the universe, they created more enemies than they could handle. Their strategy and worldview has them doing the same thing to the universe that the earthly Nazis did to the planet Earth. Attacking one “enemy” after another until they were surrounded on all sides by beings that wanted to kill them is reminiscent of the last days of World War II. The only way out for the Time Lords was to literally fake their collective deaths—not one or two of them, but the entire planet [ 18 ].
Fascism in Star Wars
There are, of course, markers of fascism found in Star Wars. The Empire is xenophobic to the extreme; with the notable exception of Grand Admiral Thrawn, there are no other non-humans within the Empire’s power structure. The clues that make them space-age Nazis are both obvious and numerous; they enslave the Wookiees and several other alien species while slaughtering the Jedi and kidnapping children with high Midichlorian counts [ 19 ]. The teeming horde of faceless Stormtroopers and the very obvious Hugo Boss-inspired look of Imperial officer uniforms evoke the SS, Hitler’s elite monsters. The Empire hits almost all the low points on Hitler’s agenda. They seem like a very easy copy and paste sort of bad guy that everyone should understand is evil out of the gate [ 20 ].
As to why Nazis end up in multiple genres (in this case science fiction) and why it is expected is a simple extension of logic. If we advance as a technological species and we move towards better efficiency and control, we eventually get the cultural equivalent of Special Forces being the general population. Add to that genetic manipulation that would create smarter and stronger humans overall and a better educational—or, more properly indoctrination—system to make sure that every member of society is an efficient soldier or breeder or both, you would get maximum control, efficiency, and willingness to follow orders. All a society would need at that point are marching orders and they could easily be a murderous group of humans that are happy seeing their own kind killed. In a society such as that the likelihood of those people being inhuman monsters is high.
Summary and Conclusion
In today’s current political climate, where the epithet of “Nazi” has become far more common in its usage, it seems to many that Nazism and fascism are becoming acceptable political positions. The question of how Nazis appear in media and in fiction ask of the viewer implicit questions about how to respond in the face of the greatest human-made tragedies.
In that regard, presenting a Nazi as the antagonist of a work or even as a side character has a level of immediate gravitas via imagery long-since appropriated by the Regime towards their horrid ends. The expectation of the audience is for that gravitas to be reinforced and to be treated as the serious and unacceptable threat that it is. How a work presents the Nazis is at once a political and philosophical statement on the nature of human evil.
Fascism is at its heart one of the most truly evil things that has ever cursed the surface of the Earth. Everything about it screams of death and intolerance; seeing no good in it should be absolutely child’s play and yet countless people dream of a world of hate, not realizing that all of that hate could be turned on them at any second. One should be able to feel mercy for any thinking being, but this group is probably one of the few organizations that deserve to be hated. Much like cancer, they provide nothing good by existing in this universe. In literature and in the movies all manner of beings can see these horrors in sharply-pressed suits as the most evil things ever.
It’s 2023. As I write this, I recall when I’d just come away from a discussion with my Dad. He’s complaining about “the liberals” in the wake of the 2020 election. “All people on the left speak so crassly,” he says. I ask him why he thinks that and remind him that my profanity-laden speech isn’t indicative of everyone on the left. He says that everyone with my viewpoints has been brainwashed by a professor, that all colleges are left-wing, and—by extension—that all academics are as well. I tell him that I had some right-wing professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, but he struggles to believe me (never calling me an outright liar, but still doubting; maybe he thinks I’m brainwashed?).
Yes, it can happen again. And it can happen here.
I’ll see you all next time.
- “Adapting Phillip K. Dick’s seminal work, The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime presented the author’s chilling alternate history in vivid, grim detail. With a cross-sectioned U.S. occupied by the Axis powers.”
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Man_High_Castle_(TV_Series)_map.png RedFoxJinx on Wikimedia
- “These time travel fictions have fascinated us, circling pop culture as they have for generations.” Source: www.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/composition-space-time-flight-spiral-roman-1221181900 “FlashMovie” on Shutterstock.
As SFS’s Chief Administrative Officer, Mr. Cardinal has found his editorial duties at Steam-Funk Studios often reconnect him to parts of fandom he’d have otherwise overlooked. Andrew has DJed, catered, and run travel logistics in the goth scene as DJ Rasclin. Other credentials include staffing for Anime Central and work for the US Census Bureau. As the second of our Senior Editors, he advises on strategy for both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse, remaining a steady guiding hand.
- “Brotherhood of Mutants.” Marvel, marvel.com/teams-and-groups/brotherhood-of-mutants.
- Superman and the Mole Men. Directed by Lee Sholem, written by Richard Fielding, performances by George Reeves and Phyllis Coates, Lippert Pictures, 1951.
- Tiffany, Kaitlyn, “Right-wing extremist Richard Spencer got punched, but it was memes that bruised his ego,” The Verge, 23 Jan 2017. theverge.com/2017/1/23/14356306/richard-spencer-punch-internet-memes-alt-right. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Johnston, Rich, “Warren Ellis, On Whether Nazis Should Be Punched In The Face, Or Not.” Bleeding Cool News and Rumors, 22 Jan. 2017. bleedingcool.com/comics/warren-ellis-whether-nazis-punched-face-not/. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Guardian Staff, “Is Punching Richard Spencer Inciting Violence or ‘American as Apple Pie?,’” The Guardian, 23 Jan. 2017. theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/23/richard-spencer-punched-alt-right-violence-pepe. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Simon, Joe and Jack Kirby, Captain America Comics #1, Marvel, 1941.
- DeMatteis, J.M., Captain America #275, Marvel, 1982.
- DeCandido, Keith R.A., “Star Trek The Original Series Rewatch: ‘Patterns of Force,’” Tor.com, 29 Mar 2016. www.tor.com/2016/03/29/star-trek-the-original-series-rewatch-patterns-of-force. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Nazi.” Memory Beta, https://memory-beta.fandom.com/wiki/Nazi. Accessed 23 May 2021.
- Miller, Eric and Liz Shannon Miller, “The Romulans: Federation Foes … and Sometimes, Their Darkest Mirror,” StarTrek.com, 3 Oct 2020. www.startrek.com/news/star-trek-romulans-federation-primer. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Miller, Scott Smith, “California Reich,” Sliders S4 E11, 24 Aug 1998.
- EarthPrime Staff, “California Reich,” Earth Prime. earthprime.com/episode-guide/california-reich. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Moffat, Steven, “Let’s Kill Hitler,” Doctor Who S6 E08, BBC, 27 Aug 2011.
- “The Teselecta,” BBC Doctor Who Profiles. bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/1qQMbf6sPrLP1LFV3SCf63d/the-teselecta. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- Moffat, Steven, “The Wedding of River Song,” Doctor Who S06 E13, BBC, 1 Oct 2011.
- “Cybermen,” BBC Doctor Who Profiles. bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/56yLC4MqySz7xl62cTQpS14/cybermen. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
- “Dalek.” TARDIS Data Core, tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Dalek.
- “Time Lord.” TARDIS Data Core, tardis.fandom.com/wiki/Time_Lord.
- Gilroy, Henry, Wendy Mericle, et al., “Children of the Force,” Star Wars: The Clone Wars S02 E03, Cartoon Network, 9 Oct 2009.
- Romano, Aja, “Star Wars has always been political. Here’s why the alt-right is claiming otherwise,” Vox, 31 Dec 2016. vox.com/culture/2016/12/31/14024262/star-wars-political-alt-right-backlash. Accessed 21 Mar 2021.