On January 27, 1979, Saturday Night Live aired a segment from its popular TV show, “What If?” The host asks the simple question (from “Kevin O’Donnell, 10, a paperboy from Houghton Illinois”): “What if Superman had grown up in Germany instead of America?” A typical SNL comedic dramatization ensues, revealing how Überman (emblazoned on chest, complete with umlaut) might have won the war for Germany.
Now Thor, of today’s Marvel superhero franchise, has perhaps returned the favor. Think of it: Norse gods so vividly necessary to the short-lived mythos of the Nazi Reich, fighting like brothers-in-arms alongside American superheroes. Is it not a strange irony to have a Nordic deity help save planet America, as Thor did in The Avengers? Is it not stranger still to have this Aryan icon embraced then into the fraternity of American superheroes—foremost among them Captain America, arch-slayer of Nazis?
SNL’s Überman skit—chillingly, yet hilariously—shows us America and the Nazi Reich mirroring each other…at least when it comes to superheroes. Yet the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes one step further: Norse gods and U.S.-caped crusaders are now a fighting team.
Did mirrored mythic desires lead both America and the Reich to the same pantheon of imagination? If so, does this suggest a hidden, darker dimension within us?
It would be easy to pluck out the obvious racist coding in both the Nazi Norse and American superhero pantheons—especially as they were celebrated in the later 1930s. In fact, in terms of “scientific theories” of race, as well as ingrained elite prejudice, America and the Nazi Reich in the 1930s were a close match, if not a precise mirror image.
Lothrop Stoddard, for example, has been recently resurrected in several race-conscious Atlantic articles. Stoddard was a celebrated Harvard professor in those days, and his book, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, was so widely known that his ideas were even parodied by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan says:
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” he remarks. He is in polite company, gathered with friends around a bottle of wine in the late-afternoon sun, chatting and gossiping. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard?” They hadn’t. “Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
In that period, Stoddard was coin-of-the-realm elite. He even taught at the Naval War College. In the archives, I read the lecture notes typed by future Navy stars like Admirals Nimitz and Halsey. Teaching racism and eugenics at the highest military and elite places was unexceptional in the 1920s and 30s. We can get an even more intimate glimpse of it through the eyes of FDR’s ambassador to the Nazi Reich, William E. Dodd. Author Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, unearths the deep, abiding anti-Semitism of the U.S. Department of State in the 1930s. That sure-footed WASP-elite world and its worldview differed in no significant way from the Weimar elites in Berlin that put Hitler in power.
But leaping to brand Superman a hero in the Nazi mold would be off base. Sure Superman—with parents from a pure planet, his superpowers endowed by Destiny and the Universe itself—seems like a dream of Nietzsche come true. But Überman-Superman equivalence here does not fully ring true.
In fact, Jewish artists and writers created The Great Comic Book Heroes of the 1930s. As Nirit Anderman writes in Haaretz: “Jerry Siegel and Joe (Joseph) Shuster created Superman, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) created Captain America, Bob Kane (Robert Kahn) and Bill Finger invented Batman, while Kirby, together with Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) Spider-Man, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Ironman, the X-men, Thor and the Avengers.”
America’s superheroes have even been represented as “supermensches.” Indeed, a lively debate endures over whether Superman himself was Jewish. But the Jewishness of American superheroes is not “the thing itself.” Superhero significance is not here.
America’s comic superheroes are significant because they represented the invisible majority in 1930’s society—Americans, who, because of money and pedigree and the class system, remained at the margins, and felt excluded from the full embrace—as equals—of American kinship and identity.
In such an inequitable society, superheroes gave Americans hope. Their powers were so impressive and essential to the health, welfare, and indeed, the very security of American life, that they became a voice for those left out. These superheroes were the imaginative kernel of a fraternity of disparate Americans—each different on the surface, each outside of the old establishment core—yet nonetheless committed to a country that transcended differences. They paved the way for a vision of national unity in WWII and became its future.
The working class kids who devoured superhero comics (after the appearance of Superman in 1938) were not political aggrandizers. They were just newcomers and outsiders looking to be offered a place by the fire. Thus, the new superheroes of the 1930s would represent them and fight for them—and for America.
This is what sets us apart. This is how American superheroes are different from Nazis, right? Not so fast. The mirror is still there, right in front of us, and we cannot escape it.
The America of the new superheroes—godlike supermen—was after, the America of the Great Depression. Remember, the United States had rescued humanity from “German Militarism” in 1918. The United States had created a global security order based on arms control (the Washington Treaty system)—and even rescued Germany from the crush of reparations.
Then the whole redemptive enterprise failed after 1929—and it failed most urgently in the American Heartland. With a third of working men unemployed, and banks shutting their doors across the country, there was a whiff of doom in the air.
Germany, of course, had been brought much lower, for much longer, and since 1914 had lived in the throes of almost constant calamity.
Thus, the sudden, miraculous arrival of the Leader was nothing short of salvational. FDR and Hitler each proclaimed a path to national renewal—reflecting each other, as through a glass, darkly.
With their nations near collapse, both FDR and Hitler turned to an idealized vision of national unity and belonging. Germans called it Volksgemeinschaft: A patently mystical nationalism. Yet, just as American and German constructions of identity were surely distinct and different—Melting Pot vs. Herrenvolk—the solution turned out to be identical.
But Germany’s injury and shame after 1918, however, led to a revenge solution — in contrast to America’s redemptive mission — and offered Germans only more injury and more shame.
It was not ideology that Americans and Germans paradoxically shared in the late 1930s. It was a longing for Volksgemeinschaft. An American sociologist of the Nazi Reich, the insightful Theodore Abel, described the feeling in 1938:
At the core of the concept is Gemeinschaft, an untranslatable term which combines the meaning of “unity,” “devotion to the community,” mutual aid, brotherly love, and kindred social values. The primary form of Gemeinschaft is the family, in which these social values are most easily realized because of the ties of kinship…But the National Socialists…talked about the nation as a Gemeinschaft. They were thus expressing a desire for a social order, in which the organization of national life would follow the family pattern.
Moreover, this collective feeling turned on the power of myth—focused, of course, on heroes. Nazi parades may look like government-sponsored Renaissance Festivals. But how different was the presentation of contemporary American heroes—like Max Fleischer’s Technicolor Superman cartoon?
Critically, the superhero is both savior and exemplar to the community, the nation: Enough of a man to feel pain, privation, and to bear sacrifice. Enough of a god to save his people. Enough of a model to empower his people.
In Thor: Ragnarok, the Überman does not save Asgard, the shining city. He saves the Gemeinschaft. As Odin tells him: “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” The leitmotif, of Thor: Ragnarok is the survival and rebirth of the community.
So, surely unconsciously, the Marvel Cinematic Universe carries on a constructed, yet also authentically shared German-American mythos. In the 1930s Germans and Americans, as national communities, each pulled together: Not through fear of the alien other, but rather through the inspiring paths of protean superheroes: figures of earth, figures of myth. Superheroes—Superman or Thor—were empowering archetypes, full of promise: God-men not just to follow into battle, but also pathfinders to idealized community.
The angst, the struggle, the fear that this has slipped away from America—and above all, the longing for the nation to be reborn—is thus not simply faded Technicolor from the 1930s. Thor: Ragnarok shows, in a time of deepest division, that the heroic metaphor of Gemeinschaft reclaimed is still America’s most wanted story.
Michael Vlahos teaches strategy and war at Johns Hopkins Advanced Academic Programs and is formerly of the Naval War College. He currently leads a course in Identity, Insurgency, and Civil War in the World System, and is the author of the book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change. Follow him on Twitter @JHUWorldCrisis