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Thor: Superhero, Überman

On January 27, 1979, Saturday Night Live aired a segment from its popular TV show, “What If?” [1] 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 [2] Atlantic [3] 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 [4], 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 [5] of the 1930s. As Nirit Anderman writes in Haaretz: [6] “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.” [6] 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 [7] 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 [8]. But how different was the presentation of contemporary American heroes—like Max Fleischer’s Technicolor Superman [9] 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 [10]. Follow him on Twitter @JHUWorldCrisis [11]

22 Comments (Open | Close)

22 Comments To "Thor: Superhero, Überman"

#1 Comment By Youknowho On November 7, 2017 @ 10:50 pm

Thor and teh Nordic myths were there long before Adolf Hitler was born.

As with all myths, those who cherished them, saw what they wanted to see, and imagined them to be what they needed them to be.

Different spectators, different interpretations.

Nothing surprising about it.

#2 Comment By Kent On November 8, 2017 @ 6:55 am

Today is Wednesday, Wodensday, Odensday. Tomorrow is Thursday, Thorsday.

For those of us of Angle and Saxon blood, the old gods are not that far away.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 8, 2017 @ 7:38 am

In an essential way, the Jewish children of German refugees, recreated the Golem story in their comic book heroes.

#4 Comment By KD On November 8, 2017 @ 8:50 am

Maybe we need a super hero movie saga about a man who leads his People through the desert for forty years until they reach the Promised Land, at which time the People engage in a genocidal war against the native inhabitants and wipe out the existing religious cults in the name of the new and supreme God of Thunder, but then ultimately collapse through ethnic mixing with foreign women and adopting foreign gods and customs.

#5 Comment By Moralistic Therapeutic Deist On November 8, 2017 @ 9:20 am

Jeez, this article could be required reading in one of those college “humanities” courses that teaches how white people are bad. I think it’s pretty common knowledge that the Norse pantheon was co-opted by the Nazis, just like they co-opted everything else in their shtick. Was C.S. Lewis a Nazi admirer because he fell in love with the Norse gods before he found the Christian one? (Read The Screwtape Letters to disabuse yourself of any notions that Lewis was a third Reich sympathizer.)

Conservative thought is a big “tent”, but I don’t think that tent covers “everything white people like is secretly a big racist fantasy, from ancient gods to Marvel movies”.

#6 Comment By Will Harrington On November 8, 2017 @ 10:53 am

Yeah, can not even read this tripe. Do you not understand that thor is not a NAZI hero anymore than Germans are Aryans? Thor/Donner also stsnds in the deep foundation stones of English culture and Norse mythology had a deep influence on such Christian writers as Tolkien and Lewis and such culturally influential writers as the Jewish brothers Lieber (one of whom changed his name to Lee because he was ashamed of the medium he worked in during the fifties) and Kirby. Trying to make these NAZI connections to a version of a mythological figure created by American Jews is a stretch that Mr. Fantastic himself would hesitate to make.

#7 Comment By Allen On November 8, 2017 @ 11:01 am

Zzzzzzzz. *snort* What?…I fell asleep for a minute there. This article is the written equivalent of “Death by PowerPoint”. No wonder we’re losing all our wars.

#8 Comment By Ken T On November 8, 2017 @ 11:48 am

I can think back and imagine the conversation that took place in the Marvel editorial office back when the character was first created.

Marvel exec: “Our storylines are getting stale. We need a new character to kick things up again.”

Marvel designer: “Hmm. Let’s see, I remember back in school reading about some Norse god named Thor. Maybe we could do something with that”

Exec: “What made this guy special?”

Designer: “I don’t know – big tough dude, I remember something about him carrying a big hammer.”

Exec: “Hammer? Yeah, that’s different. Sounds good. Run with it.”

And that’s about as much as comic book Thor has to do with actual Norse mythology.

#9 Comment By Quimbob On November 8, 2017 @ 12:12 pm

this is really dumb. This author gets paid to teach this twisted history?
Dunno about all the creators, doubt the Superman artist could pass the physical, but Jack Kirby did serve in WWII

#10 Comment By JWJ On November 8, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

Ken T wrote “…Exec: “Hammer? Yeah, that’s different. Sounds good. Run with it.”

And that’s about as much as comic book Thor has to do with actual Norse mythology.”

Nailed it. This author WAYYYYYYYY overthinks comic book / movie Thor.

#11 Comment By Quimbob On November 8, 2017 @ 1:27 pm

DC Comics multiversity & Nazi Superman

“Comics Explained”

#12 Comment By RINOVirus On November 8, 2017 @ 6:21 pm

The idea of Superman born as evil was already covered in an offshoot called Red Son. But instead of Germany, they chose the Soviet Union.

The Nazis were a Christian movement that used pagan iconography whenever it suited them.

Lastly, there is at least one Jewish superhero. Shadowcat from the X-Men. There is also one Jewish supervillain in the same vein, Magneto.

As an occasional comic fan I never have given any thought to the idea that most of the main characters out there were created by men of Jewish background.

Also, I think the writer also spoiled the ending of the film. Good job.

#13 Comment By Colonel Bogey On November 8, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

So, it has been suggested that Superman was Jewish? Fascinating, but I’d like to know if there were Jews on Krypton, or if the Kent family were Jewish, or if Clark converted before or after growing up to be Superman?

#14 Comment By M_Young On November 8, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

Uh, as we are constantly told, whites are being submerged by other races.
You might think that doesn’t matter.
You might even think its a good thing.
But Stoddard was right.

#15 Comment By SFG On November 8, 2017 @ 10:01 pm

Oh, give me a break. The Norse gods existed way, way before the Nazis. Tolkien even got annoyed at the Nazis for taking Norse myth for their purposes (as alluded to above). Not everyone interested in Norse myth is a Nazi, or even close.

#16 Comment By cka2nd On November 9, 2017 @ 3:09 am

“In fact, Jewish artists and writers created The Great Comic Book Heroes of the 1930s.”

And many of the heroes of the 1960’s, which is when Lee and Kirby created the FF, the Hulk, the X-men, the Avengers and Thor, himself. The fact that the author doesn’t even mention that the modern Marvel universe is based almost exclusively on heroes created in or since the 60’s makes this piece and its surmised link to the Nazis’ appropriation of the Norse gods especially confusing.

Now, there was a particularly good “Elseworlds” mini-series that DC put out about a Superman raised not in Kansas but in Stalin’s USSR called “Superman: Red Son,” but that’s another story.

#17 Comment By grumpy realist On November 9, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

I get the sneaky feeling the author has been learning his history–particularly his Nazi history–from sites that cater to the alt-right mindset. The Nazis simply ran across something that German culture already considered part of its background and decided to make use of it.

You might as well get mad at modern opera houses for putting on Wagner’s Ring simply because Hitler loved attending opera at Beyreuth. (Yeah, Wagner was an anti-Semite himself. But he did write some sublime music.)

#18 Comment By redfish On November 9, 2017 @ 8:31 pm

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…

An exaggeration to put it that way, isn’t it ?

Men like Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant had their place in 1920s-1930s America, but they weren’t uncontroversial. Hence, the article in The Atlantic states, “Even in 1925, when it was originally published, painting someone as a white supremacist was effective rhetorical character assassination.” The bigger problem of the time their beliefs overlapped with other accepted, but not as extreme views of race and eugenics, and people who were more moderate tolerated them. So, as an example, one could talk about Theodore Roosevelt’s friendship with Madison Grant. Yet Roosevelt’s views on these things were not so simple, as evidenced by the fact that he ended segregation in New York State schools, among other things. Still, a lot of people will tend to confuse together all sorts of conservative views on race and eugenics at the time, to suggest that even men like Roosevelt would be eager to join the Nazis. However just or not this is, its not really helpful to understanding history.

Maybe your point was that only on some points if not others there were parallels… I’d still say that your rather loose comparison fits into the same trap.

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 10, 2017 @ 11:02 am

I guess if Clark Kent had been raised by a family of committed Nazis, he would in fact be a Nazi Superman. But then he would be operating in a vastly different world as would comic book readers today.

In other words, it very simple to figure out that Clark Kent would be a disguised superman villain.

It might be interesting to find some comic books in Nazi Germany to read what they were funneling as ethics and ideal human traits for kids, but then they did such a fine job that maybe comics weren’t considered.

But this article a noted by others lacks some clear frame. And like the movie, I have not seen and have no intention of seeing, the Death of Superman, the only way they could jump to such nonsense is to deconstruct the frames that exist. And they miss the scope and breadth of comic book writers who astutely created super villains Nazis and all to address the question.

Norse god’s were part of German lore. Thor as Nazi icon works best and make sense. He was a god whose exploits were largely physical. He was the god of a people who believed in their superiority and deep loyalties to their clan and their land. He was the god of a people who thought nothing of plunder in order to gain power wealth and position. Turning him into a 1960’s anti-Nazi crusader is turning him on his head. He it worked in the 1960’s world world.

#20 Comment By SFG On November 12, 2017 @ 10:06 am

“Maybe your point was that only on some points if not others there were parallels… I’d still say that your rather loose comparison fits into the same trap.”

Yeah, I missed the part where 1930s America invaded Canada and Mexico and turned black people into soap. I mean, we had our problems, but there are real differences here.

Also, I’m a little sick of the whole thing where because of the Nazis, all two thousand years of German history and myth becomes suspect and corrupt. I mean, the Nazis invented the VW, the Bug was still popular for a while and there was nothing fascist about its fans in the 1960s. Norse myth doesn’t even belong only to Germany, the Nordics also founded all the Scandinavian countries.

#21 Comment By connecticut farmer On November 13, 2017 @ 1:41 pm

I wonder what religious beliefs these Jewish “Creators of Superheros” embraced, if any. Even money has it that they probably had none, not an uncommon phenomenon among Jews who abandoned the God of Abraham and Moses in favor of Marxism, scientific socialism or…in this case Superman, Batman etc. Now we have “Thor”-who was a lesser god among the Nordic pantheon. Odin-“Wotan” in Teutonic myth-was the King of the gods, depicted by Wagner as weak and wracked by self-doubt. Some hero, eh? In pre-1930s America the heroes were Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, the mythical Natty Bumppo/”Hawkeye” (the latter being the stereotypical “frontiersman”).

As the title of the old Statler Brothers song has it “Where Have You Gone, Randolph Scott?” Indeed.

#22 Comment By Veritatus On November 20, 2017 @ 10:16 pm

I couldn’t even read this article after reading the title. Only a low-brow, wannabe-intellectual would call the gods of Norse mythology “Nazi comic book heroes”….pathetic. Thor predates Hitler by at least a millenia or more. Identity politics are poluting Western culture. I expected more from the American Conservative.