The conundrum of the Heroic Nazi

The Original Cyberpunk defines heroism:

Heroes do not live to crush their enemies, see them driven before them, and hear the lamentations of their women. Any group of thugs can do that. Nazis and Klansmen do that.

I disagree twice over with the OC here. First, I see “heroic” as being more akin to “superhuman” than “self-sacrificing”. Any definition that would require stripping heroic status from Conan of Cimmeria, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hercules necessarily renders itself dubious in my eyes. Who is the greater hero, the man who leaps in front of a speeding train to push a woman out of its way and is then run over, or the man who leaps in front of that same train and stops it in its tracks? The sacrifice of the first example is obviously much greater, but the latter example exhibits the greater hero.

And while it is customary to regard the Nazis and Klansmen as thugs and strutting bullies, this isn’t a particularly accurate picture. The Klan was never in a position of power, not even during its brief heyday in its second 1920s incarnation, and in its initial form it was primarily a violent resistance to a victorious occupying force. Thus, it was reasonably regarded as heroic by occupied Southerners in much the same way that Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organization are considered to be heroes in most of the Arab world.

Ironically, the Nazis fit the OC’s definition of heroes disturbingly well. They were outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded on every side by powerful enemies and through the combination of national desperation and the force of one man’s will, managed to overthrow a weak and corrupt government and wrest the strangling hands of the vengeful Western Powers from Germany’s throat. Indeed, it was primarily their heroic qualities that caused Winston Churchill to recognize early the danger they would pose to a far more powerful France and England.

The OC writes: “The essential quality of heroism, I think, is that of being worried, concerned, even brown-shorts scared, but still being willing to put your life on the line and do something that desperately needs to be done….”

In “The Last Lion”, William Manchester’s biography of Churchill, the author quotes several Nazi generals as well as Adolf Hitler on the occasions of the rearming of the Rhine Valley, the Austrian Anschluss and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. What is intriguing is the naked fear he reveals on the part of the Germans, who knew very well that they had no ability to resist any military reaction on the part of the Western Powers and yet risked it all anyhow on behalf of their New Order.

On October 14, 1933, without warning, he [Hitler] made three announcemnts. The important one was that Germany was withdrawing from both the disarmament conference and the League of Nations…. Hitler added that if the league attempted to impose sanctions [which in German implies armed invasion] his new minister of defense, General Werner von Blomberg, would order German troops to fight. Blomberg did in fact instruct his soldiers to man the Reich’s frontiers and “hold out as long as possible.” However, as he and his fellow officers were well aware, that wouldn’t be long. Serious German resistance was impossible, and they were horrified. – p. 120

One need not harbor any liking for the mad National Socialist vision of pagan Teutonic revival and European rule, (and despite what the Gay Mustachio insists, I don’t, I actively despise even the pale imitation of the Third Reich known as the European Union), to recognize that there was a reason for their massive popularity both inside and outside Germany during their rise. Indeed, to deny their heroic aspects and dismiss them as mere thugs would not only be to miss the point of their historical appeal, but to deny the heroism of those who defeated them as well.

The question really comes down to this: can a hero be evil? I say yes, whereas the OC’s definition would appear to preclude that.