Today’s post is written by faculty member Dr. Kobi Kabalek:
Nazi zombies have been haunting me in the last few years. I feel repulsed by them, yet somehow also attracted to them. Do I like them? I wouldn’t say so. But in one way or another I feel connected to them. On the one hand they seem so remote from me, from my values, behavior, and experience of this world. But on the other hand, I cannot deny that they and we share so much and perhaps also explain each other. Some people might argue that my interest in them derives from a sick obsession with fictional gore and historical mass murder. A part of this assessment is probably correct. Yet I believe that Nazi zombies also help raise and reconsider some curious thoughts about Holocaust-related topics and that my passion for them is not located only in the flesh, but also in the mind.
For me, Nazi zombies mark a peak of negative imagination. In this function they have appeared in a few versions of the popular video games Call of Duty and Wolfenstein, a medium in which new kinds of scary monsters and super creeps are always in need.
Nazi zombies are well suited to act as monsters in violent video games for various reasons. Firstly, they combine easily identifiable features (such as the zombie walk) with familiar symbols (the swastika and the red-white-black flag), and the “fact” that one needs very specific shots (to the head, of course) to destroy them gives these enemies characteristic strengths and weaknesses that players must overcome. The second advantage that Nazi zombies offer this medium is the view that endows them with a double inhumanity. Both as flesh-eating rotting corpses and as cruel disciplined Nazis, they are presented to us as creatures with no free will, no moral judgment, and no compassion. This enhanced inhumanity of Nazi zombies (a part of which is made explicit in the games, while another draws on our assumed stereotypes) allows gamers to enjoy tearing up the limbs, blowing up the heads, and splattering the blood of these human-like beings without any scruples. In them there is no “risk” of affectionate identification that would hinder an efficient bloodbath. We do not question their motivation, morality, and ideology – issues so central to the study of perpetrators in the Holocaust – because they are no individuals but rather mere types, hollow shells, radical categories. What more can one ask for?
The disturbing aspect I see in of all of this lies in our dehumanization of these enemies based on an assumed dehumanization practiced by them. That is, we relieve ourselves from moral concerns since we assume that our foes do not subscribe to any morality. In doing so, we come dangerously close to turning into Nazi zombies ourselves. We become slaughtering perpetrators just like them, while we are sitting on a comfortable couch with nachos and coke. The video game framework and the Nazi zombies as figures provide extreme articulations of tendencies we see in a variety of media, both informative (news) and popular (films, comics, literature). Whether these media inspire us to treat all perceived threats (on the personal or national level) as necessitating violent destruction is something that scholars are divided upon. Some argue that by letting us enjoy a good butchering, violent games and films allow us to vent dangerous tendencies, while others fear that the thrill and logic of fictionalized violence will eventually express itself in violent actions. As for me, I think it would do us good to place ourselves every now and then in the position of the excited perpetrator, rather than feel all the time as if we are righteous victims or innocent defenders. But in doing so we should make sure that it is only a game.
The second facet of my preoccupation with Nazi zombies goes beyond questions of morality to issues of memory. To some extent, as living dead, zombies raise concerns traditionally associated with ghosts. Haunting the living, ghosts point to the continuous relevance of unsettled affairs and are used to arouse guilt regarding unjust deaths from the past. In an upcoming article, Zuzanna Dziuban shows, for instance, that recent Polish depictions of Jewish ghosts, as in Igor Ostachowitz’s novel Night of the Living Jews (2012), aim to promote internal social discussions and offer critical standpoints in matters of Polish-Jewish history. While depictions of “regular” zombies do not necessarily address issues of memory, their coupling with Nazis almost automatically does. Thus the Norwegian horror comedy Dead Snow (2009) portrays a group of students who travel to the mountains and encounter there a unit of ruthless SS-men that escaped there during the war and somehow froze/turned to flesh-eating zombies. The film can be seen as offering a “second chance” for Norwegians to slay and even get rid of the former Nazi occupiers – something that “back then” succeeded due to Germany’s capitulation rather than Norwegian resistance. In this sense, the film fulfills a fantasy of revenge, similar to Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, and functions as a way to imagine settling an open historical score while also having fun with a chainsaw.
The figure of the zombie itself can be said to embody memories of various aspects of WWII and the Holocaust. The modern zombie first appeared in George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and seems to have drawn (consciously or not) on images of mutilated corpses from 20th century’s wars (Vietnam, WWII, etc.) and the emaciated Muselmann in the Nazi camps, who existed on the border between life and death. Unlike ghosts, which are often depicted as shadows of the past, zombies are characterized by their continuing, yet rotting, corporality. Their decaying bodies carry visible marks of the violence they had endured and can be said to act as walking monuments of atrocity. Yet zombies are not victims one can truly embrace. In addition to their repellent exterior, beastly growls, and hollow gazes, which brand them as non-human, shortly after their death they transform into ravenous cannibals. Thus an inversion takes place, in which the victims of collective violence become perpetrators and threaten the existence of the entire human race. In order to avoid this inversion and the resulting conflation of categories, Nazi zombie films usually prefer not to expand on the violence that caused the death of Nazis. Conversely, in order not to describe camp inmates eating human flesh and thus potentially question their morality, as far as I can tell there are no portrayals of Holocaust victims as zombies. Nevertheless, since the comic book The Crow: Skinning of the Wolves (2013) comes rather close to such a depiction, camp inmates zombies might be just around the corner.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/