Thursday, January 06, 2005

Hogan’s Heroes and the Holocaust: The Association That Just Won’t Go Away

Hogan’s Heroes and the Holocaust: The Association That Just Won’t Go Away. A paper that explores the connection between the popular TV sitcom and the historical event. It is by Leslie Campbell Rampey, Ph.D.

From the site:

Barbed wire, guard towers, attack dogs, low-slung wooden huts, and pre-dawn roll-calls all are images from a collectively remembered past that remind us that during its twelve-year reign of terror the German Third Reich took many prisoners for many reasons -- from "asocials" to political antagonists to labor slaves to victims marked for genocide. For seven of those years, Germany was at war, which meant that prisoners-of-war also found a place among the burgeoning population of the Nazis’ inmates. Stories both fictional and non-fictional of all those classes of prisoners have been told in many ways innumerable times on both the large and small screens – from documentary films to feature-length movies to even television mini-series. Given the real life atrocities experienced by untold millions of those prisoners, one hardly could imagine that an appropriate format for one of those stories would be a weekly television situation comedy. Yet, the U.S. television sitcom Hogan’s Heroes tried to do just that – tell a story about some prisoners of the Third Reich, specifically Allied prisoners-of-war. For a dramatic vehicle that almost everyone agrees has nothing at all to do with the events that came to be collectively labeled as "the Holocaust," through the years the show has remained a curious flash point of perceptions about it. That Hogan’s Heroes is both confused and associated with events of the Holocaust is due in part to historical images that the show evokes and also to a number of extra-textual ironies that continue to swirl about its periphery.

Thirty-five years ago in 1965, just 20 years after the end of World War II, the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes premiered. In a genre not normally associated with controversy, at least not yet in those days, the show raised a firestorm from its very inception. Set in a luft stalag (prisoner-of-war camp run by the German air force) during World War II, the show’s premise elicited howls of protest because critics imagined that Nazism somehow was going to be depicted in an amusing light and thus that the dark realities of its genocidal atrocities would be trivialized. Even people who eventually benefited greatly from the highly-rated show’s long run and subsequent syndication had their initial doubts. CBS president William Paley found the idea "’reprehensible’" (Royce, 21); title lead actor Bob Crane was at first incredulous (Graysmith, 118); and co-star Werner Klemperer was "’totally stunned’" and thought the creators "’out of their minds’" (Royce, 82). These people, however, were intimately connected with the production of the show and grew comfortable with and confident in the premise, but among the general public unfavorable rumors abounded. Not only was there a general feeling that the lot of POWs was not humorous, as Brenda Scott Royce points out in her book about the show, but she further attributes the dismay to confusion of "prisoner-of-war camps with concentration camps, where millions of inmates were starved, treated inhumanely, and murdered" (xi-xii).

Only 20 years after the end of the war – and the end of the Holocaust – that was an understandable confusion. After all, as Tim Cole states, "It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that the nature of the Holocaust began to be grasped by both the academic community and the general public in the United States and Europe" (p. 2). Ten years earlier Alain Resnais in his documentary Night and Fog makes no distinctions between extermination camps and concentration camps, nor between the Nazis’ political prisoners and their victims marked for genocide. Little wonder then that in 1965 a U.S. general public who encountered Hogan’s Heroes -- replete with those images of the barbed wire, guard towers, and dogs -- might have thought the similarities to the newsreel footage of concentration camps and survivor testimony to be a little too close for comfort. One does have to wonder why the association with popular movies such as Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), both of which depicted POW camps, were not the associations generally made with Hogan’s Heroes. Apparently, however, it was the announced comedic treatment (although Stalag 17 did contain muted instances of black comedy) that caused the outcry and the subsequent confusion of Hogan’s Heroes’ POW camp setting with that of concentration/death camps.

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