There’s a reason you’ve never heard anyone call Vladimir Putin a Nazi.
Putin orchestrates many a frightening thing in order to keep Russia in his power. He poisons opponents who threaten his leadership. He kills journalists who report on his crimes in order to better control the flow of information that reaches the Russian people. He oppresses queer people to endangering levels, which some argue is a strategy to distract the Russian population from its economic woes. His acts of intimidation even spread to his relations with other countries, such as when he brought his dog into a meeting with Germany’s Prime Minister Angela Merkel while knowing she had a phobia of dogs.
Putin is a fascist—the leader of a country who seeks to control the people of said country and eliminate opponents in order to further his power and ambitions.
But he’s not a Nazi.
Some Americans may initially find this difficult to comprehend because the concept of fascism is often introduced to us in our World War II history class units in tandem with the Nazi Socialist Germany Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei). In that same unit, we learn of the Nazis’ war crimes—how they rounded up groups of people, including Jews, Romani people, disabled people, gay people, and more; how they forced them to wear badges to mark their identities to the outside world to leave them open to violence; how they sequestered and starved them in ghettos; how they were worked to death, if not outright executed, in various ways in internment camps. They did all this with the goal in mind of wiping the people they deemed “unclean” from the human race.
Yes, the Nazis were also fascists. But fascism is a broader ideology that maintains one person in power over a larger population and contains a kind of political philosophy. Naziism is a fascistic as well as a white supremacist ideology and it is not the sole faction of either of those groups.
Why am I making these distinctions? For a very important reason.
Comics Discourse, you see, is confused.
Last year, Marvel Comics’ “Captain America: Secret Empire” event, as produced by the creative team writer Nick Spencer and artist Steve McNiven, came out with its twist: Captain America was part of Hydra all along. If you haven’t read Captain America or seen any of the character’s big budget films, Hydra is indisputably Marvel Comics’ version of Nazis. They were created by Jewish WWII veterans Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, with the Red Skull as an Adolf Hitler stand-in. Hydra’s iconography is heavily influenced by Nazi visuals. They seek to destroy Americans and spread their hatred-filled philosophy. Their stories invoke real Nazi war crimes, such as in “Secret Empire” where Hydra Captain America sends other characters to internment camps.
Because the people who currently run Marvel Comics have the sensitivity of wild boars, they chose to do this while actual Naziism is on the rise in America. In fact, many American Nazis were spotted wearing Hydra t-shirts at the recent Charlottesville rally.
This choice outraged readers and filmgoers across the country, especially Jews, for several important reasons. It bastardized an icon of American goodness and pride that many Americans felt they needed during a time when Donald Trump (who has sided with Nazis and has made very fascistic moves since his election) was on the rise. It perverted a Jewish American creation and turned it into the very type of monster they fought so valiantly against both on and off American shores. Also, the implication that the real Captain America was now a Nazi and the inevitable conclusion that he will be reverted back to “normal” ignores the reality that you can’t just turn Naziism in a person on and off.
Marvel has included background info and visuals insisting that Hydra aren’t Nazis, despite all evidence to the contrary. They also to this day have allowed Spencer to go unsupervised on Twitter, attacking and arguing with people who disagreed with his creative choices and demanding it be acknowledged that these people are oppressing him—a laughable claim if you have ever experienced oppression.
Within this environment of unprofessional behavior and high tensions, main competitor DC Comics made their own announcement. With a creative team of writer Kyle Higgins and artist Trevor McCarthy, they are releasing a new series called Nightwing: New Order. It’s an alternative universe story about Dick Grayson, Romani protege of Batman, hunting superheroes in a world where superpowers have been outlawed. In itself, the storyline isn’t remarkable because smarter writers have worked on books with much heavier dictatorial aspects the past 20+ years. But since fascism is such a hot-button issue, many reacted negatively.
Here’s where well-intentioned, but inaccurate equivocating of Naziism and fascism comes in. “Dick Grayson is Romani,” I have heard repeatedly. “Someone who’s Romani wouldn’t become a fascist!”
Being Romani, one of the groups that the Nazis targeted, probably stops you from wanting to be a Nazi. It does not, however, stop you from potentially becoming a fascist if you both wanted it and were in the position to have it. Being Jewish does not stop you. Being queer doesn’t stop you. Systematic genocide to “clean the human race” is one thing. To kill off opposition due to grudge or them being an obstacle is another thing. One is offensive to certain groups of people, those deemed “unclean.” The other in all its broadness and how it always targets individuals, but not always groups, is not.
Funnily enough, this has become a sizeable debate while Nightwing in New Order actually does neither. In the beginning of the book, he assures all the superheroes he severely injured that medical attention is on its way. Later, he runs a government task force that involves him chemically castrating other superheroes, something far more comparable to early 20th century homophobia than anything that connects to a fascistic system (Alan Turing, after all, was castrated by a democracy). And while Nightwing may hold press conferences, he doesn’t use misinformation in order to sway the general public.
In fact, the government that Nightwing works under in New Order isn’t fascistic at all. There’s no mention of control, if any, it exerts over the general population nor is there a fervent nationalist element to the book. The covers that inflamed comics discourse are the only provocative piece of the series and they seem terribly misplaced on a book so tame and nonpolitical. The only difference between this story and the main DCU is that this version of Nightwing disables—not even kills—superheroes, while his main iteration does not.
That’s right; Nightwing of New Order #1 isn’t even a fascist despite the debate that’s occurring. In addition, unlike “Secret Empire”’s Captain America, Nightwing is not a white supremacist and “New Order” doesn’t tap into a fictional white supremacist group in the DC universe. The events that happen in the book can hardly be deemed offensive because all of its “edgiest” elements—such as putting superheroes into stasis—do not have direct comparisons to real life oppression the way Hydra is a direct fictional allegory for Nazis. It also doesn’t cash in on real life oppression in order to give itself undeserved gravitas.
If Nightwing was based off of a particular fascist like Putin, the distress from comics commenters may be better understood. If a beloved hero suddenly was suggested to be a violent queerphobe who was ultimately promised to be redeemed or turned back to a hero once again, that would reflect rather terribly on DC’s choices as a company the way the turning of Captain America into a fictional Nazi, in particular, has reflected on Marvel. Again, when dealing with a broad ideology like fascism, it’s all about specifics.
While all Americans learn about WWII and the Holocaust in history class, Jewish Americans receive a deeper education outside of it. We carry the survivors’ tales in our hearts, their strength in our bones, and their memory by our sides. Such arguments as the one about Nightwing: New Order obfuscate what we are constantly warning other American groups about: anti-Semitism always existed in America. It was here when the Nazis controlled Germany and it has remained all these years. It grows and thrives, particularly in hubs on the internet in our current era. To argue that we need to speak out about a book that doesn’t call back to real hate or war crimes and ultimately says nothing is to waste time and space that should be granted to fighting against books like “Secret Empire” that exploit such elements.
We need to be careful and cannot potentially discredit important discourse in media by reacting to general terms as if they’re personal strikes. We also need to re-examine ourselves before making assumptions about human nature. “Dick Grayson can’t be a fascist because he’s Romani,” is really not too far off from something like, “They’re queer so they can’t hate people of color.” Do not think that someone’s opinion of one group cannot be warped just because they come from another group that has been oppressed. There’s a reason why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeated conspiracy theories that Muslims caused the Holocaust, why the gay male app Grindr is full of racism, and why American immigrant groups have expressed anti-black attitudes. None of us are exempt from prejudice and oppressing others.
Nightwing: New Order #1 isn’t original or boundary-pushing enough to earn your ire. So maybe let’s take a deep breath and focus on what’s important: speaking out against white supremacy and punching real life Nazis.