Is there such a thing as a hot Nazi? Yes. I saw one in Prague. It became a question of humanity.
I spent the weekend in Prague with my friend Mel. We love walks, warm food, and deep conversations that evolve as one approaches the bottom of a deep glass of beer.
That’s the story of our friendship, of our weekend. We Czech’d out Prague’s historical footprints and used the word “Czech” in a glib way only we found humorous.
On Sunday, we sought a café The New York Times said was “worth the walk for its hipster coffee and smug trendiness.” (I paraphrase.)
The walk was long and involved dangerous highway crossing. It was cold. We were hung over. We started arguing about leisure and hard work. We were opinionated but ill-informed. The fight was as productive as our quest for coffee.
“Friend?” (Mel calls me “friend” because she’s forgotten my name.) “Friend, is this our first fight?”
I nodded. “You can’t say that a month of vacation is better for an entire economic system without backing it up with facts.”
“I didn’t realize I needed to bring facts to a discussion about my opinions.”
“When it’s a bad opinion, you do.”
Back and forth. As if it mattered. As if either of us faced a surfeit of work in our jour. We were making our way through Prague’s forgotten buildings and random lots—vestiges (we imagined) of the Cold War. It reminded me of Detroit.
Walking and talking, we turned a corner, and there he was.
A young man, black uniform, standing on the sidewalk as casually as someone waiting for a dog or noticing a particular tree. A young man standing casually, with a swastika on his arm.
My breath caught, then expanded into a loud whisper. “Are you fucking kidding me? Mel, look.”
“Friend, why are you whispering?”
I grabbed her arm. She saw the guy. Then his armband. “Are you fucking kidding me?” she responded.
What is the appropriate response to seeing a Nazi on a Prague street in 2015?
With the coordination of three-legged race contestants, we tripped behind a nearby car and tried to reconstruct the shrapnel that had been our brains five seconds earlier.
The power of this thing and the fear. It was real, it was here. I wanted to return to my Nazi-free world, to backtrack around the corner and fight about surfeits of leisure.
And yet, I acquiesced to a biting desire to walk towards the danger. We had to report it. To the police? The U.N.? Who does one tell about the resurgence of Nazi culture in the part of Prague that resembles Detroit? The New York Times, obviously.
We slowly walked on the other side of the street, on the lookout for Nazi swarms. We imagined they swarmed, like stuff of nightmares. We saw camper vans—crappy ones with crud on windows and wheels missing. Portable toilets. A few glum tents.
It was a Nazi camp. In Prague. They were going to kills us. No, we’re Aryan-looking. We’ll be fine. Mel has curly blond hair that looks like she should be cast as “The Sun” on Broadway. I actually am German. Are we finding strength in our Aryan-ness? Are we being racist? Does danger expose our racism? We need to shut up and watch for swarms.
Then, oddly, halfway down the street, in an effort to normalize our fear—and because I’m a human who is massively imperfect—I say; “Mel, was it just me, or was that Nazi really good-looking?”
“He was super hot.”
“I don’t feel good about myself right now.”
She didn’t feel good about herself either. But the Nazi was good-looking. Movie-star good-looking. Then suddenly, another Nazi showed up. He was also really good-looking. And in a black uniform with the armband.
What the hell? These Nazis. So brazen. Public. Young. Retro? And . . . hot?
“Friend? Friend. . . I think there is a good reason for this.”
I concurred. “We’ve stumbled on to a Nazi camp, they are coming back into society. This is the Prague they don’t tell you about, but they won’t kill us because we are Aryan, and we have to get out of here and call The New York Times.”
“Or . . . or, Friend, it could be a movie set.”
Mel has quite a gentle voice, which, if she hadn’t gone to school in the South, would sound patronizing, but patronizing isn’t her vibe, even if it’s her tone. She used this tone now, in the gentlest way. As if the hope and the idea were so fragile, she could but mention it and it would die.
But, it wasn’t a fragile idea. Because of course it was a movie set. What the hell was wrong with us?
“Of course it’s a fucking movie set. What the hell is wrong with us?” I said.
Then we saw them. People everywhere. In throwback tweed. Homburgs. Horn-rimmed glasses. Old Studebakers. Half-calf skirts, rolled hair. A parking sign that had the word “FILM” on it. Even a catering truck.
I’m a somewhat loud person, normally, can be. Mel is even louder. At this precise moment, surrounded by a swarm of actors, we broke through the limits of our volume in the most barrel-chested laughs that have ever risen from the depths of ladies’ abdomens. The actor/Nazi looked at us. We stopped laughing. Film or not, it was still a Nazi uniform wearing a man.
The power of this thing, and the fear.
We got out of there. Joked how stupid we’d been. In a couple blocks, we started seeing skateboards, tear-inducing tight jeans, and man-buns. Safe Prague. Nazism can’t coexist in a neighborhood where man-buns thrive.
What is the appropriate response to seeing a hot Nazi on a Prague street in 2015?
We noticed he was hot. That was our response. Which begs the question: did we notice he was hot before or after we noticed the swastika? I.e., did we see him as a human (normal man) or a Nazi (horrible man)?
And what is the correct order?
We enriched the discussion by considering the most good-looking Nazi we could think of: Rolfe from The Sound of Music. Rolfe was 17, musical, in love, and ended up being a Nazi soldier. What moment did he lose his humanity? I said when he blew the whistle on the von Trapps, the captain reaching out, pleading.
Mel said, no, Rolfe was brainwashed, he could have been saved if only Liesl had reached out instead of the captain. Love would have triumphed. Possibly. But at what cost? Little Kurt, Gretel? What would have happened to them?
Needless to say, the Rolfe discussion didn’t do much more than illuminate how romanticized The Sound of Music was.
So. . . what is the appropriate response to seeing a hot Nazi on a Prague street in 2015?
And let’s say we saw this guy as human (normal man) first, then we saw the swastika. Even if we know he was an actor in a film, does that fear go away? How powerful is the Nazi symbol?
We grilled each other:
Would you wear a Nazi uniform in a movie if it meant being in a movie?
What if Paul Newman was in the movie, would you do it with Paul Newman?
What if a man wearing a Nazi uniform in a movie offered you a rose, would you take it?
What if he was wearing a Nazi uniform for a movie, then changed into regular clothes, could you sit down and have dinner? How many courses? Would you let him pay?
What if he wasn’t wearing a uniform but had a sign saying “I’m a Nazi,” would you feel as scared?
We had few answers. Then for some reason, I asked, just to make sure; “We can’t take a photo of this and post it, can we?”
“Friend, no. No. Definitely not. Nazis aren’t funny.”
“Mel Brooks made them funny.”
“Mel Brooks is Jewish.”
“Everyone knows he’s not supporting Nazi culture, not even a little bit. So he can do it.”
“Are you saying if I posted a photo of a Nazi, even if I called him out as an actor, I might be promoting Nazi culture?”
“You never know what people might think. Don’t do it.”
I thought she was right. Didn’t stop me from writing a post and putting the word “Nazi” in the title. But photo, no. I will not post a photo of a Nazi. I can’t.
After that, it got uncomfortable. The discussion. We confronted our ugliness, biases, limitations. How we thought about who we were, people in our life, the nature of friendship and love.
There were confessions, tears. At some point, beer was introduced to the summit.
Around midnight, I admitted that as a German, sure, I’ve wondered what I’d have done had I been in Germany back then. Kill Nazis? Try to love them? Leave Germany? Join them? How many of us who live in a Nazi-free world have ever had to answer this?
Do all German descendants think this way? Or is it just me. . .
Our world is Nazi-free, at least our sight-lines. We make one-off contributions at the frontline against Nazi-like atrocities and then zip back into our Nazi-free-back-office-first-world-countries, so we can ostensibly scale our work to make more frontline impact while keeping ourselves safe and Nazi-free.
Are we losing our humanity in the process? Today, we saw the enemy, in our sight-line. And what did we do? We noticed he was good-looking. And we were frightened. Would that have been enough to save Kurt and Gretel?
I can’t answer what I would have done in the 1930s. Fortunately, Mel couldn’t either, and we lay next to each other in the vacuous moral pit we had just been pushed into.
Mel left for the airport a few hours ago, back to D.C. I flew back to London. Safe worlds for people like us.
After she left, she sent me a text:
I think the measure of a strong friendship is:
a) Will this person be weird-ed out when I start crying at a bar?; and
b) Does this person also find Nazis frightening in this day and age?
You passed on both counts.
Your humanity is something you have to check, and by “check” I mean prod, poke, and slap around—lest it burns, rots, or fades from the tedium of conformity or excess of apathy.
I’m grateful to have a friend like Mel who was frightened seeing a Nazi on a Prague street in 2015 and used the experience to kick the shit out of my complacent humanity while I did the same to hers.
If that isn’t friendship, I don’t know what is.
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