Saturday, November 20, 2010

Hitler's Moustache

 (Click on the photos to enlarge).

My #1 son is currently taking part in Movember, a worldwide movement for the growing of moustaches during November to raise funds and awareness of men’s health, specifically prostate cancer and male depression. It is disconcerting to see my lad looking more and more like a Mexican bandit, making me want to take him to the barber and say, in my best Godfather voice, "I want you to use all your powers and all your skills. I don't want his mother to see him this way.”

The custom of our forefathers (and in this instance I can use gender specific language without being politically incorrect) was to have much more facial hair than males do today. Witness the old photos depicting gentlemen with sideburns, moustaches and beards, or various combinations of them, such as Australia’s first Federal Cabinet when Australia became a Federation in 1901. Edmund Barton is noticeable for his face being bare.

 
Hitler and Stalin effectively killed moustaches after 1945 but the resurgence of moustaches in November started me thinking about Hitler’s moustache: What would be the reaction if someone grew one today?  What is the history behind it?  How popular had it been before Hitler came to power?

The Hitler moustache, properly known as the toothbrush moustache, became popular in the 1920’s as a reaction against the flowing Kaiser style moustaches of the upper class. German soldiers also favoured the toothbrush moustache during both World Wars.

Hitler himself originally had a Kaiser moustache but was ordered to trim it during WW1 so as to ensure a tight fit for his gas mask in case of mustard gas attacks. Rich Cohen, who is referred to later in this post, makes the chillingly accurate observation that “…the mustache that defines Hitler was cut in a shape to fit a gas mask. Which is perfect. Because Hitler was the bastard son of the Great War, conceived in the trenches, born in defeat. He inhaled mustard gas and exhaled Zyklon B.”

Pictured below is Hitler with his original Kaiser moustache in 1914 and his later clipped version.


Although Hitler may have had his toothbrush earlier, it was Charlie Chaplin who brought it to public attention in the persona of his Little Tramp character:


Some historians believe that the public attitude toward Hitler was softened by reason of his similarity in appearance to the popular and much loved Little Tramp, with the result that Hitler was not taken seriously until it was too late.

According to Ron Rosenbaum:
"Chaplin's mustache became a lens through which to look at Hitler. A glass in which Hitler became merely Chaplinesque: a figure to be mocked more than feared, a comic villain whose pretensions would collapse of his own disproportionate weight like the Little Tramp collapsing on his cane. Someone to be ridiculed rather than resisted."
There is also speculation that Hitler deliberately trimmed his moustache to capitalise on the popularity of the Little Tramp which, if true, lends irony to their having been born 4 days apart (16 April 1889 for Chaplin and 20 April 1889 for Hitler), and that Chaplin later parodied Hitler in the film The Great Dictator.  Hitler put him on a death list for that.

Three years ago, in November 2007, writer Rich Cohen decided to try to reclaim the toothbrush moustache.
 
His article may be read at:
http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/11/cohen200711
and I unashamedly quote from it below..

Cohen is Jewish and sets out his reason in wanting to grow a toothbrush moustache
"I grew it for the same reason Richard Pryor said the word "nigger." I wanted to defuse it. I wanted to own it. I wanted to reclaim it for America and for the Jews. My name is Rich Cohen, and I wear a Hitler mustache."
He sums up the task he faced and the potent symbolism of the moustache:
The Toothbrush mustache is the most powerful configuration of facial hair the world has ever known. It overpowers whoever touches it. By merely doodling a Toothbrush mustache on a poster, you make a political statement. Actually wearing a Hitler mustache, as I planned to do—well, that is like yelling racial epithets in a crowded subway. Wasn't Hitler amazing? Whatever he touched turned to ice. His life ended the long and fabled career of the name Adolf, which had included the stories of Adolph Zukor, Adolphe Menjou, Adolph Ochs, and Adolph Coors. Never again will a pregnant mother innocently consider the name for her son, or imagine shouting it across a teeming playground. As for the Toothbrush mustache, it did not only die with the F├╝hrer—it was embalmed with him. It was his essence, and so it has been relegated to the black book of history.
The outcome is set out at the end of Cohen’s article:
I went out. In the street, some people looked at me, but most looked away. A few people said things after I passed. One man gave me a kind of Heil, but it was lackadaisical, and I am fairly certain he was being ironic. (People can be so mean!) Even friends said nothing until I asked, or else acted embarrassed for me. A woman said, "I think you were more handsome without the mustache." I had been worried someone might try to hurt me. I imagined toughs from the Jewish Defense League attacking with throwing stars—Jewish throwing stars! But it turns out, when you shave like Hitler, you follow the same rule you follow with bees: They're more scared of you than you are of them. Because either you really are Hitler, or you're a nut. So people do with little Hitlers what people always do with lunatics in New York, the harmless or dangerous—they ignore, they avert, they move away. If you want to fly coach without being hassled, grow a Toothbrush mustache.

I wore the mustache for about a week. It preceded me into stores and hung in the air after I exited. It sat on my face as I slept. I was Hitler in my dreams. I went to the Jewish Museum. I went to Zabar's. I went to the Met. I went to the modern wing. I said, "All of this art is decadent." I stood on the corner of 82nd and Fifth. I stared into space. When you stare into space with a Toothbrush mustache, you are glowering. You can't help it. You're looking into crowds. You're looking at the names on the census that end in "-berg" and "-stein" while thinking, How do we get all these Juden onto trains? But in the end, my project, in its broader aims, was a failure. Because no matter how long, or how casually, or how sarcastically I wore the mustache, it still belonged to Hitler. You cannot claim it, or own it, or clean it as a drug lord cleans money. Because it's too dirty. Because it's soaked up too much history. It's his, and, as far as I'm concerned, he can keep it. When you wear the Toothbrush mustache, you are wearing the worst story in the world right under your nose.

Rich Cohen with moustache

2 comments:

  1. British comedian did something similar - grew the tache to examine reactions, made a standup show about the experience:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Richard-Herring-Hitler-Moustache-DVD/dp/B003IVZRVK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1294401674&sr=8-1

    ReplyDelete
  2. British comedian did something similar - grew the tache to examine reactions, made a standup show about the experience:....
    http://www.z4site.com

    ReplyDelete