What’s in a Name?

Posted: April 25, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Adolf.  What an evocative name. The name itself is almost a taboo.  I feel dirty writing it. It is not used in polite company. At a time when ‘old-fashioned’ names are making a comeback, Adolf is an antiquated name that doesn’t have much hope.   It is marred by darkness, hatred and murder.  Of course, the surname we associate with it is Hitler; our next thought is Nazism; lastly, the Holocaust.

A boy named Adolf.

Why has Adolf retained such a negative aura 70 years after the end of the war that he began?  Other members of the Nazi party who were just as guilty don’t have first names that live in infamy.  If you wanted to name your child Heinrich, not many people would instantly think of Himmler. What about Hermann? Our minds don’t automatically race to Goering.  Well, you may say, Hitler was the face of the Nazi party, and, hence, the face of murder. But, what about Josef (Joseph) or Vladimir?  If you met little boys by those names, most wouldn’t think of Stalin (who killed more people than Hitler) or Lenin.   So, why is Adolf so different? Why can there only be one Adolf?

First of all, the name is still ‘owned’ by white supremacists, and has never been ‘appropriated’ by rational folks. This was shown tragically in 2007, when two white supremacist parents living in New Jersey named their child Adolf Hitler Campbell.  I write ‘tragically’ because it is easy to foresee that child being brainwashed into a world of hatred and violence.  The government of New Jersey agreed with this assessment, and took the young boy away from his parents in 2011.  Though the state’s reasoning was based upon more than simply the name he was given, the moniker was obviously a frightening omen.

Second, the period and ideology we associate with Adolf is still fresh in our historical memory.  This is a good thing. The fact that Adolf is a name off-limits illustrates that people appreciate the evil of genocide and the Holocaust.  Americans are notorious for forgetting things that happened 7 years ago, much less 70, but the horror that Adolf represents is understood as being something that we can never allow again.

This seems all well and good, but perhaps there is a danger here.  Adolf as the symbol for the evil of Nazi Germany distorts and simplifies our understanding of history.  Adolf was not a one man wrecking crew who made some nasty speeches, barked orders, and physically forced Europeans to kill 10-12 million innocents.  His were not the only hands covered with blood.  The attempt to make him into the devil incarnate has actually been utilized by Europeans for decades to separate themselves from what happened in Nazi Germany.  The reason: Making Hitler the lone evil exculpates millions who were also guilty, and hence, buries the most important lesson to be learned from the Holocaust. The moral horror of the Holocaust was not simply Hitler’s ideas; it was that millions of ‘good’ Germans, and ‘ordinary’ Europeans saw little reason to fight against them.  Depressingly large numbers of people idly stood by, pulled levers, pushed buttons, and signed papers that fired the engines of mass death. When apathy and acceptance was the response to Nazi ideas and policies, Adolf had won a significant victory.  By avoiding his name for 70 years, people have tried to make sure Adolf didn’t win the war.

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Comments
  1. PG says:

    Great Post!

    I’m now trying to think of any other names that have been cast into negativity. Adolf is the best example, but there have to be others that suffered a similar fate, if even to a lesser degree.

    Fidel?
    Cain?
    Lucifer?
    Madonna? (Well, after he Super Bowl performance, at least….)

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