Rod Serling and the Nazis (Rockwell Month)

The Twilight Zone was a sci-fi show that ran from 1959-1964. Episodes tell a self-contained story with a twist that handle ideas of philosophy and human nature. There were other, later takes on it, but that’s the original, created by Rod Serling. Rod Serling was a Jewish American who enlisted in the US Army during the Second World War explicitly to fight Hitler. He got assigned to the Japanese theater instead. I think that is essential knowledge to properly understand the stories he chooses to tell and the way he chooses to tell them. Some, like Deaths-Head Revisited, in which an SS officer returns to Dachau for some nostalgia and gets trapped by the ghosts there and driven insane are a little more so, but there’s barely an episode he wrote that its entirely absent from. We’ll be talking about a similarly obvious episode

Last week we talked about George Lincoln Rockwell, the first neo-nazi and also an American, active during the time of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling wrote an episode about an American Fuehrer wannabe, titled He’s Alive. As we’re…god help us…doing a George Lincoln Rockwell month, I thought it’d be worth talking about He’s Alive. Let’s start with a dry description of the events, then we can dig into them.

The Plot

Peter Vollmer holds a fascist rally on the streets of New York. He’s heckled by a group of working class communists. A brawl breaks out and the communists beat up the fascists, but flee when the cops arrive. Vollmer returns to the house of Ernst Ganz, an elderly Jewish man he views as a father figure. Ganz pours him a glass of wine that he drains, to Ganz’s frustration. Ganz listens to Vollmer’s woes, but as a survivor of Dachau, isn’t thrilled with Vollmer. Vollmer sobs that he views Ganz as a father since Ganz was kind whilst Vollmer’s father beat him and his mother was too drunk and pilled up to realise he existed. Ganz sighs and lets Vollmer crash.

During the night, a shadowy figure in an Austrian accent advises Vollmer on how to talk. Vollmer becomes more successful. He’s drawing large crowds, but can’t afford to keep up rent on the hall. Shadow Austrian provides the funds and suggests the movement needs a martyr. Vollmer volunteers his best friend, who is killed and made to look like an anti-fascist did it. The movement blooms. Ganz, worried that Vollmer might have the power to start another holocaust, interrupts a rally, climbing onto the stage to chastise Vollmer. Vollmer strikes him in the face, but ultimately crumbles before his father figure, in full view of the stormtroopers and rally crowd who, visibly deflated, difuse.

Only Vollmer and Shadow Man Austria Voice remain. SMAV reveals himself to be Adolf Hitler to the shock of Vollmer, no-one else. Hitler orders Vollmer to go and kill Ganz, which he does. He returns to the hall, where the police arrive to arrest him for conspiracy in the earlier murder of his fellow fascist. Vollmer flees and a firefight breaks out, in which Vollmer is killed. The shadowy figure stalks away to the words of one of Serling’s best ending narrations:

Where will he go next, this phantom from another time, this resurrected ghost of a previous nightmare – Chicago? Los Angeles? Miami, Florida? Vincennes, Indiana? Syracuse, New York? Anyplace, everyplace, where there’s hate, where there’s prejudice, where there’s bigotry. He’s alive. He’s alive so long as these evils exist. Remember that when he comes to your town. Remember it when you hear his voice speaking out through others. Remember it when you hear a name called, a minority attacked, any blind, unreasoning assault on a people or any human being. He’s alive because through these things we keep him alive.

Talking About The Episode

Aside from a narration that brings chills to me just reading it, what’s going on here? There’s a few minor things that I like a lot and want to mention. That the crowd is not disgusted and turned off by the holocaust survivor telling them where this leads. They’re turned off when the leader appears weak. That feels very true and very chilling.

In other things I liked, we’re in the late days of the Hays Code, a law on morality in film and television. It is on its way out, but still technically in force. The police have to be good guys under the code. Serling was always sceptical of police, saying in the wake of police violence against protesters that he’d much rather his children be protesters than cops. The cops get to be the good guy heroes who win in this, like the law dictates, but note they come after him for killing a fascist, not a jew. Another little jab of Serling’s is the wine that Vollmer drinks like a real piece of shit. There’s a number of anecdotes about Hitler having no idea what to do with a glass of wine, in one famous instance adding sugar to his wine to the shock of his host. That mirroring’s a nice little jab across the jaw by Serling.

The Movement Needs A Martyr

So, let’s talk about this, because it’s a reference to the killing of Horst Wessel. Horst Wessel was a low ranking stormtrooper during the rise of the Nazi Party – a local figure, but not a regional one. Here’s what we know about his killing: he was late on his rent. His landlady didn’t like that, nor that he’d taken a local sex worker for a girlfriend and that she was living with him. She goes to a local communist bar and hires a couple of street fighters to go intimidate him. They don’t really bite until she says his name, then they’re interested. They go to his apartment and he dies of a gunshot wound. It might have been a struggle, that they intended to beat him up, but he drew a gun and got shot. They might have turned up intending to shoot him to death.

Either way, he becomes a martyr. The press is shocked by this dreadful ideological murder. (Never mind all the killings of communists by Nazis, ho hum). The party turns him into a propaganda tool. His funeral is a huge event. A poem he wrote is put to song and becomes the anthem of the party. In life, he was a cog. By dying, he became a huge part of taking the Nazis to power. A lot of things had to happen for Hitler to take power. It is a childish and insulting view of history to say that the holocaust happened because Horst was late on his rent. At the same time, if you’re telling the story of how Hitler came to power and hence how the holocaust happened and you don’t mention Horst being late on his rent, you have not told the story properly.

Pay your fucking rent, Horst!

Ahem. That felt dirty, advocating on behalf of a property owner getting their rent. Let’s wash the taste from our collective mouth. You and me share a mouth now. I’m so sorry for how much I smoke. I never add sugar to wine though, I’m not some kind of Hitler.

So the details of the death are legitimately murky. We know what brought the two men to his apartment, we don’t know what happened in there. It is generally depicted in media, even media I really like, like Babylon Berlin or Jason Lutes’s excellent Berlin as a straight-up hit.

I like both these works, I think they do brilliant jobs depicting the rise of the Nazi party and the political and social atmosphere of Weimar Berlin. It may have been a hit. It is murky and I’m not fully comfortable with them telling the Nazi version of the story as gospel. I feel like you should tell the murkiness.

There’s almost nothing suggesting that the party had Horst killed because they knew his martyr status would propel them to the Reichstag, which seems to be what Serling is suggesting in this script, though maybe Hitler now knows how useful the killing was and is suggesting they manufacture a second one, despite the organic nature of the original. Did Serling tell the murkiness? Sorta, maybe? He might just be a conspiracy theorist about Horst Wessel!

Post War Lives Of Hitler

The ending narration, stating that he’s alive and we’re keeping him alive whenever we invoke hatred of a group makes me think about a 1981 novel, The Portage To San Cristobal of A.H. This is a deeply controversial novel that I confess I have read about, but not read. In it, a team of Nazi hunters track down Adolf Hitler, who has escaped to the Amazon Rainforest. They intend to return him, Eichmann style, to Tel Aviv for trial, but circumstances – Hitler’s health, a storm, and their tracking by an unnamed intelligence agency makes that seem impossible. The trial is held impromptu in the jungle and the novel concludes in Hitler’s argument in his own defence, before helicopters from the intelligence agency arrive.

Hitler, in an eloquent speech, blames Jewish people for creating him, naming his own racism as a parody of the God’s Chosen People view of Jewish people expressed in Jewish religious texts. This is not the whole of the speech, but is how it starts. It ends in him expressing himself a martyr for the Jewish faith – without Hitler, Israel would not be possible.

The author, George Steiner, is a Jewish intellectual and anti-zionist, born in Paris in 1929 to Czechoslovakian and Austrian Jewish parents. He stands accused by critics of the book of bringing Hitler back to life, in a sense. He denies the claim, but also refuses to let the book be translated into German out of fear of the effect. (It seems unlikely that the German government would allow it to be published in Germany, honestly.) The stage play is particularly disturbing for the claim of bringing Hitler back to life. Because the novel ends with Hitler’s eloquent speech in his defence, so does the play. What do people do at the end of a play?

Yeah, when this is staged, the audience hears Hitler defend himself and then immediately applauds. I think the claim that Steiner brought Hitler back to life is maybe a bit much, but that applause for an in the flesh Hitler defending himself chills me. Either way, the mirror of one Jewish writer whose parents fled the holocaust accused of bringing Hitler back to life and another who tried to fight Hitler but couldn’t saying that society is keeping Hitler alive struck me as worth mentioning.


Rockwell! This was a blog about Rockwell! I remembered that!

So, the most effective way that Rockwell was resisted by the American Jewish Community was a tactic called Quarantine. Rather than give him the spectacle of a brawl (and in the early days, the Jewish War Veterans association really liked beating the shit out of him and his men in the streets), they didn’t protest. They also talked to local papers, advising them not to give him any pre-publicity. The plan was to starve him out of power and it worked.

Rod Serling wasn’t a fan. You can see this textually within the episode. Communist violence utterly ruins the fascist rally that starts the episode without giving the movement more oxygen and it is direct confrontation by a Jewish man that shuts down a rally at the height of Vollmer’s power. Serling is pro-confronting fascism. He’s also opposed to the press silence, it seems. When Rockwell was intereviewed in Playboy, Serling wrote to congratulate the magazine. You can read the letter here.

I gave you that link because the first place I found it was a Twilight Zone fanpage where the author surrounded it with editorialising against cancel culture. “Rod Serling said we should hear what nazis have to say and he was Jewish!” is the thrust of the whole tasteless piece, which you can read here, if you hate yourself.

This is only half of his argument. Yes, the letter ends:

What is desperately needed to combat any ism is precisely what “Playboy” has given us — an interview in-depth that shows us the facets of the enemy. Yes, gentlemen, you may be knocked for supposedly lending some kind of credence to a brand of lunacy. But my guess is that you should be given a commendation for a public service of infinite value.”

But let’s look at how the letter begins, shall we?

there is this well-meaning body who tell us that if we turn both eyes and cheeks, the nutsies will disappear simply by lack of exposure.”

This is interesting and useful for the purposes of talking about Quarantine as a strategy, because that’s exactly what he’s describing. The organisational position of the AJC was to deny exposure, that’s the “well-meaning body” he’s talking about. For the purposes of pushing back against the noxious argument that “We must speak and listen, not shout down and ignore” and that this letter “deserves a careful reading in this hyper-political, ultra-sensitive age of ours”, the author of that didn’t read it very carefully.

there is this well-meaning body who tell us that if we turn both eyes and cheeks, the nutsies will disappear simply by lack of exposure.”

He is against the turning of cheeks. This is one of the best known Jesus Quotes “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

If you don’t like turning the other cheek, you are implicitly for taking eyes. The well-meaning crowd didn’t just oppose any press for Rockwell. They also opposed the Jewish War Veterans who wanted to beat up fascists in the streets and when Serling told a story about an American Fuhrer, he started it by portraying fascists getting beaten up in the streets as a very good thing. Presenting him as in favour of just letting the fascists say what they like without consequence is lying about Rod Serling, a topic I am learning I feel pretty fucking fiercely about.

I don’t think history has born out the idea that letting fascists speak in their own words is a good idea. Both Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage were able to significantly boost membership to their parties by appearing on BBC’s Question Time in appearances where the host and other guests and audience attacked their shitty politics. Playboy didn’t even do that, they just let the guy talk. I’m not really with Rod on this one. I agree that we need to see “the facets of the enemy” in order to “combat” them. I think its best done through people who come armed with an understanding of fascism and its history to engage with those facets and explain them. Hi, welcome to the blog, it is mostly that and sometimes music reviews!

Anyway, we’re done. I found that hatefully stupid misreading of the letter during the course of researching this piece. It’s not the reason I wrote it, don’t worry. Rockwell month continues next week with a look at the various creeps who took up his mantle as America’s Foremost Nazi. That’ll be fun. You’ve got a week until then, maybe watch He’s Alive. It’s pretty fucking good. If you want to know what it’s like watching something about fascism with me, have someone pause it every few minutes to tell you a fascism fact about the thing you just saw and then immediately apologise.



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