The Weirdest World War II Show

February 2019 was a very bad month for Bob Garthwait. In the middle of that month, images surfaced of Garthwait, a prominent trustee at Gettysburg College, wearing a Nazi uniform at a 1980 college party. The image (particularly the swastika on Garthwait’s arm) caused an immediate wave of outrage, forcing Garthwait to resign from the board and issue a formal apology.

Yet this incident came with an odd wrinkle. In his apology, Garthwait explained that he and his friends had not been dressed as real Nazis, instead they had been dressed as fictional Nazis from the popular (and controversial) sitcom Hogan’s Heroes.

The three leads of Hogan’s Heroes, from left to right: Sergeant Schultz (John Banner), Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and Colonel Klink (Werner Klemperer).

Hogan’s Heroes was an American sitcom running from 1965-1971. The comedy’s unique premise involved a group of allied prisoners in a Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camp. In each of the show’s 168 episodes,The prisoners, led by the eponymous Robert Hogan, outwit their humorously inept German Commandant Wilhelm Klink, and his clumsy and dim-witted underling Sergeant Hans Schultz. In a typical episode, a prisoner impersonates Adolf Hitler in order to trick Klink into following their instructions. The show itself is light-hearted and even innocent, with the German characters too dim-witted to pose any real threat to the heroes.

If you liked World War II, you’ll love Hogan’s Heroes.

Advertising Tagline For the Show

More than any other depiction of the Second World War, Hogan’s Heroes raises questions about the ethical depiction of Nazi Germany and the horrors of the war. While other films have portrayed Nazis comically, they either came before the world knew the true extent of the Nazi atrocities (1940’s The Great Dictator) or they came after the events of the war had largely faded from living memory (2019’s Jojo Rabbit). Hogan’s Heroes came out at a time when millions of people still intimately recalled Second World War and the Holocaust. You might think that this would be the worst possible time to release a comedy about Nazi camps.

To make things even weirder, a large proportion of the cast and creators of Hogan’s Heroes had been personally affected by the war and the holocaust. Robert Clary, who played the French prisoner of war Louis LeBeau, was actually a survivor of the Holocaust. A Jew, Clary spent 1942-1945 in German concentration camps, including the infamous Buchenwald, where the majority of his family died.

The prisoners in Hogan’s Heroes, cooking up some plot to befuddle their captors. Robert Clary wears the red beret.

Both of the show’s creators, Bernard Fein and Albert Ruddy, were Jewish. The four actors playing the show’s Nazis were also of Jewish descent, and three, Werner Klemperer, John Banner, and Leon Askin, had fled to the United States to escape the Nazis and had served in the U.S. Armed Forces in World War II. Interestingly Klemperer had also appeared as a Nazi leader in the heavy and tormented Holocaust masterpiece Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). The people involved in. Hogan’s Heroes were not two-bit comedy actors, they were, by and large, serious performers who thought deeply about the meaning of their work.

The show’s actors gave various answers when asked about the dichotomy between the show and their lived experience. Robert Clary said that the difference between POW camps and concentration camps was “night and day” so he saw no connection between his own experiences and those in Hogan’s Heroes.

American POWs in Germany did receive favored status during the war. Fearful of reprisals against German POWs, Nazi authorities generally obeyed the laws of war, granting American prisoners access to large libraries of books (some of which exceeded 15,000 volumes) and decent amounts of food. Some set up sports teams in their camps. Almost 99% the 94,000 Americans captured in Europe returned home safely. Some American POWs even engaged in the kind of sabatoge seen in Hogan’s Heroes, smuggling radios into the camps and communicating with Allied intelligence officials. Soviet prisoners, on the other hand, were routinely executed, starved, or worked to death. Almost 60% of Soviet POWs died in captivity.

1944 Baseball Game in an American POW Camp. Taken by Angelo M. Spinelli, an American POW who secretly took thousands of photographs documenting his time behind barbed wire.

Yet at the same time, it would be facetious to entirely dismiss the similarities between POW camps and concentration camps. Both employed a common physical language of barbed wire fences, blockhouses, and machine gun towers. So rather than being completely disconnected from memories of the Holocaust and the worst depredations of the Nazi regime, Hogan’s Heroes deserves to be treated seriously.

Other actors’ explanations were a bit more philosophical. For his part, John Banner said of his moronic but kind-hearted character, Sergeant Schultz: “Schultz is not a Nazi. I see Schultz as the representative of some kind of goodness in any generation.” The cast’s most succinct justification for the show’s audacious premise also came from Banner. “Who can play Nazis better than us Jews?”

Indeed, it is easy to see Hogan’s Heroes as a kind of coping mechanism for individuals who had been exposed to unforgettable horrors. Psychiatrists rank humor as one of the most mature and effective ways to process trauma. While the actors involved were quick to downplay the significance of the show, I can’t help but think that Hogan’s Heroes was a technique to seize agency and live with the memory of the war by creating a silly mythologized version of events.

Despite (or because of) its flippant treatment of a taboo subject, Hogan’s Heroes enjoyed significant popularity during its runtime, even winning three primetime Emmys (two of which went to Klemperer for his portrayal of Wilhelm Klink). Audiences members, even those who had seen the worst of World War II, mostly enjoyed the show. A rare exception was my own grandmother, whose mother had left Germany before the war. She loathed Hogan’s Heroes, telling her children that it was the only show they were forbidden to watch. Yet all the same, the show proved successful. To this day, it remains the longest running American television show about World War II.

The ex-POWs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have an association. They had a convention and invited me. A lot of POWs are hooked on Hogan’s Heroes. They’re our biggest rooters–along with New York Jewish delicatessen owners!

Bob Crane, 1968

Indeed, Hogan’s heroes even found an audience in 1990s Germany, after edited and dubbed versions made their way across the Atlantic. The show proved a hit, and even (for a time) surpassed Seinfeld in popularity among German audiences.

All this brings us to the present day, where Hogan’s Heroes does not fit comfortably with our ideas of proper comedy. The growth of far-right extremism has caused us to react to any use of swastikas with immediate condemnation. I’m not going to defend Bob Garthwait or push for the relevance of Hogan’s Heroes in the modern world. The show was of its time, and just because it was acceptable back then does not necessarily mean it should stick around. I’ll only say that Hogan’s Heroes demonstrates that we can’t always understand or judge how people process the historical events in their own lives, and that there is a lot of room for good-faith portrayal of controversial subjects.

I’ll give the last words to Werner Klemperer:

Whenever anyone tries to overanalyze ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ I merely tell them that it was a funny show, a wonderful show, and I’m very proud of it. And that’s the end of that.

Werner Klemperer, 1999

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