My letter to the Observer:
Just read Mr. Mitchell’s article about the controversy over the Hitler wax-figure in Madame Tussaud museum.
Recently, two Israeli tourists filed a complaint with Madame Tussaud’s after observing youngsters taking pictures with the Hitler figure, “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache with the other hand.”
David Mitchell doubted “just for a moment” the sincerity of the couple’s complaint. Regarding their argument that such an engagement with the wax-figurine is “unequivocal demonstration of antisemitism and bigotry” he “just doesn’t think that’s true.”
Mitchell believes that the “heil-Hitlering and doing moustache” is a joke, and does not deserve a serious response. “When you ban something like this, you only dignify it with significance,” he writes.
“It’s perfectly possible – and important to our understanding of the human condition – to find that amusing […] while simultaneously holding in our heads the tragic murderous consequences of Nazi power. That’s what makes the joke bite and also what reminds us that the massive disaster was human.”
What really angers me about Mr Mitchell’s article is not that he thinks one should find Hitler amusing, but that in this day and age, of increased multi-culturalism and sensitivity for the feelings of the other, he’s ability to empathise and understand is approaching the zero from below.
How difficult is it to understand the sincerity of horror, outrage and insult experienced by the heirs of Holocaust survivors (the couple’s grandparents) upon seeing youngsters salute and take “buddy photos” with the figure of Hitler, by whose order six million Jews were burned alive? Mr Mitchell might have a different interpretation, but what gives him the right to invalidate other’s feeling of bigotry and antisemitism in this situation?
First, let me assure Mr Mitchell that Israelis are not the only types of visitors who would find that situation far from amusing. Consider the Russians, whose losses from Hitler’s armies amounted to twenty million people and entire cities erased to the ground. Would they think it was innocent or see the benefit of joking about Hitler? As someone who, by the nature of her job, travels to Russia and meets WWII veterans, I could speculate that the reaction would have been similar.
Following Mr Mitchell’s logic, there should be no limit to the list of bloody dictators or other notorious international criminal in the halls of Madame Tussaud’s or how the visitors interact with their figures. Why there’s no figure of Joseph Stalin, Poll Pott or Slobodan Milosevic? We could all gather round and engage in constructive laughing while remembering the millions they’ve butchered.
How about Osama Bin-Laden? He was surely “daft” enough to make everyone laugh, and a scene with someone taking a “buddy photo” or holding “thumbs up” next to his figure shouldn’t bother anyone at all. My guess is that the absence of Bin Laden can be partially explained by the assumption that this particular scene would bother even the most enlightened American visitor and a great number of the visiting Brits. Would they be wrong to feel offended? I don’t think so. Would their traumatic reaction be justified? I believe it would.
My first quarrel is with Madame Tussaud’s museum. Tourists from Britain and from all over the world are queuing hours and paying their very best money for this rather expensive attraction. Don’t they deserve a pleasant visit? There’s nothing wrong in being considerate of your guests’ feelings. There’s nothing wrong with removing the wax figure of someone as controversial as Hitler, if it can spare many visitors from unpleasant and outright offensive scenes. It might, as Mr Mitchell suggests, dignify the phenomena, but that would be a lesser damage than someone feeling like they just paid 50£ for a spoonful of poo.
One could say that this tantamount to censorship. However, the glaring absence of other historically notorious murderers makes me think that Madame Tussaud’s are rather selective in whom the are and are not willing to offend.
My second quarrel is with Mr Mitchell. Not so much with his opinion; he is perfectly entitled to have one. The surprising and angering part of the article was the dismissive tone in which he wrote about the Israeli couple, their feelings and their complaint. I believe Mr Mitchell has no right to be disrespectful, and no authority to doubt someone’s sincerity or question their experience of antisemitism. His point could have been well made, without the diminishing attitude.