Notes on Camps, or, Counterfactual Führers and the Structure of the Joke

In this review essay I explore the dynamics of “normalization” in historical and fictional depictions of the National Socialist past, examining both the “organic” normalization of catastrophic events through the passage of time, and efforts to normalize the Nazi past through aesthetics. Focusing on Gavriel Rosenfeld's Hi, Hitler: How the Nazi Past is Being Normalized in Contemporary Culture, I argue against many dimensions of Rosenfeld's account of normalization, particularly his claim that aesthetic normalization can undermine our moral judgments regarding the Holocaust. Drawing on Sigmund Freud on jokes, and Susan Sontag on Camp aesthetics, I argue that every effort to normalize the Holocaust, especially ones that work through humor and jokes (a major topic of Rosenfeld's book), actually maintain the Holocaust's status as a series of historical events resistant to “normalization.” If “normalization” is a process through which extraordinary, or morally charged, historical events lose their moral charge, then aesthetic efforts to normalize the Holocaust actually reinscribe the special moral status that Rosenfeld believes they erase.