Throwback Thursday: The Nazi Gimmick

One of the ways I defend my continued interest in professional wrestling is by noting the art-form often has "its finger" on the cultural pulse of the United States. As a professor of mine from my undergraduate days often repeated, "if you want to figure out who or what American society regards as 'evil,' watch Monday Night Raw."

And to be honest, more often than not professional wrestling's villians reflect a nationalist and / or conservative ethos: when I was growing up in the 1980s, two of the WWF's biggest heels were the Iron Shiek and Nikolai Volkov, representatives of America's most bitter enemies Iran and the Soviet Union.

But if you were a wrestling fan in the 1960s or 1970s, the most dastardly heel in your local territory was very likely a wrestler with a Nazi persona. So for today's Throwback Thursday, I decided to revisit this element of wrestling's past by charting the history of the gimmick, its legacy, and potential future.

The Nazi Gimmick actually has its roots in pre-World War II North America: dastardly German characters were fairly prevalent in the various wrestling territories across the US and Canada in the 1930s, but these heels more drew on World War 1-era tropes.  Perhaps the most famous was Karl Von Poppeheim in the Pacific Northwest, who came to the ring in a monocle and aristocratic mustache. By the time Nazi Germany came to power in the 1930s, some wrestlers altered their gimmicks to be more "fascist" to align with the geo-political climate, but soon began to fear for their own safety as the gimmick was a bit too hot: Frederich Von Schacht was one such wrestler who, according to some sources, dropped his Nazi gimmick after frequent stabbings by enraged fans.

Post-war, there remained a great deal of anti-German sentiment in North America, and Boston-area wrestling promoter Paul Bowser decided to tap into this anti-German sentiment by repackaging the French-Canadian Guy Larose as "Hans Schmidt," a bullying, angry Teutonic beast who would frequently disregard the rules of professional wrestling --- sorry, should have put "rules" in quotation marks there -- and gained serious heel-heat with audiences both in arenas and on television as professional wrestling as a staple of the DuMont Network. Schmidt was so reviled by fans in North America that promoters could have their local main-heel turn into a face -- even for just a night -- by facing Schmidt.

While Schmidt was more a Nazi by suggestion --- although he would wear a German helmet and give the Seig-Heil in his later years as a performer --- promoters in other territories were more keen to have their local evil German wrestler or wrestler use Nazi iconography. In the late 1960s,  Baron Von Raschke begin wrestling in Verne Gagne's AWA; declaring in promos that he was "ORDERED TO WIN," Von Raschke would goose-step to the ring and often appeared (at least early on) wearing a cape with a swastika on it (see above).

In the WWWF, Karl Von Hess was Vince McMahon Sr.'s Teutonic villain of choice. A sensational athlete, Von Hess was public enemy number one in the Mid Atlantic. Von Hess would wear track-suits featuring the Iron Cross to the ring and goose-step through the crowd. Just listen to the introductions here for his 1961 match with Ricky Starr and consider two things: one, Ricky Starr -- whose persona was of a ballerina / wrestler and who in reality was trained as a ballerina and then became a recluse in England --- is a heelish face here; second, this came at point in Von Hess's career when his gimmick was starting to lose its fervor with crowds. Despite facing an effeminate foe and being on the back-nine of his career, Von Hess is still booed like crazy by the fans.

The Nazi Gimmick wasn't limited to the US and Canada: in Mexico, one of the most-hated rudos in the world of Lucha Libre in tthe 1960s was El Nazi (pictured above). In his nearly 30-year career, El Nazi feuded with the likes of Blue Demon and Ruben Juraez. El Nazi would later inspire several other wrestlers in Mexico, including the woman La Nazi.

And then we have the Von Erichs. During the 1960s, Fritz and Waldo Von Erich were the NWA Tag Team Champions (although neither were from Germany). After splitting up, Waldo would perform in the WWWF and feuded with Bruno Sammartino and Wahoo McDaniel (whom he assaults in this clip from 1974). Oh, he also gives the Seig Heil in the ring.

Fritz is by far the more famous of the Von Erichs. Like Waldo, Fritz by trained by Stu Hart, and became quite famous throughout the United States and Canada in the 1950s and 1960s by not only using his dastardly "Iron Claw" but by playing up his (fictional) Teutonic roots. Of course Fritz would eventually "see the error of his ways" and become a face in his native Texas; from there, he would take over the Dallas / Houston territory and lead WCCW to become a dominant regional territory in the late 1970s and 1980s by, in part, promoting his sons as the uber-faces of the company.

Speaking of Fritz Von Erich, there's a story about Von Erich encountering a Holocaust survivor during the 1950s that has become legendary in wrestling circles (David Shoemaker recounts the tale in his book, but notes that the story is, very likely, myth). After a match in Chicago, a man approached Von Erich in his dressing room and asked the wrestler how he could portray a Nazi. Von Erich responded that "it was an act" and told the man to shove-off. The man rolled up his sleeve and revealed a tattoo of a number on his arm, told Von Erich that he had lost all his sons in the death camps, and wished the wrestler would know his pain. Of the six Von Erich sons, Jack, Kerry, David, Mike, and Chris would die at early ages.

By the mid-1970s, the Nazi Gimmick had mostly vanished from American and Canadian rings. There were several pseudo-German heels throughout the era -- and even one or two Neo-Nazi gimmicks in the late 1980s -- but for the most part, the "German as heel" was replaced by Eastern-Bloc, Middle Eastern, or Asian foes for North American audiences.

While the Von Erich / Holocaust survivor story does not appear to be true, I mention it because it still speaks to some of the larger issues with the Nazi Gimmick. Professional wrestling has never been shy about embracing controversy to draw money, but it's telling about the business when men are willing to embrace the attitudes and attire of a reviled political group in order to "get over." At the same time, it's difficult to not be disconcerted by the embrace of this act by wrestlers and promoters for the better part of 20 years. Given the crimes against humanity perpetuated by the members of the Third Reich, it seems like these were moments when wrestling went too far to embrace controversy. Conversely, I think the Nazi Gimmick also served to reduce Nazis to cartoon-ish figures that lessened the significance of the crimes of the Third Reich. While Hitler et al were portrayed as cartoon-ish villains by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the Three Stooges before and during World War II, such attempts to turn Nazis into cartoon villains after the War seem, at best, misguided.

In thinking about the Nazi Gimmick from our current political perspective, I worry that with the rise of the Alt-Right and Neo-Nazi groups that the Nazi Gimmick may make a return to the squared circle (and as Ed Blair notes, there's an increasing cross-pollination of wrestling and Neo-Nazis). It might be reassuring for us to say "there are lines promoters won't cross" in 2017, but judging by the history of professional wrestling, I think we as fans need to prepare ourselves for that possibility.

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