Since the earliest stories were told, humanity has recognized the dynamic of the hero and the villain, or the supervillain. It's likely why, in modern storytelling, Nazis have become shorthand for supervillainy, as they are the most recognizable example of evil most of us have ever been exposed to in the real world.
It's become such a trope among genre stories that if Nazis aren't literally the villain — as they are in stories such as Captain America and most of the Indiana Jones franchise — then they are thinly disguised beneath a fictional veil, as is the case for Voldemort and his Death Eaters in the Harry Potter series. And while Hitler and his regime failed to achieve their ultimate goal, they did provide storytellers with the perfect template for evil, one authors and filmmakers have been utilizing ever since.
The latest foray into (partly) fictionalizing this evil comes in the form of Bad Robot's Overlord, which opened on November 9. The film, directed by Julius Avery, tells the tale of a paratrooper squad sent into France to destroy a German radio tower. As terrifying as the events of World War II (or any war) are, Overlord takes it one step further when the soldiers stumble across a secret Nazi laboratory hidden inside a church.
There, they discover experiments being carried out to create thousand-year-soldiers to support the thousand-year-Reich, and what begins as a seemingly ordinary war story transforms into something more The Walking Dead than Saving Private Ryan.
It's long been speculated that Hitler was searching for the ultimate super soldier through various means. Not satisfied with just fueling a World War in order to achieve massive genocide, the Nazis also attempted to unearth what some of them believed to be the reality behind ancient myths and use medical science to enhance the German people beyond their natural, biological limits.
But how much of those speculations are based in reality and how much are an overgrown legend?
Spoilers for Overlord below.
The forced medical experimentation Nazi doctors engaged in is well established.
It isn't known, and likely never will be, the exact numbers of people forced to participate in medical experimentation during World War II. What we have is a low estimate based on what documentation was kept and can be verified.
According to one study published the Journal Endeavor, at least 15,754 people were victims of Nazi experimentation. The authors state, "The analysis presented here shows that several types of unethical medical research occurred under National Socialism… The experiments gained in numbers with the war and the implementation of the Holocaust, and were sustained at a high level of intensity despite imminent defeat."
Any medical experimentation that's undergone without informed and uncoerced consent is unethical, regardless of the methods involved. The methods and procedures of the Nazis, however, added injury to insult and varied so widely that the only common factor was malice (content warning for the previous link, as it includes images and descriptions of unforgivable human atrocities).
Prisoners of Nazi Germany were forced to undergo freezing and various methods of subsequent warming in order to understand how the body reacted to such a scenario. They were exposed to low-pressure environments in order to simulate the effects of high altitude. They were exposed to various poisons and diseases, as well as forced to undergo amputations and transplantations. And this only scratches the surface of the horrors crafted by Nazi doctors.
It's also worth mentioning, though it should go without saying, that any benefit these experiments hoped to discover was only for the benefit of the German people, not those unfortunate individuals forced to earn them.
All of this was in hopes of learning the limits of the human body and how best to keep the German populace healthy and their soldiers fighting.
The Germans themselves also engaged in some experimentation, willingly.
Lebensborn, or spring of life, was an SS program that intended to breed the next generation of Nazi children. Gisela Heidenreich is a family therapist from Bavaria who discovered, later in life, that her father was a senior SS officer. Her mother participated in Lebensborn with the intent of having a child for the Reich. "This is the opposite example of the Holocaust," Heidenreich said. "The idea was the further the Aryan race by whatever means were available."
Though the methods were less drastic when compared to what was happening in the camps, it served the same ultimate purpose, moving the German population toward their idealized vision of self.
Heidenreich is one of many of these children, now adults, who met to share their experiences with others who knew the unique horror of discovering the truth of their parentage. The meeting was documented by Mark Landler of the New York Times.
Lebensborn, like the larger German experiment of the day, was also a failure. This is something Heidenreich and her peers will gladly tell you. Looking through a photo album, Ruthild Gorgass told the story of discovering her own origins the put on a pair of reading glasses, saying, "My eyes aren't perfect. We've got all the same illnesses and disabilities as other people have."
The pursuit of the perfect German didn't end with the limits of the body or the manipulation of biology. Chemical enhancement promised improvement of the individual here and now and was the closest thing to a super-soldier program the Nazis engaged in.
Drugs were prevalent during World War II, specifically but not exclusively among the German army. New formulas were designed specifically with the intent of increasing endurance and decreasing pain thresholds.
Pervitin, now more commonly known as Crystal Meth, was distributed to German soldiers in massive quantities, upward of 35 million tablets, and reportedly allowed soldiers to march longer, sleep less, and endure more pain.
Drug use wasn't only an activity of the frontline fighters, however. Hitler himself was using various substances and, according to his doctor, received an estimated 800 injections — including of Oxycodone — in the years leading up to his death.
NAZIS AND THE OCCULT
It's true that the Nazis exhibited some level of interest in the occult, from witchcraft to potentially powerful ancient artifacts. What's unclear is who among the leadership actually believed in the potential of these endeavors and to what degree.
It's pretty well established that Heinrich Himmler — the officer charged with carrying out Hitler's "final solution," and therefore the officer most directly connected to Nazi Germany's concentration camps and the Holocaust — believed, personally, in the occult and that belief fed into his beliefs about the Reich and the German peoples' place in the world.
It's also well established that the Nazis went to some effort to acquire and save libraries' worth of content related to the occult. What's less understood are the motives behind stashing all of those books away.
In recent years, one particular stash of occult content, previously lost, was unearthed. This led to a resurgence of the idea that the Nazis were obsessed with the mystical and that those beliefs may have directed at least some of their actions.
In an interview with Broadly, Peter Staudenmaier, author of Between Occultism and Nazism, expressed skepticism. "Himmler as a person really did have some strong interests in occultist stuff," he said. "He was very interested in witchcraft. He was very interested in all these forms of unconventional spirituality and esoteric stuff. The mistake that I think a lot of people make — the mistake that I see in a lot of press coverage of things like this — is to sort of conflate Himmler's own personal convictions with the SS as an organization."
The truth, it seems, lies somewhere in the middle.
Himmler was a powerful person within the regime and it seems that his interests, personal as they may have been, did bleed into Nazi activity during the war. That being said, it seems likely that the extent to which the Nazis, as an organization, were interested in the occult has been exaggerated. Probably because people have been talking about the Nazis for almost a century and it makes for a better story if they were looking for the Ark of the Covenant. That, and it allows us to laugh at them a little, which momentarily softens the blow of all the awful things they did.
All of these activities, the drug use, the experimentation, the weird obsessions of Himmler, probably fed into the idea that the Nazis were up to more than just an attempt at world domination through immeasurable violence. Over the decades, they've been transformed into something that fits nicely into a campy horror movie produced by J.J. Abrams.
And there's nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember that they weren't really so. They were only the worst and darkest parts of humanity, a very real monster held at bay only by the constant vigilance of good people.
So remember, whenever given the chance, be Steve Rogers.