Prince Harry and the Nazis Who Criticized Him

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This is what I get for missing a week of Language Log. Bill Poser says what I've been thinking about the incident of Prince Harry wearing a Nazi uniform to a costume party but never got around to posting. What was the problem supposed to be?

When a couple come to a party as Bonnie and Clyde, does anyone think that they approve of bank robbery? When someone dresses as a pirate, is that taken to show approval of piracy? Of course not. Wearing a costume does not indicate approval.

Now I didn't gather from the criticisms that they thought Harry was endorsing Nazism. I couldn't figure out what else the complaint was supposed to be, though. Is it that he reminded people of it and therefore offended them? History books should be banned, then. But that was the way the people I heard talking about it sounded, as if bringing that uniform with its insignia out into the open was insensitive. Why else would he need sensitivity training afterward? I just couldn't think of any accusation against him that would both apply to him and show why what he did was wrong.


I think we forget that the Brits suffered a lot at the hands of the Germans during WWII. Ordinary people were bombed daily in their homes. Ordinary people lost brothers, sisters, parents while they were going about their everyday business. In staggering numbers, really.

So Harry wearing that uniform might be somewhat akin to someone wearing an Osama costume just for fun in New York City. Or like someone dressing up like Bonnie and Clyde and going to a gathering of families who lost close relatives at the hand of Bonnie and Clyde. Not wrong, but certainly insensitive. Reading about something in a history book, or even seeing the uniform in a museum or used on a character in a play is different somehow. The older generation of Brits don't have enough distance from the nasty deeds of the Germans in WWII to find Harry's costume humourous, or even non-offensive.

Harry might be too young to understand that, but certainly the handlers, etc he has around him should have. Image is everything, if you're a royal. Image is part of your duty.

Although why he's the one who needs sensitivity training and not his handlers is beyond me! Isn't preventing offense like this what their job is?

The guy whose post I linked to is a Jew, though, and I think he even said he had family members involved in the Holocaust. He says that partly to fend off this sort of objection, I think.

I just don't see it. It's a costume party. I wouldn't be offended to see someone dressing as Middle-Eastern terrorists at a costume party 50 years after Middle-Eastern terrorism is pretty much gone (assuming that happens someday).

I agree that some do protest too much with this affair, but I think there are two grounds on which Prince Harry's actions can be said to be wrong.

First, because people are important, what they care about is important, even if it strikes us as without merit. Let's suppose that the issue at hand was something more trivial than the symbol of an ideology that ended the lives of millions and devasted millions more. I am a Bush supporter in a heavily blue environment. Would it not have been uncharitable for me to wear my "W" gear to work in November after the election? Even if I meant it in fun, and even if inside I was secretly estatic about Kerry losing, doesn't consideration for my friends who felt oh-so-differently give me reason not to wear something offensive (to them)? If there is any merit to this example, how much more to the symbol of Nazism? I'm not saying this is an overriding principle, for offense sometimes must come and for good reason, but I cannot think of a decent reason to justify the offense in this case, which leads to my second point.

Secondly, aren't there some things that should not be joked about or celebrated as funny/amusing? (for entertainment is precisely what is aimed at in a costume party) The Bonny and Clyde and pirate examples are good one; perhaps it would be silly to censure such costumes. But would we laugh and wink at a child molester costume, perhaps with a NAMBLA armband? Would there be anything untoward about one of our national figures dressing up as a slave auctioneer in South Carolina?

Or would there be nothing wrong in this? I think there would be. There are some things that ought not be joked about. The question is whether Nazism and the Holocaust is in that category, or is more like Bonny and Clyde.

I wouldn't be offended to see someone dressing as Middle-Eastern terrorists at a costume party 50 years after Middle-Eastern terrorism is pretty much gone (assuming that happens someday).

You might not be, but I think there are people that will be. Whether they ought to be upset or not is beside the point. If they are, then it's a problem for a royal.

Wearing the costume wasn't morally wrong, but I don't think that's what most people who disapprove of his action are arguing. They are saying it was foolish, because the uproar it created could have been predicted, and a royal can't make mistakes like that.

Dressing up as Bonney and Clyde is hardly going to offend someone. What if someone dresses up as a Klansman to a party? Is that going to be viewed as funny to everyone? Surely some would say it is inappropriate, especially if the person dressing up is one of high profile, and one who is going to be seen as a representative of many.

I dressed up as Hitler for a costume party 20 years ago in high school. The repercussions were . . . nonexistent. Times have changed, apparently.

Personally, when I saw the pictures on this a couple of weeks ago, I thought the young prince was an idiot for not realizing the controversy he could cause. As one of the other comments indicated, Nazis and Klansman conjure up similar mental images for many people. You go to a party dressed as a Klansman with a rope in your hands and most people aren't going to find the joke very funny - if they even think it's a joke at all.

Ironically, it might have been different had he dressed up as Hitler - dressing up as Hitler is often regarded as being sarcastic or satirical, whereas putting on a Nazi uniform conjures up concerns of the neo-Nazis that still exist today. I guess I can sum it up like this: pirates and bank robbers retain some sort of romantic image in our minds, whereas Nazis do not. It is foolish to disregard that distinction.

I just don't see it. This was a costume party. I can't see why there should be a difference between dressing as a Klansman, a pirate, an Islamicist terrorist, a Nazi, or Genghis Khan. They're all evil and did terrible things. Some did worse things than others. Some have done it more recently than others. Some are still doing it now. Since dressing as someone at a costume party does not endorse the actions, it doesn't matter whether there's a romantic attachment.

The only argument that might make sense is as follows. You could argue that it's reasonable to expect that reasonable people would reasonably be offended. That's something that I think might be true with Islamicist terrorists at the current time. I just don't think it's true of Nazis, not after things like Hogan's Heroes.

I'm also not sure why it should make a difference that he's a member of a figurehead family that sucks up huge amounts of money from their government for no reason and is the object of a perverse media circus who follows their every move (since that's really all being part of the royal family amounts to). Too much attention is paid to them, and I don't see why he needs to cater to an immoral fascination with his family by having to conform to the public's expectations on how he should behave. Some might say that I don't understand the mindset because I'm an American. I agree. I think that puts me in a better position to assess that attitude toward the royal family in an independent manner.

But a straight-pride week IS insensitive and offensive?

A straight-pride week is an instance of something similar to victimology, in which one pretends to be a victim when one is not. That is insulting to real victims. How does dressing as a Nazi achieve the same effect?

I think you've answered your own question. Both events have elicited offense (achieved the same effect), though Harry elicited much more of a reaction. It's just that you've implied the effect of Harry's action is silly, but the complaints of those offended by the straight-pride week are legit. Both had offensive effects, what we need is something to help us think about why one is okay and the other isn't (or if they're both okay or both wrong).

One could say they're quite similar. The straight-pride week isn't about victimology, it's all in fun (like a costume party even?), pointing out the excesses of playing the victim card (gay Americans, though not a monolithic bloc, are very well-off, and one of the most politically powerful identiy gropus in the country). It's a political statement. Do you honestly think the Oklahoma students are claiming victim status?

As for "real victims", are you really comparing the suffering of gay Americans to the suffering of Holocaust victims, or their memory? Could you imagine a better place to be a gay person in both time and place? And why is it an either/or? That's more what I was getting at. If offense and insensity are what troubles you on a college campus (reputedly the marketplace of ideas), I don't know how you distinguish such offense from a costume party. You hint that gay Americans are real victims but those who suffered from the Nazis are not. I don't mean to be overly critical, I came to your blog because of an excellent comment you had elsewhere and I like your insights, but I honestly think you're missing something here (acknowledging that I could be in the wrong as well). Could you flesh out the distinction between victims of a real Holocaust that costs millions of lives, and a political stunt that references nothing remotely comparable?

That you still "don't see" what's wrong with dressing like a Nazi, or child molester, or terrorist in public, that you apparently don't think anything is off-limits, isn't really a reason, it's just a restatement of the position, and it may be that you have a moral blind spot(again, as we all do in places).

Anyway, don't mean to badger, just press you a bit, if the topic has run its course then that's fine. Perhaps you could help me understand where we differ by answering two questions, already alluded to: 1) Is there any thing that one shouldn't dress up as or represent, even in fun? and 2) Can you talk a little more about offense and insensity and what makes it an overreaction when referring to the Holocaust/Nazis but a legitimate concern with college identity politics?

No, I think you misunderstood me. I don't think the fact that an action creates offense makes it wrong. In this case, I think the motivation behind the straight pride week is what's wrong. Harry's motivation had nothing in common that I can think of.

It's not exactly victim status that they're claiming. They are claiming that straight people get ignored in all the identity wars, just as they probably think white people get ignored in race talk and men get ignored in gender talk. I think that's correct only to the extent that there are ways in which the dynamics can be reversed and genuine racism, sexism, etc. can occur the other way around. I don't think that kind of thing is anywhere near as bad as to be worth talking about on the same level, which is what this claim for equal time seems to want to say.

Additionally, I can't see how the motivation for this is even that good. I'm all for pointing out how the purveyors of victimology are overasserting the reality. I'm all for pointing out how that sort of crying wolf will make it harder for people to listen to the real problems. I'm not sure it's morally allowable at all to make fun of people who have grown up in a community who have come to think from the mindset of victimology, because many of them are victims of the mindset and not deliberate exaggerators.

I think the examples you've attributed to me regarding real victims vs. faux victims don't come close to matching up to what I had in mind. The victims of the Nazis are real victims, but they're mostly gone now, and the Nazis themselves (in anything like the form they took) have been gone for 50 years. I don't think any victimhood of gay people is remotely close to the victims of the Holocaust. Gay Americans are more victims with respect to their sexual orientation than straight Americans are. I don't think I said anything that goes beyond that or that requires more than that.

As for your questions, I didn't say it's never wrong to dress in certain ways, but it depends quite a lot on the intent, and it also depends on the context. The reason I think it's silly nowadays with Nazis is because they've been gone so long and the public consciousness of it has been so affected by things like Hogan's Heroes.

I think you are right about one thing, Jeremy. You are right to say that the mere fact that something causes someone offense is not itself always a consideration that counts against it. If something offends a bigot, say, I don't see that this counts against doing it: offense is fitting.

It seems, however, that you are creating a strawman when you suggest that there is nothing more to the claim that what the Prince did was wrong when he dressed up in Nazi garb was that it might offend somebody: it would offend somebody for whom offense wasn't fitting. It would be like telling jokes about the World Trade Center knowing that they'd be overheard by families of the victims. It says that one's own trivial amusement for dressing up in some costume is more important than respecting the the feelings of the Jewish community.

It isn't difficult to see why this is different from dressing up as a Pirate or Ghengis Khan: there is no one around for whom this will cause offense. It may be that hundreds of years from now in a world free of Anti-Semitism when the families of victims of the Holocaust are long gone, Nazi garb will take on the status of Pirate outfits. Anyway, since the world isn't like that and since there still is anti-semitism in the world, Prince Harry owes an apology. I think Micah pretty much had it right a few comments back.

I think the reactions to Prince Henry can be attributed more to emotional than rational. You might wish to offer reasons why it is not offensive till you are blue in the face, but offensiveness is not necessarily a rational response. What people object to here is the emotional responses involved and the "perceived sensitivities" of the images conjured by his dressing up in that costume. It also underscores, perhaps, that there are responsibilities that royalties and other celebreties both share but not shared by others (like the guy who dressed up as Hitler some years ago?)


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