The 2012 film Iron Sky is able to carry itself on one ridiculous premise: What if Nazis have been living on the moon since World War II? What if they're ready to try for world domination again?
What struck me when I first saw this movie—which also features the "Fourth Reich" living on the dark side of the moon, a plan that involves turning a black man white, and a Sarah Palin lookalike in the presidential seat—was not the premise itself, but how familiar it was.
People love putting Nazis in space, especially when it comes to science fiction. One of the earliest instances of this trope is in Rocket Ship Galileo, a 1947 young adult novel by Robert Heinlein, which features three teenagers who travel to the moon and discover a secret Nazi base. In The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, the Nazis, having won WWII, have colonized Mars and Venus. The 2014 video game Wolfenstein: The New Order borrows heavily from Dick's work in terms of narrative and features an entire level where you infiltrate a moon base. The manga The Legend of Koizumi has the prime minister of Japan battling Hitler on the Moon in a game of mahjong.
"…they reinforce the suspicion that we may not be finished with the Nazis, or that they may not be finished with us."
Some of these stories are more realistic than others, but all play upon alternate histories. It's basic storytelling, and accessible to readers, especially since the Nazis are some of history's most terrifying and notorious villains. Considering the atrocities of World War II occurred less than a century ago, it's an easy and effective emotional pull.
The "space Nazis" motif is specifically common, though, because it's realistic and definitively world-ending. Not in a "playing mahjong on the Moon" kind of way, but in drawing upon societal fears of the group's technological capabilities and the post-war aftermath. It might not have happened but it could have happened.
The greatest threat for the United States during the war was the Nazis' penchant for technology and science, said historian A. Bowdoin Van Riper, who co-edited the book Horrors of War: The Undead on the Battlefield. Before we were in a race with the USSR to get to space in the 1950s, we were in competition with other countries to get rocket technology from Germany.
"The received American narrative of every conflict from the Spanish-American war through the Iraq and Afghan Wars emphasizes our superior (even science-fictional-for-the-time) technology," Van Riper said in an email. "The Nazis are the only real-world enemy of the US widely perceived to have been a technological equal or even a technological superior."
Nazi Germany played a huge part in launching the race to space thanks to the V2 rocket, which V2rocket.com describes as "awesome" and the BBC called "a terror weapon." The missile had the capability to reach more than 50 miles above the Earth, virtually making it the first space rocket. An estimate says that over 2,700 people in Britain were killed when these missiles were launched at the country during in the 1940s. After the war, countries scrambled to get their hands on it. America was "lucky enough" to snap up Wernher von Braun, the man credited with inventing the V2, and his hardware would go on to aid the first American in space.
"Yes, in the interwar period we had had Robert Goddard [credited with building the world's first liquid-fueled rocket]," remarked Rafeeq McGiveron, a history and literature academic who has written about Rocket Ship Galileo. "But von Braun brought the liquid-fueled rocket to life, and in what for the time was huge scale."
Following the war was also the mass exodus of Nazi officials, whether it was people like von Braun who effectively surrendered to Allied countries, or others who fled to South America. Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel credited as one of the masterminds behind the transportation of Jews into concentration camps and ghettos, was found living in Argentina in the 1960s. A US Attorney General report states that Josef Mengele, an infamous doctor and scientist, had been living in South America for around 30 years after the war until his body was found in Brazil. It's unclear just how many war criminals escaped (the Daily Mail UK puts the number at nearly 9,000), but what if in some alternate history scenario, instead of escaping to South America, Nazis went elsewhere? It adds another plot line to explore.
In the book Horrors of War: The Undead on the Battlefield, co-edited by Van Riper and Cynthia J. Miller, Professor James Ward from Cedar Crest College asserts that these tropes are fed by fact: the escape and intrigue of the mystery of the Nazis' whereabouts and their affinity for technology and the occult. This theory also explains the proliferation of Nazi zombie films like Dead Snow.
"These creatures and the films they inhabit may not belong in the usual catalog of horrors associated with World War II, but they reinforce the suspicion that we may not be finished with the Nazis, or that they may not be finished with us," Ward wrote.
Plus, according to Van Riper, Nazis have a certain aesthetic appeal. They look like good villains. Generations of people engaging in media where the Nazis were the go-to villain have cultivated a look for the bad guy. It's "the same appeal that draws people to faux-Victorian steampunk technology like giant airships and humongous steam-powered mechas—'Yeah, yeah, I know it's impractical and makes about as much engineering sense as a giant ant makes biomechanical sense (hint: none), but damn doesn't it look cool?'"
Nazis, in a way, belong on the moon. American filmmakers and authors have combined postwar fears about world-changing technology getting into the wrong hands, the Nazis' interest in the sciences, along with present anxieties on terrorism and our continued interest in the final frontier into a weird science fiction trope that, even after 60 years, still makes sense. The premise is far out, but is still believable in the way only a story about mad German scientists can be.