Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/16/2020: Zugswang!

Good morning, inmates!

I’ve been reading that social isolation may be deadly. Zugswang!

Last week “ethics zugswangmade a return to Ethics Alarms, and you can expect to read a lot more of it. The chess term describing the dilemma is which the only safe move is to stay still, and staying still is impossible, seems to be applying to increasing numbers of dire situations recently, especially in the ethical sense, in which all choices are unethical.Upon reflection, several posts involved ethics zugswang even when I didn’t use that term. The woman whose student loan debts topped 900,000 dollars is in zugswang. Progressive feminists who use gender-baiting as a partisan weapon are in self-condemned zugswang when political allies use misogynist terms against conservative women.

It’s really fun saying “zugswang,” but I will try to touch on some matters that don’t involve ethics zugswang….like…

1. “Hogan’s Heroes” ethics. I never thought it would happen, but a cable channel is re-running “Hogan’s Heroes” episodes. The very popular Sixties sitcom about POW prison camp and the wacky and inept Nazis running it has been thoroughly excoriated as outrageously tasteless and politically incorrect. My father loved the show because anything that made the Nazis look ridiculous was aces with him. Is it tasteless and offensive to show “Hogan’s Heroes” today?

It was clearly satire, in the same spirit as Larry, Moe and Curly playing Hitler and cronies, or Charley Chaplin in “The Great Dictator”—or, to pick a recent example, the child’s view of Hitler as an imaginary friend in “Jo-Jo Rabbit.” The show obviously took its inspiration from “The Great Escape,” of which it is virtually a parody (without the executions, of course.) WW II vets like my father were accustomed to the Nazis being ridiculed and trivialized in the process. In an age that has seen the Holocaust Museum’s exhibits and widely distributed documentaries about the full barbarity of Nazi Germany, the satire may no longer work.

There are other reasons why “Hogan’s Heroes” is no longer funny, despite the very talented cast. Its laugh track is annoying now, especially when the jokes are old and repetitive: how hard can you keep laughing when Sgt. Schultz (John Banner) says “I know nothing! NOTHING!” for the thousandth time? Perhaps the kiss of death for the series is the ubiquity of series star Bob Crane as Hogan, Crane was always smarmy for my taste, but knowing his fate—Crane was bludgeoned to death by a likely participant in his sick S & M porno ring that involved, among other revolting activities,  secretly videotaping women engaged in sex—make watching the show a painful experience.

2. Social Media least for me. As with Facebook, which bans Ethics Alarms for unstated and unjust reasons, whatever they are, I deplore supporting Twitter but have little choice, as it is a necessary (though barely) way to circulate my posts and my expertise. Here’s signature significance: Biden’s campaign released deceptively edited video advancing the false narrative that the President called the Wuhan Virus  “a hoax.” (I still read references to this every day on Facebook.) The Washington Post was forced—that is forced because it was so egregious—to give that ad Four Pinocchios, much as it would like the President to sink into the ooze from which he came. Yet Twitter, which has a “manipulated video” policy, has not taken down the thing. While Twitter removed a Trump campaign tweet marked as “manipulated” for violating its new rules,that Twitter claimed  implied Biden had mistakenly endorsed Trump in a moment of confusion, Biden’s ad will not be removed because the tweet was sent before the new policy took effect on March 5.

That’s indefensible. The video is still misleading people and being falsely cited online. What difference does it make when it was posted? The idea, we were told, was to reduce disinformation on the platform. In the post linked above, I accused Twitter of embarking on a course of “selective censorship.”


3. Ann Althouse is in zugswang, or denial, or panic, or something, and says she is “happiness blogging” today. I like a lot of her quotes and links, and you might as well. I especially like her first one, from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

Stevenson had serious health problems most of his adult life, suffered from periodic depression, and died at 44 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

4. Here’s an excellent trail of the kind of media bias warping our understanding of the ongoing Wuhan Virus drama. Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum attacked the Trump administration for not sending aid to Italy, unlike China, as reported in this  tweet.


China, however, is desperately trying to repair an international diplomatic disaster of its own making. It originated the virus and is responsible for Italy’s crisis, especially since the center of Italy’s outbreak in Northern Italy where the government  allowed 100,000 Chinese from Wuhan to move to  work in these factories, involving  direct Wuhan flights. The European Union, meanwhile, has largely left Italy to its own resources. The U.S. has no obligation to provide assistance to Italy while there’s a health crisis here. Appelbaum also failed to note that the US offered to send its scientists to assist China in fighting the virus, and was turned down.

Also ignored by Applebuam: “What China’s propaganda organs have not said: Those shipments of goods are, in at least some cases, not donations but rather exports of goods for purchase. And 1,000 ventilators is a decent deal for a country trying to get its business sector restarted.”

Enemy of the people…

5. Poll update: On the question of whether Sarah Palin’s TV appearance in a rainbow teddy bear suit to sing “Baby’s Got Back” was unethical, funny, or just icky (My position: if a former VP candidate of a national party is deliberately icky, that IS unethical) has so far yielded the result that “icky” is tied with “all of the above,” meaning that only 36 of 79 votes so far consider Palin’s latest stunt unethical. Here’s the poll, which is open for three more days:

23 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 3/16/2020: Zugswang!

  1. 1. It’s on MeTV nightly and Sundance TV, of all stations, was marathoning it this weekend.

    I love “Hogan’s Heroes” and so did my grandfather who was in the 82nd Medical Battalion and drove an ambulance ferrying concentration camp victims from one of Dachau’s subcamps to a local hospital.

    Some trivia: The inspiration for “Hogan’s Heroes” was probably “Stalag 17”. In fact, the similarities between the two (guards named Schultz, escape networks, a commandant stating that no one escapes the camp) was close enough that the producers of “Heroes” were sued by those who did “Stalag 17”. Also, it turned out there was a real Robert Hogan who’d been held in a P.O.W. camp during the war so some quick PR was done to have Crane take a photo with him.

    Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink), John Banner (Sgt. Schultz), Leon Askin (recurring character General Burkhalter) and Robert Clary (French Cpl. LeBeau) were all Jewish. Klemperer and Banner escaped from their native Germany and Austria, respectively. Klemperer was the son of famed German musician Otto Klemperer and a cousin of the diarist Victor Klemperer (who survived only because he was married to a German Aryan woman). He and Crane battled amicably over politics on the “Heroes” set because Klemperer’s experiences made him liberal while Crane was a conservative.

    Robert Clary survived a concentration camp and still bears the tattoo he got as a child. Of the cast, he is the only one still living.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the show. It doesn’t praise Nazis. It shows how corrupt they were and how ridiculous their racial theories were. It’s job wasn’t to grip us like “Jojo Rabbit” with its insidious psychological bent that’s meant to get us to see how hard it is to question years-long indoctrination. It’s just mindless entertainment, like “Gilligan’s Island” or “The Brady Bunch”.

    I didn’t discover “Heroes” until after Crane was killed, so his death didn’t affect watching the show quite so much as O.J. Simpson makes “The Naked Gun” films hard to watch.

    • Bernard Fein, one of the creators, said it was inspired by the book “Von Ryan’s Express” (later a film starring Frank Sinatra), but it’s so similar to Stalag 17. I find it hard to believe there’s no connection.

      I agree wholeheartedly on an ethics summary of the film.

      • Makes no sense. Even the theme music was copied from The Great Escape theme. The latter had recently been a box office hit, and featured a mild mannered camp commandant who was tricked by the prisoners. The Billy Wilder movie was decade older. Yes, the character of Schultz was largely taken from the older movie, but the plot of Hogan’s Heroes was was right out of “The Great Escape.”

            • It’s a really good drama, too, but there isn’t much comedy. Billy Wilder almost re-wrote it from scratch for his film: people who saw TACT’s production were surprised that it didn’t track with the movie at all. There is no “Animal” character in the play, for example.

              • I had no idea. I’d never seen the play, of course, only the film (when I was 14 and late at night because no one else would watch it with me).

                Richard Erdman, “Hoffy” from the movie, died last year.

                • Just for you (and Michael West): here’s an article about the difference from the Audience Guide I assembled for the play’s production:

                  Many audience members’ first exposure to Donald Bevan’s and Edmund Trzcinski’s masterful re-imagining of their POW experiences comes through the classic 1953 film adaptation of Stalag 17. Directed by Billy Wilder, the film earned three Academy Award nominations and won lead actor William Holden an Academy Award for his portrayal of “Sefton”. More so than many film adaptations of stage plays (and less so than others), the film Stalag 17 should be regarded as a similar story told from a different perspective. It is based on the play, but it is Billy Wilder’s version of the playwrights’ experiences, not their own.

                  The film adaptation benefits from being able to depict some harsh events that in the play take place off-stage, and indulges the Hollywood tendency to paint events, especially in wartime, as black and white, with noble American heroes opposing their despicable German captors. The play is more ambiguous, filled with uncertainty and shades of grey which make the original a more unsettling and thought provoking piece of dark comedy than the film.

                  Bevan and Trzcinski eccentrically called their play “a comedy melodrama,” and this apparently inspired Wilder to emphasize the comic elements. While humor in the play tends to be incidental to the main plot, the film features scenes specifically designed as comic relief, with many more pranks and shenanigans perpetrated by the Americans. In particular, the characters of Stosh and Harry – called Harry and “Animal” in the film and played by comic aces Harvey Lembeck (best known for his prominent role in the “Sergeant Bilko” TV series and later as the idiotic motorcycle gang leader in the “Beach Party” movies) and bug-eyed, gravel-voiced Robert Strouse, are expanded and significant screen time is devoted to their lighthearted antics. One memorable film scene, in which Harry and Animal paint a line down the center of the road in an attempt to break into the Russian women’s camp, was based on a real escape attempt, here described by Stalag 17B POW Howard Thornley:

                  “There, of course, were no women in our camp, but two of our prisoners did actually paint a stripe down the center of the camp…When our two prisoners got to the first gate, they motioned to the guard in the tower to open his gate. At each succeeding gate, the guard would open his gate, having seen the previous guard open his…I bet some food with another prisoner that even the Germans couldn’t be that stupid and that they would be stopped before the halfway point. Our two heroes did it, though, reaching the last gate, which the guard opened for them. They continued painting until the road disappeared behind a hill…a German officer walking back from Krems saw them and shot at them. At once, they surrendered and were put in solitary confinement…Although their escape was short-lived, we were proud of them.”

                  The film’s portrayal of the Americans’ pranks consistently makes their captors look foolish, and shows the prisoners with the upper hand. In contrast, the play contains far fewer of these escapades and makes it clear that the prisoners are very much under German control. For the play’s prisoners, humor is something to cling to, a means of surviving rather than a weapon. The subtle tone of desperation which underlies the play’s humorous moments is minimized in the film. (The trend continued to the point of absurdity when Wilder’s film Stalag helped inspire the fantasy prison camp portrayed in the hit TV sitcom “Hogan’s Heroes,” where the prisoners secretly ran the prison, aiding Allied war efforts while manipulating their hapless and harmless German captors.)

                  The film is far from all fun and games, however. There are many scenes in the film which depict bleak moments consigned to the wings in the play, such as Dunbar’s interrogation by the Commandant, or the ill-fated escape attempt of Johnson and Manfredi, only talked about in the play, and the subsequent flaunting of their bodies before the other prisoners. However, portraying events which are not seen in the play (often for purely logistical reasons) removes the element of uncertainty which is crucial to setting the tone of the play, which very much depends on the fact that the prisoners themselves don’t know what is happening outside their confined environment.

                  The film balances the grim and intense scenes by featuring other victories by the prisoners, as when they rescue Dunbar not by merely outwitting one officer, but rather under the noses of the entire camp, or when every man in formation steps forward to take credit for throwing an object at the Commandant. Scenes like these create a sense of teamwork and unity which is seldom shown in the chaos of the play, where the characters are more inclined to operate on the principle of every man for himself.

                  This increased cooperation is particularly noticeable in the film treatment of the central character of Sefton. On stage, Sefton is an island, a man without allies, utterly isolated and alone. The film softens Sefton’s character to create a protagonist who is easier to relate to and more sympathetic. Wilder’s expanded back-story reveals that Sefton washed out as an officer candidate and suggests that this may contribute to his resentment of Dunbar. Although still a loner, he acts kindly towards the shell-shocked character of Joey (called Horney in the play). Wilder gave Sefton an aid and ally in the form of Cookie, the film’s narrator, who expresses begrudging admiration for Sefton’s ingenuity.

                  While the film’s Sefton, like his stage counterpart, trades with the German officers, he also earns much of his loot from his fellow Americans. He is the quintessential capitalist, accumulating goods by exploiting opportunities to provide services – gambling, trades, entertainment – to his fellow prisoners for a fee. Although his behavior is still only dubiously moral, his acquisitions are less offensive than in the play, and his initiative casts some of the other prisoners’ dislike as jealousy rather than patriotic indignation. The film’s Sefton is still an opportunist who is out for himself first, but the movie makes him more sympathetic—and certainly more charismatic, in the form of William Holden— than his misanthropic, bitter stage counterpart. Having a flawed and disagreeable anti-hero at the heart of the plot lends realism to the play, but that’s not the way they like to make movies in Hollywood.

                  Though the play’s mockingly jovial Schultz has character, there are no other real individuals among the Germans of the Broadway play, only interchangeable Nazis. The film expands on the German characters, giving Schultz and the Commandant full names and more developed back stories, and even includes a brief moment of camaraderie when the prisoners play volleyball with one of the guards (although they do so only as a distraction). The film still portrays the enemy viciously patronizing in tone and thoroughly sadistic in action, but these Germans have emotions, just as the Americans do, rather than being inhuman automatons. Humanizing the antagonists also makes them seem less menacing and more vulnerable.

                  This is most strikingly seen in the film’s portrayal of the Commandant, Colonel von Scherbach. In the play, the Commandant is only spoken of, never seen, but he is a regular screen presence in the film. While his condescending, fake-friendly tone at first succeeds in making him a suitably menacing villain, later scenes show him to be ambitious, vain, and portray him as an absurdly obsequious– for instance, he interrogates Dunbar in his socks but dons his boots so that he can click his heels sycophantically while telephoning his higher-ups, only to pull the boots off again as soon as he hangs up. Moments like these which poke fun at the Colonel help to neutralize the threat he poses. In contrast, the play’s nameless, faceless, unseen commandant retains his power and terror until the last moments of the show, making the defiant final act which brings down the curtain that more powerful.

                  The increased visibility of the German soldiers provides more opportunities for the Nazis to toy with the prisoners, as when Schultz mockingly pretends to search for the radio in front of the POWs at the same time providing a target for both the prisoners’ and the audience’s anger. In the play, in contrast, the prisoners can only stand by in frustration as they are manipulated by unseen powers.
                  Bevan and Trzcinski wrote a play about men living in perpetual uncertainty. It is a play, not about heroes, but about ordinary men, and it embraces their flaws and shows the reality of their hellish situation without attempting to glorify or polish the experience. It acknowledges harsh truths: bad things happen to good people; sometimes insufferable people come out on top; and sometimes an individual’s only redeeming trait is that he hasn’t done anything wrong. The film succeeds in a different way, by cultivating an atmosphere of “Us Versus Them,” while the play acknowledges that we can be our own worst enemy. It is this unsentimental portrayal of flawed men struggling to survive in circumstances that may bring out their worst that may make the Bevan- Trzcinski Stalag less fun than Billy Wilder’s camp, but in the end, more real.

  2. Hogan: I recommend the episode “LeBeau and the Little Old Lady,” funny as can be and featuring the ravishing Celeste Yarnell. How did prisoners of war make contact with beautiful women on almost a weekly basis?

    • You know all those resistance women were gorgeous. Celeste Yarnell passed a couple of years ago. But Nita Talbot – the Russian femme fatale Marya – is still living. Same age as my grandmother.

      I love the one where Klink is kidnapped mistakenly in place of General Burkhalter in front of Schultz. Burkhalter and Major Hochstetter show up:

      Hochstetter: Schultz, I want you to describe the man who gave this note.
      Schultz: Well, he had black boots and…
      Hochstetter: Nevermind how he was dressed! What did he look like?
      Schultz: A German luger

      or the one where the animals escaped from the zoo after it was bombed:

      Klink (on phone): Yes, General Burkhalter, my men are doing all they can to capture the animals that escaped from the zoo. But, you see, it is the fault of the zookeeper. We’ve never had an escape from our camp, only from the zoo! Transfer me to the zoo? What a delightful sense of humor you have, General Burkhalter.

  3. As “Jo-Jo Rabbit” demonstrates, making fun of Nazis will always be amusing. And I almost never care what actors are like off screen, as long as they entertain me on screen.

    And I’m curious: does Hogan’s Heroes have any following in Germany?

    • Apparently it was a hit in Germany in 1996 probably because Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz were portrayed as bumbling fools rather than coldly efficient Nazi.

    • It wasn’t shown for a long time. It was also edited to appeal to German sensibilities, such as the dubbing changing lines to include bits about Hilda/Helga (Klink’s look-alike secretaries) cleaning in the nude.

      And, of course, “Heil Hitler” is not allowed.

Leave a Reply to Jack Marshall Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.