Dictatorship of the ‘Stache

Is there a link between dictators’ brutality and facial hair?  This is the question Rich Cohen explores in his article “Becoming Adolf” in this month’s Vanity Fair.   And come to find out, the “Hitler mustache” as we now know and love it was not always the property of the world’s most renowned murderer.  Nor was it some strange style Hitler dreamed up in a Bavarian beer hall.  The toothbrush mustache as it was called at the end of the 19th century was a fad that swept Germany via the United States.  And people wonder why anti-Americanism is so widespread.

There has been much specutlation as to why a young Hitler decided to don the toothbrush one day in 1919.  Some speculate it was Charlie Chaplain’s fault, who, Cohen tells us, began wearing it in 1915 when he did his Mack Sennett comedies.  Maybe the real imputeous was to emulate Hans Koeppen, a Prussian lieutenant who was a sort of a pop star on the European continent.  Or it could be argued that Hitler could have thought that growing the hairy blot on his upper lit paid good nationalist homage to William Hohenzollern Jr, the son of the last Kasier who is shown with a Toothbrush in photos taken in 1918.  Or Hitler’s labium might have had more instrumental purposes.  As Cohen writes:

According to a recently re-discovered essay by Alexander Moritz Frey, who served with Hitler in the First World War, Hitler wore the mustache in the trenches. Because he had been ordered to. The old bushy mustache did not fit under his equipment. In other words, the mustache that defines Hitler was cut in a shape to fit a gas mask. Which is perfect. Because Hitler was the bastard son of the Great War, conceived in the trenches, born in defeat. He inhaled mustard gas and exhaled Zyklon B.

As we all know, the Toothbrush didn’t survive Hitler in name or as fashion accessory.  The earliest reference Cohen could find of the Toothbrush becoming the Hitler mustache was from 1942.  It was then that Norwegian premier and Nazi sympathizer, Vidkun Quisling, issued a decree forbidding stage actors from donning Hitler’s ‘stasche as a way to parody the dictator.  “The purpose of this singular ordinance is,” as the NY Times reported at the time, “to halt ‘actor-pranks’ that have been ‘stopping the show’ by affecting a Hitler mustache.”  It sounds like the NY Times quip caught on because after that the “Toothbrush” was lost to the historical ether.

Facial hair, as Cohen argues, is not without its political costs.  Hitler’s big problem when his little mustache was concerned was not so much that it was a fashion don’t, it was because of Charlie Chaplin.  Sharing the ‘stashe with the Little Tramp, Cohen says, had ramifications in the political realm.  Ramifications which in hindsight might have bolstered the Allies appeasement of Hitler.

Ron Rosenbaum argues that the presence of Chaplin’s ‘stache on Hitler’s face encouraged Western leaders to underestimate the Führer. “Chaplin’s mustache became a lens through which to look at Hitler,” he writes. “A glass in which Hitler became merely Chaplinesque: a figure to be mocked more than feared, a comic villain whose pretensions would collapse of his own disproportionate weight like the Little Tramp collapsing on his cane. Someone to be ridiculed rather than resisted.”

That is not all in terms of the Toothbrush now Hitler mustache’s political impact.  Since WWII facial hair has all but become verboten among America’s political elite.   No American president has worn not so much as a five o’clock shadow since then.  The last President to sport a hairy lip was Teddy Roosevelt.  Looking at Teddy’s flush upper lip now in comparison to the baby faced Executives since, you come to realize that ol’Theordore was perhaps the last real man to live in the White House.  Somehow more recent attempts to pump political machismo fall flat, no matter how many times Reagan wore that cowboy hat or cameras show Bush the Younger workin’ down on the ranch.

But it is no wonder that after WWII facial hair fell from grace among American leaders.  Because if Hitler’s Hitler didn’t signify pure evil in every bristle, then Stalin, the other great mustachioed dictator of the 20th century, picked up the slack.  In fact, it now appears that facial hair on leaders is only relegated to the “rouge” or “failing” states of the Third World.  Think about it.  There was Saddam and his thick caterpillar; Osama Bin Laden’s, not to mention every Muslim badguy, old growth beard;  and though he’s an American ally, I’m sure some in the State Department wonder if Pervez Musharraf pencilstache might hold a hint of evil just waiting to jump out.   No, in American political culture the ‘stache stinks and rightly so.  In fact the only place facial hair can be found in America is among the bohemian bourgeois, the Hollywood soul patch cool, cops, pimps, Ranchero club goers, country music stars, and leisure suit wearing slime balls.  If anything, this list is a reminder that the Hitler mustache is not alone in the pantheon where bad people come with bad facial hair.