Captain America is a Nazi. Well, according to Marvel, that’s not technically true. As part of the ongoing Secret Empire event storyline that’s been building for more than a year, Steve Rodgers has turned evil thanks to some universe-altering shenanigans. Captain America is loyal to Hydra, the vile organization he used to fight as a good guy, and Marvel has been trying to convince outraged fans that this isn’t the same thing as being a Nazi, despite the fictional villains’ longtime association with the real-life group. However, not everyone is buying it, especially since a lot of the heinous stuff HydraCap is doing feels pretty dang Nazi-like, echoing real Nazi tradition and myth.
The Free Comic Book Day issue of Secret Empire ends with a truly shocking image: Captain America standing over the defeated Avengers and wielding Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir. This, of course, means that HydraCap is “worthy” of lifting the hammer. Considering the fact that the Nazi party tends to be comprised of huge Norse mythology fans, that’s a doubly-charged image.
“Like any new group that rises up out of somewhere, they needed to make a justification and pretend that they’ve always been there and link themselves back to ancient times,” S. Brent Rodriguez-Plate, an associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, tells Inverse. When the Nazi party rose to power, Adolf Hitler strip-mined religious iconography from around the world and twisted it to serve his purposes. Famously, the Swastika is an ancient religious symbol throughout Asia, but it’s now infamous for being the primary Nazi emblem.
“From an early state, the Nazi party was very interested in good, vivid images,” Randall Bytwerk, a professor at Calvin College and the creator of the German Propaganda Archive, tells Inverse. Norse mythology and Nordic runes were alluring symbols for many reasons, not the least of which were related to their warped understanding of race. “The ultimate Nordic race included not only the Germans but also the Dutch and the Scandinavians,” Bytwerk says. “So, if you look at it, Nordic mythology is really the only indigenously nordic religion that was available.”
Bytwerk notes that Hitler was a big fan of the German composer Richard Wagner, whose Ring Cycle retold epic tales of war and valkyries.
“Nordic mythology tended to glorify battle and heroism,” Bytwerk says. “It wasn’t a turn the other cheek religion, which, of course, was something that the Nazis wouldn’t have appreciated in Christianity. So, without saying that Hitler was a believer in the old Nordic gods — which he absolutely wasn’t — the content of Nordic mythology was extremely consistent with a lot of Nazi ideology.”
The Nazis weren’t believers in the old myths, but they were fans. Their paramilitary organization, the Schutzstaffel or SS, wore insignia inspired by Nordic runes, for instance, but they also specifically invoked Thor’s hammer.
To this day, the Anti-Defamation League lists Thor’s Hammer as a hate symbol, noting that it’s been “appropriated by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, especially those who practice racist or white supremacist versions of neo-Norse beliefs under the guise of Odinism or Wotanism.”
In WWII, Mjölnir was everywhere — or his work was, at least. Hans Schweitzer, one of the most prominent Nazi propaganda and poster artists, used the legendary object as his pen name. “He was almost a hammer of Nazism, so to speak,” Bytwerk says, noting that his cartoons tended to have an emphasis on strength. “Just kind of flattening the characters that had the gall not to recognize Adolf Hitler’s claim to leadership.”
Thor’s Mjölnir of myth was different from the hammer that the superhero wields. In the comics, only the “worthy” can lift Thor’s hammer — that’s why it’s kind of a big deal that evil HydraCap can hoist it up. In the old myths, though, people steal Mjölnir all the time. So, while the concept of “only the worthy” wasn’t baked into the original tales, it’s something that the Nazis probably would’ve gotten behind.
“Adapt the word ‘worthy’ into the word ‘purity,’” Plate suggests, noting that the concept of “purity” is found in most religious traditions as a way to divide objects and people.
“The Nazis weren’t the only ones doing this, but they were doing it the most violently at the time saying ‘we are the pure ones and the other ones are not even human.’” Plate says. “Not only are they not worthy, but they’re not even human, which leads to the Holocaust.”
Marvel is facing unprecedented flak for turning its star-spangled hero into a de facto Nazi. Even if the publisher says Hydra is different, the Marvel Cinematic Universe tied the two together in the general public’s minds. And, even if Hydra technically aren’t a bunch of Nazis, they worked alongside Germany in WWII.
The thematic and visual similarities between the two organization are obvious as well, and the optics are bad. Captain America (who is a perfect blond, blue-eyed Aryan specimen, don’t forget), incorporates almost all the hallmarks of Nazism down to their embrace of Norse myth. It’s not just the hammer — Odinson, the original Thor, has aligned with HydraCap for unclear reasons. Perhaps, in the Marvel Universe, the Norse pantheon really did like what the Nazis were doing.
Captain America has picked up Mjölnir before, so chances are Marvel’s making the case that the hammer still recognizes the good person inside of HydraCap, setting the stage to his inevitable return to the good guy’s side. However, as Bleeding Cool notes, one of the last times he did that was six years ago during the Fear Itself event. And, back then, he was wielding it to fight Nazis.
Chances are actual Nazis would’ve preferred Secret Empire’s take on Norse myth.