Silly, silly Susan Sarandon: Who you callin’ Nazi?

Last weekend, at the Hamptons Film Festival in Sag Harbor, the actress Susan Sarandon referred to Pope Benedict XVI as a ‘Nazi’.

During an onstage interview with actor Bob Balaban, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Sarandon mentioned she had sent the Pope a copy of “Dead Man Walking”—the empathetic story of a man on death row, which was made into a film starring Sarandon and Sean Penn. Asked to clarify which Pope she sent it to, Sarandon said, “The last one, not this Nazi one we have now.”

The comment prompted the usual outrage from the usual folks, because it was a stupid thing to say. While it is true that the German-born pope, Joseph Ratzinger, was conscripted into the Hitler Youth at age 14—“along with every other young German boy,” as Catholic League of America president William Donohue pointed out—but he was apparently, as his Wikipedia entry puts it, an “unenthusiastic member”.

According to a 2005 profile in USA Today, Ratzinger and his family secretly listened to Allied radio broadcasts during the war. “It was a small and risky act of defiance in this conservative Bavarian village deep inside Adolf Hitler’s Germany,” the article noted, adding, “people who knew the Ratzingers said they were never willingly part of the Nazi machine.” Phew. The young Joseph Ratzinger was apparently so preoccupied with seminary studies, he didn’t have the time to attend Nazi-grooming meetings. “He was very certainly not for Hitler,” someone from his village was quoted as saying. “You could try to avoid [being conscripted] but it was very, very difficult,” said another. According to the article, Pope Benedict addressed his involvement in his autobiography, “Salt of the Earth” by reassuring readers he deliberately skipped meetings.

Pope Benedict is not a Nazi. But does Susan Sarandon have any idea of what a Nazi is? Because if she did, she might not make such a stupid and wildly hyperbolic comparison. Whether this suggests profound historical ignorance on her part or savage hatred of the Pope, it is alarming either way. Since when does disagreeing with papal policy warrant insult of this scale?

And yet, the impulse to cry Nazi at anyone who is perceived as objectionable or unlikable is common in our culture. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has even taken to chronicling all the various instances in which seemingly sane and well adjusted people start calling other seemingly sane and well adjusted people Nazis. On his blog, Goldberg keeps a running list—“Nazis Everywhere”—of the myriad mindless (mis)uses of the term. It is, he writes, “a way of proving the obvious point, which is that people reaching for insults should find something better than Nazi.” 

A Nazi is a cruel, cold-hearted, mass-murderer. A Nazi forces 6 million Jews into burning ovens, suffocating showers and mass graves. A Nazi acts out brutality and violence of the most savage kind, making no distinction between man, woman, child, elder or infirm – humane or inhumane.

If you don’t like someone, call them an a—hole.