When I was a kid, I loved the show Hogan’s Heroes. What’s not to love? In the middle of an unpopular war, we got comedy about the most noble war in our history. Plus: zany Nazis! What I didn’t understand at the time were all the politics. Some of this was quite good. The lovable Sergeant Schultz, for example, was said to be a Social Democrat. He was an example of the good German stuck living under the rule of the Nazis. But not all the politics in the show were so benign.
In particular, Hogan’s Heroes is very much part of American Cold War propaganda. The most obvious example of this is the fact there there is no soviet POW. This wasn’t true of the pilot episode, but even still, the character was old and primarily a tailor, a role that was easily integrated into Newkirk. So the final cast is three American, and one each of French and British who were both of lower rank than all the Americans. And the only two who are taken seriously are the Americans Hogan and Kinch. This is all perfect, because Americans at the time and even today think that World War II is a story of how America came in to help their foolish but good friends. USSR? Did they send any troops?
The best example of our attitudes toward the Soviet Union was the character of Russian spy Marya, played by my generation’s Rosalind Russell, Nita Talbot. Don’t know who that is? Let me refresh your memory:
When I was a kid, I hated her character. Now she is by far my favorite character. Of course, even she is referred to a “White Russian,” which pretty much means a Russian who ain’t too keen on all this communism. But even still, she is a morally ambiguous character. The viewer never knows whose side she’s on. Of course, in every case she turns out to be on the side of the Allies.
I couldn’t believe that Hogan’s gang trusted her, when I watched the show as a child. At 5, I was immune to her sexy charms. Watching it now, I don’t know why Hogan is so skeptical about her. She always turned out to be a loyal ally. Of course, the real reason he was skeptical, was that that was central to the comic gold that Marya was. Each episode was the same: Marya shows up, appears to rat out Hogan, and it all ends well.
But look what it told the American public: even in World War II, the Russians couldn’t be trusted; sure, they were on our side, but only because our interests intersected (as if that wasn’t true of all of the Allies). What’s more, Russians as a people were not really like us.
There is so much wrong with Hogan’s Heroes. I’ve met people whose parents would not allow them to watch the show, with very good reason. It is hard to make fun of Nazis as stupid and impotent when they were anything but. And the show pushes American superiority over even our closest allies in a way that I’m very uncomfortable with. Yet it is a whole lot of fun and I never tire of watching Nita Talbot.
There is, of course, another take on Marya: a Freudian take. She symbolizes ephemeral commitments: the desire for uncomplicated sex. And this is why the sex crazed LeBeau always trusts her. Hogan, the American hero, does not admit to believing in such casual sex. It is perfectly all right for him to have dozens of casual affairs with mousy, nonthreatening women. But the American male ego is fearful of a woman who interacts with him as an equal—one who is clear that she wants what he wants.