Skye: That – that is the twisted logic that they teach you when you sign up to be a Nazi.
Ward: Stop. Wait. I’m not a Nazi.
Skye: Yes, you are. That is exactly what you are. It’s in the SHIELD handbook, chapter one. The Red Skull, founder of Hydra, was a big, fat, freaking Nazi.
—Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Season 1, Episode 20: “Nothing Personal”
When it comes to fictitious terrorist organizations, HYDRA is impressive. Evil and despicable, but impressive. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the failure of Insight was HYDRA’s first major setback in seventy years. They evaded detection within S.H.I.E.L.D. for nearly a century. As villains, they’re a great threat.
In fandom, they’re also the cause of much debate. I’ve seen those who write fan fiction from the point of view of HYDRA agents called Nazi sympathizers. I’ve seen people called “racist shitbags” for discussing HYDRA’s ideologies in meta posts. Tumblr as a whole leans toward a disturbingly binary view of morality and history, and the overall Tumblr reaction to fans of HYDRA characters displays that clearly.
The “are HYDRA Nazis” debate is one I’ve seen time and again, and one that always seems to go the same way. I doubt that this post will end that debate, but I feel compelled to put my feelings on the matter into print. Maybe I’ll change minds and maybe I won’t. At the very least, I hope to create a useful resource for people having this argument.
Below the Read More, I will discuss the following questions. Each section header will be bolded, so you can skip to whatever section you would like. Is MCU HYDRA a Nazi organization? Is comic Hydra a Nazi organization? Does it detract from the intent of Captain America’s creators to have him fight non-Nazis? What about Neo-Nazism? Even if HYDRA is not Nazi, aren’t they still irredeemably evil? Why does any of this matter?
This will be a long post. There’s a lot of ground to cover.
Is MCU HYDRA a Nazi organization?
When we talk about HYDRA in the MCU, I find it necessary to talk about their portrayal in Captain America: The First Avenger separately from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, because the portrayal of HYDRA onscreen greatly varies between the films.
With The First Avenger, it seems as if the intent of the filmmakers was to display Captain America fighting Nazis without having him actually fight Nazis. Whether that’s because Marvel was afraid of offending people or whether they did not want to delve into the horrors of the Holocaust in a summer blockbuster, I’m not sure. But HYDRA in the film certainly has all the characteristics we view as shorthand for Nazi.
Their uniforms are very similar to those of the SS, albeit with the logo for HYDRA rather than just the skull. They have prison camps with forced labor and medical experimentation on humans. The Hail HYDRA salute resembles the Heil. They bring to mind Nazis, and that is intentional.
But the film and its tie-in materials also take pains to demonstrate HYDRA’s separation from the Nazi party. In the prequel comic for The First Avenger, Captain America: First Vengeance by Fred Van Lante and Luke Ross, Johann Schmidt is portrayed as directly insulting Nazi ideology to Dr. Erskine:
“Rubbish. Racist superstition masquerading as junk science. We know that the superior man will not be born, Professor Erskine. He will not be a member of any “master race.” He will be a race unto himself. And you are going to help me make him.”
“You work with Nazis even though you do not follow their ideology?”
Schmidt explicitly denounces the concept of the Aryan master race (and consequently, the Jewish race’s repression and exploitation of the Aryan race), a core tenet of Nazi ideology. He makes it clear that his affiliation with Nazism lies not in the philosophy, but in the resources it can provide him. In the same comic, it is shown that Schmidt has been killing Nazis since 1934.
Of course, the prequel comic is of dubious continuity with the film series; for example, it states that Steve Rogers was living in an orphanage as a child, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier portrays Sarah Rogers dying when Steve was either a teen or an adult. So let’s examine how the film itself displays Schmidt’s connection to the Nazis.
When Hitler sends officers to confront Schmidt in The First Avenger, it is stated that “[Schmidt’s] HYDRA division has failed to produce so much as a rifle in over a year, and [the officers] have learned through local intelligence that [Schmidt] had mounted a full-scale incursion into Norway!” For over a year, Schmidt has been disobeying Hitler’s directives and working to further his own agenda instead. He already has Berlin marked as one of his targets on the map. He refers to “his enemies” separately from Hitler’s, and the Nazis are counted among them. He then proceeds to murder the officers and tells Zola that “we both knew HYDRA could grow no further in Hitler’s shadow.” HYDRA began as a “beautiful parasite” within the Nazi party, but at this point in the film, HYDRA has leeched all the resources it needed from the Third Reich in order to stand on its own. It can be surmised from that moment on that membership within HYDRA branded an individual as a traitor to Nazi Germany. There may be individual members who believed in Nazism (Whitehall’s beliefs are much more in line with the Nazis than HYDRA), but the organization as a whole and its head certainly did not.
In Schmidt’s final scene of the film, he tells Rogers that “[he] has seen the future, Captain! There are no flags!” One of the tenets of Nazism is German nationalism, which Schmidt obviously lacks.
In The Winter Soldier, HYDRA is described as the “Nazi rogue science division” in the Smithsonian exhibit. This is the only time in the film that HYDRA is mentioned in relation to the Nazis, and the use of the word “rogue” suggests a separation.
As for HYDRA’s ideology, Zola states that “HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize was that if you tried to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly.” By HYDRA’s philosophy, for the world to have peace, people must submit to the authority of a superior man. This man will be made, not born, as demonstrated by Schmidt’s desire to become the superior man through science rather than attempting to breed a superior race, as the Nazis tried to breed Aryan perfection.
HYDRA, unlike the Nazi party, is not concerned with racial purity. They do not support the repressive police state that Himmler advocated for, but rather willing submission (Granted, they chose to create this submission through fear mongering and destruction, but being hypocrites does not necessitate that they are Nazis). HYDRA’s philosophies are more Hobbesian than they are Nazi. Hobbes believed that humanity is naturally disordered and must submit to a sovereign authority to form society. People would willingly surrender their rights to the sovereign authority in order for protection.
As demonstrated in this meta by wintercyan, HYDRA’s methods within The Winter Soldier are direct, deliberate parallels to the United States Government:
“[A]ll the evil things HYDRA/S.H.I.E.L.D. does in CA:TWS are just scaled-up versions of evil things done by the US government in real life. Project Insight? US military intelligence is already spying on allied civilians and governments. The Insight helicarriers neutralizing threats before they even happen? Preemptive drone strikes. Secretly feeding crises, reaping war? US foreign politics since 1945. Natasha leaking S.H.I.E.L.D.’s files? Wikileaks.”
In either film, HYDRA does not demonstrate the racism that the Nazi party is infamously remembered for. They are concerned with control and power rather than racial purity. Notably, Jasper Sitwell appears to be a high-ranking member of HYDRA—enough so to take direct phone calls from Alexander Pierce—so his ethnicity does not seem to have impacted his authority within the organization.
Another point toward HYDRA’s separation from the Nazi party is Ward’s reaction in Season 1, Episode 21 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., “Ragtag.” Garrett asks if Ward has ever heard of HYDRA, and Ward replies that he has not. Contrast this with his vehement negative reaction when Skye calls him a Nazi in the previous episode. Either Ward was a terrible history student, or HYDRA is no longer affiliated with Nazism in Western society. And as opposed to Nazism, which exists to this day, prior to the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., everyone within the MCU seemed to believe that HYDRA collapsed after the war. Rogers even says “HYDRA died with the Red Skull.”
Within the MCU, the founder of HYDRA explicitly states the end of his affiliation with the Nazi party and his rejection of their beliefs. The politics and practices of HYDRA are more neo-conservative totalitarian than they are Nazi.
Is comic Hydra a Nazi organization?
No. It is possible to be a Nazi and a member of Hydra, but one does not necessitate the other.
Hydra outdates Nazism by thousands of years. The Nazi party was established in 1920, whereas Marvel’s Secret Warriors #1 states that Hydra formed during the Third Dynasty of Egypt (c. 2650—c. 2575 BC):
Earliest origins of HYDRA date back to the Third Dynasty of Egypt.
The comic also portrays HYDRA member Baron von Strucker stating that he no longer follows the tenets of Nazism, only desiring power:
“You see, I no longer wish to cleanse the world, I simply want to rule it.”
Of course, comics canon is a convoluted mess that seems to change every other month or so. What about Hydra’s origins at Marvel? Were they originally a Nazi organization?
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced Hydra in the 1965 comic Strange Tales#135. The organization was led by the Imperial Hydra, a businessman named Arnold Brown. After the death of Brown’s wife, he wanted to give his daughter everything his wife had never had, and decided the best way to go about this would be an international terrorist organization. By the end of the issue, Brown was killed and Hydra was defeated.
The comic’s title, “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D,” and its plotline seem to be an attempt to cash in on the spy craze in entertainment at the time: James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E . were very popular in 1960s. The Hydra within the comic had no affiliation with the Nazi party and was an homage to SPECTRE from the Bond franchise. In fact, Hydra’s logo is a clear reference to SPECTRE, as confirmed by its creator.
In 1967, Strange Tales #156 reintroduced the Captain America villain, Baron von Strucker, as the new head of Hydra, leading to the organization’s affiliation with Nazism. But in its original appearance, Hydra had no ties to the Nazis and was a villain for Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. rather than Captain America. The Red Skull, Marvel’s most famous Nazi villain, did not become greatly involved with Hydra until the 1991 comic Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #26.
Many members of Hydra within the comics are also Nazis or support Nazi ideology, but Hydra outdates Nazism, had no original connection to Nazism, and also has a number of non-Nazi members.
Does it detract from the intent of Captain America’s creators to have him fight non-Nazis?
Let’s face it, Captain America was made as a slap in the face to Hitler. (Or rather, a punch. Or rather, over two hundred punches). Created by Jewish cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Steve Rogers is everything that Nazism hates (a sickly, disabled, working class New Deal Democrat who actually got into art school) made into the model of Aryan perfection by a Jewish scientist. This was not unintentional; Simon himself stated that Captain America was a deliberately political character made to express disgust with Nazi Germany and to urge America to enter WWII:
“The opponents to the war were all quite well organized. We wanted to have our say too.”
Captain America is inextricably tied with Nazis in pop culture. And that’s to be expected, as the very first cover of his comic portrayed him punching Hitler in the face. Rogers did not fight in WWII solely out of blind patriotism, but because he felt that Nazism specifically was a threat to New Deal America. He was created to fight Nazis and to encourage others to do the same.
However, in the earliest issues of Captain America, in the months before the US entered the war, Rogers fought a number of villains in the United States. Some were Nazi agents, of course, but there were also corporate tax evaders, fifth columnists, and the German American Bund.
After the war ended, the comic writers struggled to find a new threat for Captain America to face. They tried Communism, but it didn’t work because Captain America’s politics were much closer to socialism than McCarthyism. In fact, later retcons would say that “Commie Smasher” Captain America was an imposter; that’s how ill-fitting the idea was.
Clearly, Nazi opposition is a huge, fundamental part of the character of Captain America. So does it detract from him when Marvel makes movies that deliberately distance Hydra from the Nazis? Is it an insult to his creators’ original intent, and a disservice to those Captain America was created to fight for?
I cannot say. My heritage is not such that I feel I have a voice in that argument. For whatever my opinion is worth, I do think that The First Avenger’s depiction of WWII was problematic. I feel things were glossed over that should not have been.
But missed opportunities on the part of the creators do not change the canon. The canon of the MCU is that HYDRA is separate from Nazism, and while I have no problem with debates regarding if that was a good choice, I’ve often seen people given flak just for stating the facts of the canon. Someone I follow was called a racist shitbag for pointing out the differences between HYDRA and the Nazis. And wherever your views on how HYDRA should be portrayed fall, that’s not okay.
What about Neo-Nazism?
I’ve seen it said that of course HYDRA in The Winter Soldier doesn’t match up with the Third Reich. They’re Neo-Nazis, the argument goes. Neo-Nazis don’t associate themselves with Hitler, so why should HYDRA?
First, admiration of Hitler is common among Neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazism, after all, adopts many of its ideologies from the Nazism that Hitler promoted: Antisemitism, nationalism, ableism, racism, and homophobia are just some of the borrowed elements. Some Neo-Nazis want to create a fascist police state or a Fourth Reich, while others simply seek to promote hatred, but they are all united in their acceptance of the Nazi’s racism.
The HYDRA shown in The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does not display these traits. Individual members, such as Whitehall, may be racists, but the organization as a whole is not demonstrated to care about one’s sexuality, race, nationality, or whether one is able-bodied. They want power, not racial purity. Pierce did not target specific ethnic or cultural groups with Insight; he targeted anyone who might oppose HYDRA. Garrett did not breed his super soldiers; he built them. And Ward is obviously attached to Chinese-American Skye, in addition to directly saying that he is not a Nazi.
The argument could be made that just because they say they are not Nazis, it doesn’t mean anything. They’re villains and we can’t take them at their word. But in that case, where is the line drawn? By that logic, their philosophies also cannot be used to prove that they are not Nazis, because they could be lying about that as well. It’s a no true Scotsman fallacy:
“No one who isn’t a Nazi would join Hydra!”
“But Pierce was in Hydra, and he wasn’t a Nazi.”
“No one who isn’t truly a Nazi deep down would ever join Hydra!”
That’s not how the world works.
Even if HYDRA is not Nazi, aren’t they still irredeemably evil?
At this point, we delve into personal philosophy, but I don’t believe that anyone is irredeemably evil, no matter what their crimes. That isn’t to say that victims should be required to trust or forgive people who have wronged them, of course. No one should be required to forgive another person or to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I personally believe that calling anyone, even fictional characters, irredeemable can lead to some truly dangerous thinking.
As eatingcroutons states in this meta, even Nazis were not all cackling genocidal supervillains out to exterminate everyone in concentration camps:
“The Nazi leadership engaged in active campaigns of secrecy and propaganda to hide the truth of what was being done in the camps from the general public, including many Nazi party members.
I mean, by 1945 there were 8.5 million members of the Nazi party. Membership of the Hitler Youth and BDM had been compulsory since 1936. Many jobs required people to be Nazi party members to work. Many Nazi party members had been indoctrinated as children, or had joined under duress out of fear for their lives or livelihoods. Nazi party members ranged from people actively engaged in genocide, to people who were simply ignorant of what the Final Solution actually entailed, to people like Oskar Schindler who used his position in the Nazi party to save over a thousand lives.”
Neo-Nazis have also shown the capacity to change and to try to do good in the world: Life After Hate is a nonprofit group founded by former Neo-Nazis, dedicated to promoting compassion and forgiveness.
The danger in statements such as “no redemption for HYDRA” or “all Nazis are evil” is that it allows us to “other” people who have done wrong, both in fiction and in reality. They’re bad guys, they’ll always be bad. Some people are good, and some people are evil. Whatever they do isn’t justified, because they’re evil. Whatever I do is justified, because I’m good.
This is, essentially, the entire second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. HYDRA was wrong to take Bucky’s memories because HYDRA is bad. When S.H.I.E.L.D. erases memories, they’re the good guys. When HYDRA kills gifted people who won’t join them, it’s evil. When S.H.I.E.L.D. puts down hostile gifted people, it had to be done. When HYDRA tortures people, it’s sick. When S.H.I.E.L.D. tortures Ward (solitary confinement is torture), he deserves it.
Viewing the world in a black and white way like this does not help us to overcome hate or change minds. It only helps us to keep from looking at our own actions, and those of our allies, with a critical eye. After all, we’re the good guys. We wouldn’t do anything wrong, right?
Why does any of this matter?
Beyond what I just discussed about othering? Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter if the HYDRA we see in The Winter Soldier and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a part of the Nazi party or not. We should still be able to note what’s wrong in their actions and turn a critical eye toward behaviors in our own society that match those actions.
But unfortunately, in practice, viewing HYDRA as a Nazi group seems to squash a lot of that introspection.
The view of Nazis in Western society is that of cartoonish evil. We put the Nazis in a box labeled “the worst ever,” and we separate ourselves from what’s inside that box. This view of Nazis is the reason we have Godwin’s law.
When people put HYDRA in that box, they often ignore that HYDRA’s actions in The Winter Soldier were exaggerated versions of things the US government is doing. They ignore that Robert Redford was chosen to play the head of HYDRA specifically because he’s an all American good old boy who would have been the actor cast for Cap had these movies been made in his heyday. They ignore that the inspirational speech about the price of freedom was not made just to the S.H.I.E.L.D. employees, but to the audience.
All too often, classifying HYDRA as Nazi reduces and obfuscates The Winter Soldier’s message in the eyes of the viewers. When we’re othering HYDRA, making them the Nazis rather than people like us, we’re becoming complacent with the evil the US government is capable of. We watch S.H.I.E.L.D. break any law they feel like and we think they’re justified, because they’re the good guys, even though the point of The Winter Soldier was that HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D. had become indistinguishable. So until a cry of “Nazis” doesn’t end a debate, until we can discuss the points that the Russos were trying to make without suggesting that when HYDRA does it, it’s different than when Americans do it, I’ll continue to stress the difference between HYDRA and Nazis, because maybe that will get people to do some reflecting.
A life without introspection is not what Steve Rogers would want from us.
 — Wright, Bradford W. (2001). Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 36.
“Hail HYDRA and Heil Hitler?: Hydra and Nazi Ideology” ©lauralot89, originally posted June 2015