The Boys from Brazil

by Ira Levin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This novel by Ira Levin, published in 1976 and adapted for a feature film in 1978, was a major best seller building on the author's previous successes with Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives. Levin would explore issues of contemporary significance (such as the occult, feminism, or robotics, as exemplified in these stories) and push them to slightly more extreme conclusions. In The Boys from Brazil, the nascent (at the time) technology of cloning was applied to the question of whether it might be possible or desirable to create a new living version of Adolph Hitler.

The novel doesn't delve too deeply into the philosophy of the Nazi regime, instead relying on the reader's own understanding of world history to fill in the gaps and to understand that such a story—that posits an intentional reinvention of one of the twentieth century's most notorious figures of evil—must surely be a horror story. The scientific basis for the story also invokes the term science fiction to describe this novel. Levin was more interested in the human impact of this science, however, than explaining the details of how it worked. In one scene, one of the "boys," who is cloned and raised to possibly step into Hitler's legacy, asks a Nazi hunter and Holocaust scholar (Liebermann) about the plot:

“Do you kill the Nazis when you catch them?” the boy asked.
“No,” Liebermann said.
“Why not?”
“It’s against the law. Besides, it’s better to put them on trial. That way more people learn about them.”
“Learn what?” The boy looked skeptical.
“Who they were, what they did.”

This exchange suggests that the notion that one can learn from history, so as not to repeat it, is not a sufficient criterion for those would want to replace the evil of the Third Reich. In fact, their "lesson" from history is that their failure to bring the Nazis to total world domination can be rectified by a careful application of science. This of course echoes the chilling use of "experiments" on human subjects in the concentration camps during WWII.

One could also call this an example of speculative fiction: a story that depicts a plausible outcome based upon a continued expansion of current social conditions. At one point, Liebermann discusses what is needed in order to revive the Nazi ideology in the modern world. "Two factors are necessary for a resurgence of Nazism; a worsening of social conditions and the emergence of a Hitler-like leader."

In 1976, however, the emergence of white supremacist groups informed by Nazi propaganda was not yet widely known about. These words have a far more chilling impact today, given the spread of white supremacist ideology throughout the United States and Europe. The recent death of Lyndon Larouche, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who tried many times (unsuccessfully) to run for president, reminds us that such ideology is no longer the stuff of speculative fiction.

Liebermann expands on his remarks further on:

I say in my talks it takes two things to make it happen again, a new Hitler and social conditions like in the thirties. But that's not true. It takes three things: the Hitler, the conditions, and the people to follow the Hitler.

This suggests that creating the conditions of the potential rise of a "Fourth Reich" is made possible only if there is already a predisposition to follow a leader who espouses an agenda based on racism, bigotry, and domination. Certainly one can see parallels between this novel and the current situation in the United States, given issues surrounding immigration and political asylum sought by immigrants.

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