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Building the Boys from Brazil

Evil paper clips... Eeeeeviiiilllll!
Just recently, I saw the film The Boys from Brazil for sale at my local JB HiFi (sort of like an Aussie Best Buy) for cheap and saw that Gregory Peck was in it. There was a swastika on the cover too, so I bought it, assuming it would be about Gregory Peck kicking Nazi butt and taking names in South America.

What I got instead was alt-history scifi with Peck playing escaped Nazi war criminal Dr Josef Mengele in Brazil trying to re-create Adolf Hitler using 95 clones. The idea was that with the same genes as the original, all you would need to do would be to recreate Hitler’s environment growing up (family life, major events etc.) in the lives of the clones and at least one of them would grow up and become the same guy who took over half of Europe in World War 2.

To that end, Mengele and his Neo Nazi backers sent out agents to do things like murder the boys’ adoptive fathers when the boys were the same age as the original Hitler was when his own father died. They even vetted the families for similarities to Hitler’s for things like income, the type of job the father had, the comparative ages of the adoptive parents and possibly pre-existing racist beliefs in the family.

Throughout the movie, you see glimpses of how the boys’ lives and personalities developed. What I thought was clever was that they all had some kind of artistic hobby, be it playing with marionettes/puppets, photography or music (the original wanted to be a painter growing up) and that they were all spoilt, stuck-up little so-and-sos despite being raised in different parts of the world, implying that the plan was working to a certain extent, at least in the initial stages.

The actual “science” part of the scifi is a little out of date and there are some goofs, for instance when comparing identical twins to clones and declaring that clones are more alike than twins, but apart from that it holds up reasonably well. Especially prescient is the description of the cloning process, which closely mirrors what biologists do today, but that was at that time (1978) only theoretically possible.

The film and the book by Ira Levin it was based on both end with the plan being foiled by the protagonist, but only after 18 of the boys’ fathers were already killed. The film and the book both imply that this was all that was statistically required for at least one of the boys to grow up to become the next Hitler (though to what confidence interval this was calculated to was never stated). The book apparently ends with one boy exhibiting delusions of grandeur like his clone father, foreshadowing a repeat of the horrors the original Hitler wrought.

After the credits rolled and I had digested Gregory Peck’s amazing performance, I began to think about just what would be required to orchestrate such a plan. The film’s Mengele was a character of such arrogant bombast, such diabolical supervillainy and calculated genius that I wouldn’t doubt his ability to fulfill the task. All the same, it would be a staggering challenge that would net the man a Nobel prize were it not for the fact that his work happened to be in the service of some of the purest kind of evil. No matter how early Peck’s Mengele got up in the morning, he must have had some help, is what I’m getting at.

Putting aside the plausibility of Mengele achieving human cloning in a Paraguayan shack back in 1964, let alone on such a mass scale, what really struck me was the sheer audacity, resources and long-term planning that such a project would necessarily involve.

In the film, it is mentioned that the cloning process is very inefficient, meaning that nine in ten attempts at a successful clone pregnancy end in failure. Thus to get 95 healthy boys, Mengele would have needed to have attempted the process nearly 1,000 times. In reality, for a variety of reasons, the failure rate is much higher, between 97% and 99.9%, meaning that to get the same results in the real world, Mengele would need to repeat the process between 3,000 and 95,000 times.

Mengele would have needed a veritable assembly line of doctors working round the clock even at the optimistic success rates the movie cites. Not to mention all the women required to carry the cloned babies to term and the money and medical staff needed to look after them all. Ten doctors trained in the cutting edge cloning process, two or three hundred potential mothers and an entire hospital wing worth of staff and equipment would be the minimum required to pull it off and even then, it would take years.

Then there’s the issue of financing the venture. In the film, Mengele mentions that the project cost millions of dollars to bring to fruition. Given the technology and scale involved, this sounds about right, even in Paraguay and even in 1960s US dollars. This begs the question of just where Mengele and the Neo Nazis got all that money.

The answer, presumably, lies in hoards of what is referred to as Nazi Gold – confiscated wealth, art and treasure laundered through and secreted away in Swiss bank accounts during the war. This is a conspiracy theory with an element of truth to it, as members of the Nazi regime did become very wealthy and much of this wealth made its way into the secretive Swiss banking system, but to what extent this wealth was accessible after the war is open to speculation. We do know that it amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars and as much as three quarters of it may have been looted since the war, giving the film some firm basis of plausibility on that account.

Then there is the matter, once the boys were born and covertly distributed to their adoptive families, of ensuring that their lives followed the same trajectory as that of Hitler himself, an altogether more difficult proposition. The film showed how the task of murdering the boys’ fathers could be managed by six men with fake IDs and an unlimited travel and guns budget. What the movie did not show was the difficulty in arranging further transformational events in the boys’ lives that would mirror the biography of the man they were created from.

Two transformational events in Hitler’s adult life that would be harder for Mengle’s goons to recreate would be the young Hitler’s years spent homeless and alone as a failed artist on the streets of cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic Vienna and his tour of duty as a soldier on the front lines in France during World War 1. Both of these events were instrumental in the making of the man who inspired Godwyn’s Law, the first for helping to cement his racism and the second for filling him with the all-consuming rage that would fuel his political fire.

Without either of these things happening, Hitler may just have become a clerk or the owner of an art gallery somewhere, married some farm girl and raised three average and unremarkable kids, dying in relative anonymity surrounded by grieving grandchildren. Instead of stoking the blaze of Armageddon that was World War 2, he could have led a perfectly dull life and it all hinged in these two events.

Clearly, just killing the boys’ fathers isn’t enough.

The failed artistic career and subsequent homelessness would probably be easy for the agents to ensure because, let’s be honest, Hitler was never very good at painting and the clones would probably get rejected from art/music/dance/clown school on their own merits anyway. The issue was never that the young Hitler had bad technique – it was that he just painted what he saw in a time when modern, abstract art was beginning to flourish. He was utterly lacking in the kind of imaginative flair that characterises a good artist and that art schools looked for in potential applicants and so, he was told time and again to apply again next year. This would make him hate modern art in later life and his drive to stamp it outward in part a reaction to this crushing rejection.

Having said that, if the bar happened to be set particularly low that year, a clone or two might actually get into their school of choice and be exposed to a very different kind of life to that of a starving street vagabond. He might try a few mind altering substances (it being the early to mid 1980s), be exposed to all sorts of unconventional political ideas by his teachers and maybe even meet a cute Jewish or black girl who would go in to turn his world upside down. After that, the clone would be useless to Mengele. He just would not be angry or racist enough by half and probably even hold pacifistic left wing political views.

This isn’t even considering that during the mid 1980s, welfare programs that didn’t exist in the early 1910s were by then well in place in many countries, so that the clones would not have to actually experience starvation or homelessness even if they were rejected from their school of choice. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the conditions wouldn’t still be harrowing or life altering, after all, a clone living on welfare in 1980s New York or London would be living in some rough neighbourhoods, but you might mitigate the worst of the racism the original Hitler developed during his time as a vagabond.

Sure, Mengele’s lackeys could use intimidation, blackmail or bribery to keep the young clones out of school, but how would they force the issue of privation and abject poverty? They could periodically rob the boys or have their stuff destroyed, which would require consistent monitoring and sustained effort, but that would require more men.

Simulating the effect of World War 1 would prove even more difficult as the cultural impact of World War 1 as compared to other wars cannot be overstated. Before World War 2 came along, it was called The Great War, the War To End All Wars and a bunch of other names to connote just how big a deal it was. It changed the world in many fundamental ways, arguably moreso than World War 2 did.

Prior to World War 1, people in Europe thought of wars as grand romantic adventures, full of brave deeds and noble causes like love, duty, loyalty and honour. Prior to World War 1, people were living in the world of Napoleon and Wellington, of cavalry charges, resplendent uniforms, curled moustaches, shiny buckles and cannon fire. The First World War destroyed all of that. War became about industrialised death: grisly, dirty, explodey, impersonal, inglorious death. It didn’t matter anymore if you were brave or plucky, skilled or strong, daring or beautiful because mortar fire and mustard gas would kill you just the same as your cowardly, weak, inept, ugly comrades.

At the end of World War 1, gone were the men on horseback in their bright blue uniforms, ornate sabers, spiked helmets and polished brass buckles. Here to stay were round helmets, drab uniforms and guns. War had taken a turn for the industrial and in the time it took for the generals on both sides to realise this, an entire generation had been traumatised by the sight of thousands of men dying all at once in what could only be described as wholesale butchery.

A big part of the problem was that this was a time when war had been a gentlemanly affair in which death was dealt on a more-or-less individual basis and the kind of mass destruction we take for granted about war today was completely unimaginable. Sure, the world saw glimpses of it during, say, the American Civil War, but to most Europeans, that had been a regional conflict that had taken place on the other side of the world, so it really didn’t matter.

The full scale of the horror of modern warfare, then, just kind of hit all at once for the belligerents in genteel Europe. It was so very extreme in both the stresses and the stakes that some people came home at the end of the war fully prepared to go to extremes in every other aspect of their lives, and this was especially true in politics. Hitler, being among this generation, cited it as transforming him into the political firebrand he would become.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the eponymous boys from Brazil would have been of age with Hitler during World War 1, would have had no real analogue for this life-changing event. Perhaps some if them could have served in the Gulf War or in Afghanistan, or perhaps in one of several other minor or proxy wars fought by the countries with majority-white populations in which they were placed, but these would have been nothing compared to the psychic shock that World War 1 brought to the table for that generation. Not only that, but the possibility of mass destruction is now priced into people’s expectations for war, which lessens the effect.

Which is to say nothing of the fact that Hitler’s politics were heavily influenced by the simple fact that Germany lost the war, and in such specifically ambiguous (to the common soldier) circumstances that a myth about the soldiers being “stabbed in the back” began to develop around the Armistice. Hitler’s politics and even his political drive would have been radically different if, say, Germany had won the war or had lost unequivocally in the eyes of the common soldier. The wind in Hitler’s sails was the profound sense of shame and betrayal felt by a sizable portion of the German populace and either of those outcomes would rob any of his clones of that political power.

I would have to wonder at what machinations Mengele’s flying monkeys would attempt to emulate the very specific circumstances of the end of World War 1. This is where the scheme would likely have completely broken down, assuming it hadn’t already.

Even assuming all of that went according to plan and at least one of the boys went through the various transformative events to turn him into a Hitler for the new millennium, it would only be circa 2005 that he would be ready to rise to power as Hitler had around the age of 40. Here then, lies the final problem.

2005 in Sweden, Germany, the UK, the US, Canada and Austria is not 1935. The world has seen a figure like Hitler before, has seen what a fascist mode of government looks like, has much better attitudes toward race, has stronger democracies and a more stable financial system in 2005 than in 1935*, which would ultimately mean that the clone’s seizure of power would not look like Hitler’s and may not even be feasible. There isn’t any guarantee that anyone would listen to the clone’s angry message about national renewal through ethnic cleansing because the world has not been turned upside down**. In an age of YouTube and Internet ubiquity, there’s every chance that such a diatribe would simply get lost in a sea of cat pictures and rage faces.

* No, really. The economy is bad after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but it isn’t Great Depression Grapes of Wrath era bad.

** The attacks on the 11th of September, 2001 and the cultural changes that came with it to the US notwithstanding.

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