The Internet, like history, has not been kind to Adolf Hitler.
The man best known for orchestrating mass murder of an unimaginable scale has found that, in his virtual reincarnation, he's more concerned with the shoddy quality of Microsoft's flight simulator software.
Some time around 2006, a Spanish user posted a short clip from the German epic Der Untergang (Downfall). The movie chronicles the last days of Hitler's life in a Berlin bunker. But in this bizarre re-imagining, the user changed the subtitles so that Hitler appears enraged over the lack of new features in Flight Simulator X.
And so the Downfall meme was born. Just like those stupid bumper stickers in which Calvin pees on everything, there was no shortage of trivial nonsense for Hitler to get mad at.
After exploding in popularity, the meme sort of settled into a quiet cul-de-sac in Web suburbia. Until this week, when Downfall's copyright holders decided to make it popular again, by trying to shut it down.
Constantin Films, the company that owns Downfall, began asking YouTube this week to take down some of the hundreds of parody clips -- something the company tried to do with the original parody video back in 2006. Soon, some of the most popular Downfall videos were off the site.
As a result, countless more people heard about the Downfall meme this week, and a whole host of new ones popped up.
Warning: Embedded video contains offensive language
There are at least a few reasons why the Downfall meme originally spread so quickly. For one thing, it's easy to make. You just replace the subtitles with whatever you like.
But the Downfall clip works so well because it's jarring in that traditional comedic sense. There's Hitler, a guy nobody in their right mind would sympathize with, and he's just losing it because he's been told that one of the Jonas brothers is engaged. He's losing it because he's been kicked off Xbox Live. He's losing it because he's just found out that someone is using a video clip of him and changing the subtitles to make him look stupid. There's something hilarious about taking the worst person in modern history and giving him these problems.
Of course a little bit of controversy doesn't hurt, either. When the Downfall meme really got going, a lot of people complained that creating these things trivialized the suffering of millions. In addition, many of the clips were criticized for taking public figures and insinuating they were Nazis. These days, however, a lot of people hate the meme just because you can't scroll through three YouTube videos before coming across one.
Just like every Internet controversy ever, the attempt to kill the Downfall meme has only made it more popular. The Web is now full of clips showing Hitler's reaction after learning of the takedown notice (spoiler alert: he doesn't like it, and he gets really mad), and all kinds of blogs whose authors would have otherwise thought the Downfall thing was so 2007 are now writing about it again. Constantin Film appears to either have given up on taking down all the videos, or simply can't find them all, because there are still plenty of Downfall clips on YouTube, not to mention other video sites.
However behind the silliness, there are some pretty important principles at stake: do the Downfall clips constitute 'Fair use'? If so, then Constantin can't simply have them all removed, although YouTube has been known to comply with takedown requests pretty eagerly. Even if the company has a legal right to wipe out the clips, what's to stop the same clips from popping up all over the Web again on other sites, the way everything from an illegally copied Bittorrent file to an illicit Jihad video does? Is it really worth the film company's time and money to play a never-ending game of Internet whack-a-mole just to protect its right to four minutes of angry Hitler footage?
And how many people found out about Downfall, a truly great film, after watching angry Hitler yell about -- oh, take your pick, really -- Windows Vista?