Wrestling plays upon the source of controversy. Whether it is related to evil foreign heels, real-life deaths, and horrific social events outside the wrestling landscape – these are often seen as distasteful and offensive but one gimmick can encapsulate all 3: Nazism. Over the many decades, many bookers have utilised the use of this strategy to full effect, playing off understandable post-World War 2 fears to create a monster figure.
Although the concept of Nazism is a sadly familiar one today, it is still crucial to look at the context before looking at its role in wrestling.
To hugely simplify things, the Nazi regime brutally ruled over Germany from 1933-to 1945. Being the impetus behind the Second World War, the extremely far-right and authoritative Nazi Party suppressed any liberties or rights of the public, including treacherously punishing the ‘Untermenschen’ (undesirables in the eyes of leader Hitler). These include many innocent races and communities such as Jewish, homosexuals, Eastern Europeans, mentally or physically disadvantaged, socialists/communists and gipsies amongst other non-‘pure’ Aryans.
The inhumane and repugnant treatment included sterilising, hard labour, being subject to experiments, social isolation/separation from society and of course execution; the latter in the forms of euthanasia, being shot, gassed, being overworked, undernourishment and disease to name a just a few reasons. The statistics say it all really with 2/3 of European Jews executed amidst the Holocaust, 13.7 million (20%) of the Russian population killed and 25% of the Polish population murdered. The Nuremberg Trials – after the Allies prevailed in World War 2 – many of whom were subject to lengthy prison sentences whilst others were sentenced to death in a mass hanging on October 16th 1946.
Baron Von Raschke
With the morbid context, it is very easy to see why this was a guide to heat, with the most famous wrestling Nazi character being Baron Von Raschke.
Despite being born in Omaha, Nebraska, Baron was gifted the gimmick of an evil German, under the suggestion of Maurice Vacheon, who commented on his German-like appearance.
Over time, Raschke further developed the German persona, becoming a fully-fledged Nazi, with Swastika flags and goose-stepping. He also developed his famous Claw Hold in this era, previously using a move called the Prussian Sleeper. Although he was not the first as the likes of Hans Schmidt – whose influence over the persona would make it popular for decades – had done such a gimmick before, Raschke made it his own.
Billed from the Republic of Germany, he would be one of the top AWA stars for decades, the heat from fans forced him to often have to fight his way out of arenas. The Nazi paratrooper would wage wars with Bruno Sammartino, Ricky Steamboat and Dusty Rhodes with the deranged German fascist always being led by a manager – be that Bobby Heenan or Paul Jones or Freddie Blassie.
The first holder of the NWA Television title (after it was renamed, having won a fictitious tournament over other regional titleholders), an AWA World Tag Team champion and the NWA World 6-Man Tag Team champion – this one alongside the stereotypical Bolshevik Russian Team, Raschke has seen success over his time in the squared-circle.
Whilst you may think a gimmick like this would be frowned upon today, and to a certain extent it is, Baron also carved himself a career as a face and is largely perceived as an icon of the ring even despite this troubling gimmick.
Waldo Von Erich
In many ways, the career of Raschke is reminiscent of that of the patriarch of the Von Erich family: Fritz Von Erich. Both Nazis were purveyors of the Claw Hold and both kayfabe Nazis who became beloved years later. Yet maybe a more interesting yet lesser-known Nazi Von Erich was faux brother Waldo.
A Prussian Nazi – originally called Waldo Von Sieber, Waldo’s outfit was an intimidating sight with heavy and dark boots, black gloves, a riding crop, monocle, armband, a buzzcut and a general’s helmet or Stahlhelm – adorned with a military cross, swastika and skulls (the latter decades before the popular Mitchell and Webb sketch ‘Are We The Baddies?’).
Even his finishing manoeuvre, the Diving Knee Drop was titled the Blitzkrieg after the mass bombing by Germany amidst World War 2. The heat he got would include even being shot with nail guns and he had to flee arenas in the boots of cars whilst his daughters had to sit in a separate room to avoid being kidnapped or hurt. Wife Betty claimed: “The madder the fans got, the more satisfied he was”.
During the 1960s, his team with Fritz won him Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling’s Southern tag straps. He would even have short stints in the WWWF, often giving ‘Seig Heil’ Hitler salute to the fans.
He would challenge WWWF World Heavyweight Champion Bruno Sammartino on 3 occasions including an 81-minute curfew draw and also coming out of retirement to challenge Bob Backlund. Another world title challenge was in 1968 when he challenged for Gene Kiniski’s NWA World Heavyweight title.
In 2003, Heidenreich debuted with the WWE on the Raw brand, going undefeated for a few months before fading out of programming. Yet before he would return to become a poet, sexually assault Michael Cole or team with Animal in The Legion Of Doom, a rather bizarre character was pitched that never made it to TV. I think the following extract from Wikipedia will say it all really:
“In 2008, former WWE writer Dan Madigan revealed that in 2004 he had pitched directly to Vince McMahon an idea to have Heidenreich return as a Nazi stormtrooper named Baron Von Bava, who had been cryogenically frozen before being revived by Paul Heyman (A Jewish son of a Holocaust survivor), complete with Heidenreich wearing the red armband with the swastika and even goose-stepping to the ring. While WWE would eventually have Heyman manage Heidenreich, the pitch was considered so shocking that McMahon left the board room speechless and didn’t return for the rest of the day. The pitch led to Madigan leaving WWE later that year”.
When your storyline can stun Vince McMahon into silence and force him to leave, something has surely gone beyond the line. The term “Reich” was always in his name and stayed even after he returned although it was a much calmer and more sensible idea – which is a weird thing to say considering he was a chocolate-eating rapist poetry reciter…
The Final Solution
Wrestler Robert Swenson originally debuted as a South African wrestler named Jeep Swenson in WCCW, where he had the Guinness World Record for the largest biceps in the world.
When debuting for WCW in 1996, the behemoth of a man was brought in as part of The Alliance To End Hulkamania where he and a contingent of other heels featuring talent as diverse as Arn Anderson, Kevin Sullivan, Ze Gangsta (better known as Tiny ‘Zeus’ Lister) and The Barbarian in an 8-on-2 tag match against Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage.
He was originally named The Final Solution, about him being brought in as a monster mercenary to take down “The Hulkster”. However, The Final Solution was also a code name for the planned genocide of Jews across Europe which would culminate in the Holocaust…
The Final Solution was forever immortalised – for lack of a better term – in a memo by the head of the Gestapo Herman Göring in July 1941 in which he references “the intended final solution of the Jewish Problem”, in which 6 million members of the Jewish community would be executed from all across the continent.
With the use of this name, Turner Broadcasting’s corporate offices were flooded with complaints. Swenson was instead renamed The Ultimate Solution and was quickly kicked out of the company with WCW sweeping any connection to the event under the rug after his only PPV match at Uncensored 1996. Swenson would die the next year at the age of 40 from heart failure.
As well as being the father of “The Man Of 1,000 Holds” Dean and his lesser-known brother Joe, “Professor Malenko” was likely best-known as a Soviet-era Russian character but had a gimmick that also toiled in Nazism early in his wrestling career.
In 1961, Malenko joined the Minneapolis-based AWA and became Otto Von Krupp, a similar name to future wrestler Killer Karl Krupp (who has the bonus of having ‘KKK’ in his name). Although he had used the name elsewhere, a more mainstream promotion like the AWA would raise his stock. The Nazi-sympathising German would wear dark jackboots and adorn Swastikas across his attire.
In 1961, Krupp won AWA tag gold alongside future President of the NWA Bob Geigel and would hold them for just over a month before a forced vacation when the father of “The Shooter” left the promotion. During his time there, he even challenged Verne Gagne for the AWA World Heavyweight title and would briefly return to the moniker and company in 1964.
Yet in 1962, he would play off Cold War tensions to create his most memorable role. The New Jersey native was now from the USSR and had success across promotions like Big Time Wrestling and Championship Wrestling from Florida grappling with the likes of Wahoo McDaniel and Antonio Inoki at the height of his fame.
Malenko’s legacy is still alive thanks to his Soviet gimmick and the extensive list of wrestlers he trained: Norman Smiley, Seam Waltman, Fred Ottman, Barry Horowitz, and Gangrel. It is important to note however that his first big step was under another heat-magnet of a moniker.
The Storm Trooper
Although many gimmicks on this list were big money-draws and sufficient in garnering hate, more modern incarnations are looked at with disgust. This one however was so shoddy and weak that it resembled more Lisa’s Florida costume than Adolf Hitler…
A great target for the anguish of fans, Ron Wright would take The Stormtrooper under his wing after his 1988 debut in USA Championship Wrestling. Although wearing swastikas, goose-stepping and waving Nazi flags – commentators and on-air characters glossed over his fascination with fascism to berate his in-ring cheating. Although it’s got to be said the performances were a little half-hearted which makes perfect sense when you think about it. In Jim Cornette’s Smoky Mountain Wrestling, the character made 2 1992 appearances.
Outdated and offensive even by this stage, it was defended by claims “It’s not a swastika, it’s a gammadion!”. The Storm Trooper’s first SMW match was for the world title where he quickly lost to “Prime Time” Brian Lee.
The second is somehow even more problematic as The Storm Trooper decked in the symbols of his favoured undemocratic and oppressive regime wrestled Dixie Dynamite (Scott Armstrong) decked out in a Confederate flag as they were in Tennessee. He’s even wrestled Super Mario; the neo-Nazi lost to the Italian plumber. I’m sure SMW booker Cornette would defend it if asked though – keeping that old school mentality alive, are we Jim? I guess things were different back in the “good” old days.
I should make it abundantly clear that the current Gunther character is not pro-Nazi on WWE TV now. To ensure we avoid any slander or libel, fans have wholly put together this theory and WWE have never made any reference to Nazism but it does surely seem a little more than questionable upon inspection…
WALTER was a dominant force in WWE for many years including an 870-day (about 2 and a half years) stranglehold on the UK championship. With a chop as forceful as a bullet train, WALTER led the Imperium stable led by Austrian WALTER and consisting of West German Marcel Barthel and Italian Fabian Aichner (and briefly featuring East German Alexander Wolfe). Although Nazi connotations were there – as an industrial group dressed in dark colours and with a universal pose as if they were their radical regime, it was nothing compared to Gunther.
On the January 18th 2022 edition of NXT 2.0, WALTER defeated Roderick Strong in the main event before announcing his new name, Gunther. This, coupled with the WWE’s acquisition of the Gunther Stark trademark, caused a massive uproar within the wrestling community.
The issue with this is that Günther Stark was a Nazi U-Boat Commander in the Kriegsmarine and was a member of the Olympia Crew who used the Olympic rings as their symbol for 1936’s Berlin Olympic games. His ship was sunk in 1944 in the English Channel after setting off from Brest, France; Kapitänleutnant Stark died aged 27.
Ex-WWE superstar, now AEW Wrestler, Keith Lee wrote on Twitter in reaction: “Man….if what I’m hearing is real…. Poor Walter”.
In face of the controversy, WWE dropped the trademarked name and is now labelled as just Gunther, without the Stark surname, which is a positive although it is argued they never should have trademarked it in the first place.
Now, WWE technically never made him a Nazi and he was never officially called Gunther Stark but with WALTER being solely known by the first name and the similar bizarre trademark, let’s just say it doesn’t look like fans have put 2 and 2 together to get 5.
Not all Nazi connections in wrestling are whole gimmicks, as displayed by the following.
Perhaps the most famous incident was at a live show in Munch, Germany. Top heel JBL was wrestling a tag match when, on the apron, he did a Nazi salute and goose-stepping action – an act illegal in that part of the world. Although Bruce Prichard later described it as “A poor choice of tactics to get heat and landed his ass in hot water”. CNBC fired JBL as an analyst for his actions after having hired him away from Fox to host his show not too long before.
It did not damage his career too much as he won the WWF championship weeks later. Strangely enough, JBL was assisted in wins over The Undertaker by Heidenreich, who in an alternate timeline, could have been an unfrozen Nazi stormtrooper.
Elsewhere, wrestler Kendo Suzuki may not have had the most memorable WWE one but maybe had original plans taken place he would have. A stereotypical Japanese wrestler alongside a geisha-dressed valet, the original plan was for Suzuki to play the grandson of the deceased Hirohito; the Japanese emperor was not necessarily a co-worker of the Nazis but were enemies of the ‘Allies’ during World War 2. Suzuki would seek revenge on the USA for WW2 for their bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 that not only ended WW2 but also opened the door for nuclear war. Only 1 promo ever aired before Bruce Prichard was told Hirohito was not such a heroic figure in Japan as he believed, as informed by Suzuki and his wife. Whilst, not exactly a Nazi, Suzuki nearly played a descendent of the Nazis’ allies…
Separate altogether, some wrestlers have Nazi symbols closer to their skin than even their attire. Probably the most famous is The Harris Twins (Ron and Don) also known by various other names such as WWF’s Blu Brothers and WCW’s Creative Control. Both brothers have legitimate SS tattoos on their arms, standing for ‘Schutzstaffel’, the paramilitary for Adolf Hitler himself.
The CEO for wrestling promotion Aro Lucha states they are not neo-Nazis however: “Ron and Don Harris were performers for the WWE and other popular wrestling promotions during their wrestling careers. When on TV, they were in character, referred to as “a gimmick”, where their character or gimmick was as bikers. They also worked at a time in the industry when there was something called “kayfabe”, which was saying that you never broke character”.
Another owner of an SS tattoo was Finland’s Ludvig Borga. A controversial figure politically, the allegedly racist and homophobe had the tattoo on his leg that needed covering up on TV with Jim Ross recalling that “We found out about it and I think the deal was, he was wearing boots that were low-cut and he had a very diminutive SS tattoo”.
From 1982 up to 1989, former NWA Television and the United States champion Paul Jones moved into a managerial role. He ran his faction, Paul Jones’s Army. Wearing khakis and polished black boots with parted hair, similarities were present. These were further emphasised by Jones’s shaving of moustache week-by-week to make it more toothbrush-esque.
Bobby Matthews of Pro Wrestling Stories documents, “When the booker realized that Jones was using his dark, side-parted hair and narrow moustache to affect a look similar to Adolf Hitler, he made Jones stop”.
Although we live in a more enlightened age, attitudes towards the Nazis have become laxer and parodied – for better and for worse – but if in doubt, wrestling bookers should ditch any content linking to Nazism. We should remember that the impacts of this extremist ideology have led to the worst humanitarian crisis of the modern era in which vast populations of people were killed in the most harrowing and atrocious ways. Collectively, I think it is safe to say that all connotations of Hitler and the Nazis in wrestling are better left in the past, even if it should never really have happened in the past, let it not infiltrate into wrestling beyond this point.