If you keep up with Marvel Comics, chances are you know that all-American hero Steve Rogers has secretly been a Hydra agent for decades... thanks to the Red Skull, a Cosmic Cube, and a bit of altering reality. It's led many people to decry that Captain America has become a Nazi. But is true? Is Hydra made up of Nazis, or is it just generically evil? The answer is both, and it's Marvel's fault.
Determining whether Captain America is currently heiling Hitler means determining whether Hydra is a fully Nazi organisation. If all you know is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the answer may seem to be an unequivocal yes, but comics readers may have a different view of Marvel's most prominent evil organisation, which has primarily focused on taking over the world without Nazi racism (mostly). To figure out if Captain America is a Nazi, you have to start at the very beginning -- 20 years after World War I.
The Origin of Hydra
Hydra's story begins in 1965, within the pages of Strange Tales #135 -- and initially, it had no ties to the Nazi party. Led by someone called the Imperial Hydra, the organisation's first appearance presents it solely as an entity opposed to SHIELD, attempting to control the world through terrorism. It was even seemingly totally defeated in its original story at the hands of Nick Fury.
When Hydra reappeared in Strange Tales #158 in 1967, it was suddenly retconned into being led by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, a former Nazi villain previously introduced in the pages of the World War II-set Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos back in 1964. But that's where the association between the two ended ... for about a year. In 1968, Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders #2 went back and told Hydra's true origin story: it was Strucker who founded the organisation during World War II as an explicitly Nazi-linked group.
Later issues would also bring the Red Skull -- who, like von Strucker, was unequivocally a Nazi during the war and afterwards -- into Hydra's origin story. The Skull was shown as von Strucker's close confidant in reforming Hydra after WWII, recreating it as a spiritual successor to the Third Reich.
A Simpler Sort of Evil
After its destruction in 1967, Hydra splintered off into various evil organisations such as AIM (along with more splinter groups retconned into existence over the years). But the bulk of Hydra itself lived on as a more general organisation of terror and crime, free of von Strucker's Nazi agenda.
This was Hydra's status quo in the Marvel Comics universe over the next several decades… mostly. At one point in the '90s, a Hydra cultist group resurrected von Strucker, who reformed the organisation with Red Skull under his Nazi rhetoric during the events of Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD's third volume.
Occasionally the Red Skull would take control of Hydra, or part of Hydra, for his own ends. But for the most part Marvel consistently kept Hydra as a legion of faceless bad guys for 50 years. It has been a group intent on taking over the world, but without any adherence to a Nazi agenda.
Marvel further attempted to sever (or at least minimise) Hydra's Nazi connection with another retcon of Hydra's origin, which came in the opening pages of Brian Michael Bendis, Jonathan Hickman, and Stefano Caselli's Secret Warriors series in 2009.
The series presented a timeline of Hydra's "true history," which suddenly had its true roots in Ancient Egypt, making current-day Hydra the modern form of an order thousands of years old. The following year, Hickman's own SHIELD series would go a step further, revealing that Hydra began as an organisation called the Brotherhood of the Spear (alongside the Brotherhood of the Shield, which would evolve into SHIELD), named after a magical spear used by Pharaoh Imhotep to defeat the alien race known as the Brood.
The spear, a weapon capable of defending the Earth, was sent to China for safekeeping, but the organisation that safeguarded it was ultimately corrupted by a sinister alien force. This eventually transformed into the criminal organisation von Strucker used to reform Hydra during World War II with help from members of the Reich and Nazi gold. However, one thing that wasn't retconned here is that Hydra was still presented as abandoning those ties to Nazism after von Strucker's first defeat by Nick Fury back in the '60s.
It's worth noting that for this virtually all of Marvel Comics' existence, Hydra was simply one of many evil organisation trying to take over the world, along with AIM, the Serpent Society, and many others. That is, until the Marvel Cinematic Universe arrived.
Hydra has played a major role in the MCU, which has inarguably returned Hydra to the forefront in Marvel's comics. In doing so, it has irrevocably reconnected Hydra and Nazism for the mass populace after the organisation was used as the primary villain in 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger.
The First Avenger did away with any mention of Hydra's evolution into a wider terrorist group, re-establishing it as an organisation created by the Red Skull, and specifically as a division within the Nazi structure itself. For the moviegoing audience, Hydra's yellow-and-green uniform of the comics was replaced with the imagery of the Nazi army, and with a supervillain Nazi at its head to boot.
However, the film does try to keep Hydra somewhat distinct from its Nazi partners. Red Skull decries Hitler and the Nazis as being incapable of the task of winning the war, and his concept for a "master race" seems to be focused on the possibilities of augmentation through science (e.g. Captain America and himself) rather than racial purity. He even betrays the Nazis -- saying "Hydra could grow no further in Hitler's shadow" -- after revealing he plans on destroying Berlin along with other major world cities. However, Skull's betrayal doesn't mitigate Hydra's partnership, or its MCU origin as the Nazi's science division.
Hydra's next movie appearance would be in sequel The Winter Soldier. Although it's set in modern times, it does little to dissuade the idea that the resurgent Hydra had moved on from its Nazi roots as its comic book counterpart had -- especially given that Arnim Zola tells Captain America and Black Widow that the seeds of Hydra's corruption of SHIELD began immediately after the War, with the recruitment of former Nazi and Hydra members into the SRS. He even describes their plan to use SHIELD's new authoritarian surveillance system to murder perceived threats to Hydra as a "purification process," a phrase with chilling parallels to the Nazi's own desire for purity at any cost.
However, it is not just the movies that have played with addressing the ambiguity behind Hydra's origins and its connections to Nazism. Agents of SHIELD lampshaded the organisation's fascist history in its first season, and in the wake of the Captain America twist in the comics, a now-infamous conversation from the 20th episode of SHIELD's first season has re-entered public discourse. In it, SHIELD loyalist Skye (née Daisy Johnson) lays into Hydra turncoat Ward for dodging his organisation's roots in the era of Hitler:
Agents of SHIELD also went on to reveal that Hydra had ancient roots and ties to an alien evil, in the mould of the comics. But in terms of the wider audience introduced to Hydra through the MCU, it's difficult to to separate the organisation from Nazism when the main characters don't.
It has become increasingly muddled in the show, which has recently returned to having Hydra as a prominent villain as part of an elaborate storyline where its primary cast is transported into a virtual reality world where Hydra is the open ruler of the United States, which itself has some similarities to the premise of the comics' upcoming Secret Empire event.
Agents of SHIELD, more so than any other MCU-related property, has been explicit in hammering home Hydra's past association with -- and its inability to extricate itself from -- the Nazis. Last week's midseason premiere for the fourth season portrayed an incredibly uncomfortable world with Hydra as openly fascist rulers in control of the media and the government, and even pushing retconned versions of its own history and association with the Nazis in classroom history books.
Aside from the chilling overtones of Hydra's rule, the recent episode also tackled much of the rhetoric around the discussion of Hydra's links to Nazism. When a student asks about rumours that Hydra was not a Nazi organisation but one created well before the war, the claim is dismissed (by a brainwashed Agent Coulson, no less) as a fake-news style act of propaganda. And to hammer it home, Simmons -- one of the few agents not brainwashed in the virtual world -- makes this unequivocal declaration:
— Agents of SHIELD (@AgentsofSHIELD) April 5, 2017
"For the record, Hydra? They're all Nazis. Every last one of them and don't you let anyone forget it."
This finally brings us to the current controversy surrounding the events of Nick Spencer's run on Captain America. Today, the Hydra of the comics has two distinct factions within its whole: the one evil Steve Rogers is ultimately revealed to be part of is the more general "New World Order" criminal group Hydra had evolved into over the years in the comics, and a new populist movement driven by the Red Skull, predicated on the language of hot-button social issues like immigration and the rise of the so-called "alt-right" throughout the 2016 US election:
The initial revelation of Steve as a Hydra agent does little to clarify that these sides are particularly different, and the revelation that Steve is plotting his own coup against Red Skull comes in later issues. The still-ongoing storyline has defined Steve's place in Hydra's internal civil war and his opposition to the Red Skull's view of Hydra, culminating last week in Rogers murdering Skull to take command of the organisation himself.
The series has also actually taken further steps to separate Hydra from the Nazis while still acknowledging their partnership. Scenes in last week's Steve Rogers #15 went a step further, portraying a WWII-era conversation between Red Skull and Captain America in which they discuss how Skull betrayed his fellow Hydra members (themselves already portrayed as uneasy collaborators with Hitler) by using his power to subsume the organisation deeply into the Third Reich -- turning Hydra, at least in this storyline, into an organisation forced to collaborate with the Nazi party very much against its will.
While in the comics Steve Rogers is currently very evil and a member of Hydra -- and very much wants to take over the world and rule it through some pretty vile means -- he has not espoused any racial prejudice, nor has he identified himself as a Nazi, nor has he condoned anything the Nazis believed in other than... well, taking over the world. Marvel has clearly wanted to separate Steve Rogers' Hydra faction from the faction led by the openly Nazi-linked Red Skull.
All that said, despite these moves to further retcon Hydra's long associations -- and Marvel's own misguided attempts recently to downplay the current storyline's parallels to contemporary politics -- for many the damage was already done.
At a time when people felt Captain America as a symbol was wanted most, he was seen in the eyes of many as being propped up as a leading face of a fascist, Nazi-affiliated group.
Ultimately, the debate about whether the evil Captain America is actually a Nazi revolves around what has become of Hydra's image in the wider world of popular culture, well beyond the realms the comics themselves reside in. Given that Marvel itself is typically more than fine with bringing over influences from their movie universe to the comics, they have to also accept a simple fact of numbers and perception.
More people watch an episode of Agents of SHIELD than will ever buy an issue of Captain America: Steve Rogers. Even more than either of those will go and see a movie like The First Avenger or The Winter Soldier. To put it another way, more people are going to believe Agents of SHIELD over 50 years of comics history. So for all intents and purposes, what Agent Simmons says, goes.
While the modern comics have moved to portray a divided Hydra that is mostly free of its Nazi roots, the Hydra the wider public has been exposed to through the films and shows is still deeply connected to -- and regularly reminded of -- those Nazi roots.
Marvel may have intended Captain America to not be an actual Nazi in the comics -- evil, yes; a member of Hydra, sure; a fascist, absolutely -- but its intentions can only go so far. By equating and continuing to equate the two groups in its much more popular and prevalent live-action properties, it was inevitable that there would be confusion -- and many, many people believing that by announcing "Hail Hydra," Steve Rogers was heiling Hitler as well.
So is Captain America actually a Nazi? Marvel Comics says he isn't, because Hydra is an organisation that isn't intrinsically part of the Third Reich. But if the vast majority of people think Steve is a Nazi thanks to Marvel Studio's wider efforts, does what Marvel Comics wants you to think ultimately matter?