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Fullmetal Alchemist: Conqueror of Shamballa has received some strong reactions from the series fans, a lot of it negative. Among the sources of complaints are its portrayal of Roy Mustang and the ending. These arguments have their strengths and weaknesses (expect an essay on Roy soon), but what seems to be the most maligned complaint is the 'Nazi Hughes' subject. Many of the film's critics mention that detail among their 'worst things about the film' lists, and there has been very little argument found against it. So I've decided to put in my two cents on this much-criticized character.
Everyone would agree that a lot of the criticism against Nazi Hughes is based on the comparison with his more popular counterpart. The character of Maes Hughes in Fullmetal Alchemist is one of the most loved in the series. Although the dotting daddy/best friend/bad--- investigator had a relatively small appearance in the manga, his character was developed more in the animated series, and it is through that medium where his popularity came from. His death in episode 25 has struck a major chord to fans of the series (including this writer). So, it is reasonable why fans were so harsh to the portrayal of his alternate universe counterpart as a racist Nazi. It's not that seeing another Hughes alive and well cheapens the impact of the original's death (fans of DC Comics' multiverse understand that having one counterpart alive doesn't negate the effective death of another). It's the idea that such a lovable character can also exist as something bad. Not just bad, a Nazi! How dare the fates allow the lovable Hughes be six feet under while his Nazi counterpart lives! However, the problem is that most viewers seem willing to hate the Hughes of Earth-Prime for wearing the swastika, and just leave it at that. There is more to him than just that symbol.
[Of note: in tribute to the multiverse of DC Comics, I will refer to the real world as Earth-Prime and the FMA world as Earth-A. Likewise, unless given a different name, the other characters shall be distinguished by their Earth.]
Even though Hughes-Prime appears on the movie poster, his appearance is short in the actual movie. He has probably ten minutes of screen time in the film's 103-minute length (Fellow poster colleague Roy Mustang has even less). Nevertheless, the character does get some development in such a brief rate. He doesn't come off as some one-dimensional doppelganger. His character actually changes. Of course, prior knowledge of Earth-A Hughes helps in understanding the development. Swastika or not, this man is still Maes Hughes, and he probably has the same moral characterization, however suppressed it is. There is a temptation to write off the Earth-Prime characters as being completely different from their Earth-A counterparts. Sort of the Star Trek rule of parallel universes: A good man from one universe will be evil in the other. This doesn't quite hold up according to the examples in the movie. Alphonse Heidrich is kind, noble, and self-sacrificial to Edward, just like Alphonse Elric. History has shown that Fritz Lang, despite being an aid to Edward in the movie, was as tyrannical as Fuhrer Bradley. Gracia of Earth-Prime shares her Earth-A counterpart's kindness and motherly concern (though she appears a more stronger person).
The film shows Hughes-Prime to have similar emotions as Hughes-A. He is clearly devoted to the Gracia of his world. This must be especially noted, for the movie gives real emphasis on the Hughes-Gracia relationship. Since most of what we see of Hughes-A's family life is devoted to Elysia, there is unfortunately little intimacy portrayed between husband and wife. Sadly, the only evidence of Hughes-A's great love for his wife is his inability to attack the fake Gracia impersonated by Envy. With the lack of Elysia in Earth Prime (for the time being), the couple's relationship is given more attention. Hughes-Prime is worried about Gracia's association with bad people, fearing trouble for her. In the scene at the flower shop where he insults Noah, his steel glare breaks when he is confronted by Gracia-Prime. He is reluctant about hurting her in any way.
Another similarity is Hughes-Prime's relationship with Edward Elric and Alphonse Heiderich. He is their friend and looks after them. He warns Ed about his friendship with Noah. At Haushofer's villa, he is saddened to see Alphonse H. dead (Also, it can be assumed that, like Gracia-Prime, Hughes-Prime has some inkling that he reminds Edward of someone…). It's interesting to note that the age gap between this Hughes and Edward is probably smaller; This Hughes doesn't look 38, the age his Earth-A counterpart would be had he lived to 1923 (Hughes-A was about 30 in 1915). The best guess is that Hughes-Prime is in his late twenties, which makes him an older brother-figure to the 18-year-old Edward.
Still, there are differences. Hughes-Prime lacks his counterpart's ability to act casual and friendly, always showing a serious expression lecturing people. This Hughes is an insecure man, nervous about confessing his feelings to Gracia-Prime. He gets flabbergasted when Edward recommends he confess his love for her. He makes an attempt to talk to Gracia about Noah, but once ignored he loses courage and lets her walk away. When he does face Gracia, it's for business reasons. It wouldn't be a far-off idea to think that Earth-A Hughes lacked such inhibitions, doing everything in his power to win Gracia-A's heart.
There's an interesting question on whether this Hughes has a friendship with the Roy Mustang of Earth-Prime. If Earth-Prime's counterparts of Scar and Lust still have an association, as well as Hughes and Gracia, and Al H. and Edward (Not to mention Dante's last form and Bradley; Fritz Lang was a womanizer…), than a Hughes-Mustang friendship might also exist. However, this leads to the question about Mustang-Prime's lack of appearance in the film. Is he alive or dead? His absence might explain a little on Hughes-Prime's personality. In Earth-A, we are aware of the strength of the Mustang-Hughes friendship. The series' emphasis on how important Hughes was to Mustang overshadows the other side. If Roy needed Maes to become a better man, than Maes needed Roy to become the great man he was. The lack of Roy-Prime, coupled with the lack of a relationship with Gracia-Prime, could explain why Hughes-Prime is an unsure, unconfident man; A cut below his counterpart.
And thus we come to the major difference that has gained the fans' dislike. Hughes-Prime is prejudiced to the gypsies. He refuses to speak to Noah by name, calling her 'the Gypsy girl'. He sees them as liars, drifters, tramps, and thieves (and I doubt he comes around to her and lays his money down). It is hard to think of Hughes-A as a racist; then again there could have been a time early in his career when he swallowed the Amestrian anti-Ishbalan propaganda. Adding to Hughes-Prime's racism is his role with the National Socialist Party- the Nazis. He supports them and their goal to save his native Germany; any opposition, be it a friend, he will oppose. Whereas Hughes-A puts his friends over his country, Hughes-Prime is willing to betray Edward for his party, for the good of the country. He informs his superior Rudolf Hess about Noah's whereabouts, and arrests Edward at the Beer Hall before Fritz Lang comes to the rescue.
Reading this paragraph, anyone can conclude that Hughes-Prime is overall an evil man. But not all the people who served the Nazis were evil. A lot of them only wanted what was best for Germany, disgruntled over the cruel unfair treatment their WWI conquerors put on them. There were some Nazis who had no idea what was happening in Auschwitz, Dachua, and Belsen-Belsen. And one can't dispel the social atmosphere of the time, when xenophobia, nationalism, and anti-semitism was rampant. Hughes-Prime was a product of his time. Unfortunately, a lot of those products ended up committing the worst crimes of human history.
However, let us not go too much into justifying Nazi Germany (I really see no point in coming to something that justifies the Holocaust). The point of this essay is Nazi Hughes' vindication, and it comes not from a social historical argument, but from a single act in the movie's climax. Escaping capture after the Nazi Putsch failed, Hughes heads to Hanshoufer's villa, HQ of the Thule Society. Eckhart's ship has returned from The Gate, which has transformed her into a monster. This creature heads for Noah, who is cradling the murdered body of Alphonse Heidrich. Suddenly, the monster gets shot in the head. It collapses, its slimy shell popping to reveal the dead Eckart, her beautiful face now an expression of evil and terror.
Who shot Eckhart? Evidently, you wouldn't believe me if I told you. Hughes-Prime killed Eckart to save Noah. This action completely overthrows the previous view of the character. He clearly has his counterpart's decency. Despite his prejudice, Hughes-Prime is at heart a good man. Only a cynic would claim that he was actually protecting Alphonse H's corpse or himself, with Noah just getting in the way. No, Hughes-Prime was protecting Noah. Whatever reservations he had for race, he was unwilling to let an innocent girl die.
In the conclusion, Hughes-Prime finally gets the nerve to face Gracia, not as a constable, but as a potential suitor. His last scene is of him standing with Gracia at the cemetery. Just as Hughes-A's overtures for Roy to get married could be seen as a humanizing influence, one can expect Gracia-Prime to do the same for Hughes-Prime. There could be a different effect to that as well: when Gracia talks to Noah about Germany's plans to remove impure races, she continues about the Nazis' plan to get rid of the Jews, not Noah's people, which would have been a more suitable example. Also, unlike the scarred veteran who rages against both Gypsies and Jews, Hughes-Prime makes no mention of Jews in his warning to Ed. Could it be that Hughes-Prime's lady love is Jewish? If true, this would be a stronger factor in keeping Hughes-Prime from the dark side. If not, it doesn't detract things either.
At any rate, it is correct to assume that Hughes-Prime's relationship with the Nazi party would change into disillusionment. Would the Hughes who saved a Gypsy girl be willing to beat or shoot another Gypsy, let alone a Jew, Slav, or Pole? I doubt it. He has seen his fellow Nazis in a bad light. He looks shaken to see the true evil face of Eckhart, a person who must have symbolized to him the perfect Aryan. Then there is his Nazi superior Rudolf Hess' role in killing Alphonse Heidrich, a friend, Aryan, and fellow nationalist (even if he saw Edward as opposition to the party, I doubt Hughes-Prime would actually harm the guy). Both these persons would weigh heavily on Hughes-Prime's conscience. He has now seen evil is not based on race, and that he almost became just like Eckhart. In his next-to-last scene in the film, one sees a wiser Hughes.
The popular view of a Nazi is a person whose hatred for a minority ranges to the point of genocide. Hughes-Prime can never be that. Nazi Hughes is an oxymoron.