The modern rise of Nazi chic

A mixture of ignorant customers and profit hungry retailers are trivialising the symbolism of Hitler and Nazi Germany in Mongolia, India and South Korea.

David Volodzko
11 September 2012

An article by Time Magazine in 2000 looked at Fifth Reich, a pub in Seoul that evidently tried to give patrons the feeling they'd just stepped into SS district headquarters. One Korean patron, an English literature student fully aware of the horrors of the Nazi legacy, reportedly smiled and said: "I don't hate them, I don't like them. But at least they dressed well." Such pubs are found throughout major cities in South Korea.

In 2003 the Hong Kong fashion company IZZUE launched a controversial new line, draping stores with flags bearing the Nazi Reichsadler ('Imperial eagle') and a bold Hakenkreuz atop the old Iron Cross. T-shirts and bags were fitted with Nazi symbols. A 2003 press release by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported one location that even projected Nazi propaganda films on their store wall. According to the ADL, IZZUE's marketing manager Deborah Cheng claimed the designer had no idea the subject might offend people. The Guardian reported in 2010 on the rise of neo-Nazism in Mongolia, due largely to anti-Chinese sentiment, citing the leader of one group who murdered his daughter's boyfriend because the boy had studied in China. "Adolf Hitler was someone we respect," the report quotes one group co-founder as saying; "He taught us how to preserve national identity."


Nazi propaganda poster. WikiMedia, some rights reserved.

In 2010 the Nepali Times ran an article entitled "Nein Kampf", about a Kathmandu book fair that featured a Nepali translation of Hitler's book. According to the author, the book came with this note by the translator: "Hitler had a bad and a good side. This translation focuses on his good side with the hope it will be instructive to young people in Nepal today to learn about nationalism."

Also in 2010, the BBC described the popularity of Nazi memorabilia in India and cited Mein Kampf as a perennial best-seller in the country, with sales improving drastically every year, possibly because he is seen there as a symbol of "discipline and patriotism". One Pune-based research student told the BBC she wore her Hitler shirt because she admired the man, explaining that, "the killing of Jews was not good, but everybody has a positive and negative side."

Describing a similar case this year, CNN referred to the merchandise at a shop in Bangkok as a "Nazi chic bonanza", where the owner defended his products by saying, “It’s not that I like Hitler. But he looks funny and the shirts are very popular with young people.” According to the report, this is not the only shop in Bangkok cashing in on the fame of this genocidal megalomaniac.

Also this year, the BBC tells of a clothing shop in India whose owners were allegedly unaware that the name of their shop, Hitler, would offend anyone. Manish Chandani, co-owner of the store, claimed he hadn't known Hitler was involved with haShoah but had chosen the name because it was his grandfather's nickname, who got the moniker for being "strict".

It seems Nazi fetishism in Asia comes in two varieties: either Hitler is identified as a symbol of national pride and strength, or Nazis are identified as a symbol of sartorial elegance. Either way, it is almost always accompanied by an ignorance of Nazi atrocities - or feigned ignorance at least.

To be sure, Asian neo-Nazis do exist (such as the ultra-nationalist Mongolian groups mentioned above). But clothing stores or bars that display Nazi regalia are something else. They do not represent fringe values. They represent their patrons, and the effect they have on the general public is far more widespread than that of Asian neo-Nazis.

Best case scenario, these businesses are simply ignorant. For many Asians the salient points of Hitler's reign are that he almost conquered Europe and fought the Allied powers. In other words, he was incredibly powerful and - depending on which part of Asia you're from - he fought your former enemies. That he was responsible for the death of over six million Jews, on the other hand, is not common knowledge. So for example if you're from India, Hitler might be a symbol of strength (as well as opposition to Britain) rather than a symbol of the greatest genocide in human history. Worst case scenario, these businesses are simply trying to turn a profit by associating themselves with someone or something famous and edgy, regardless of the moral implications.

But while Asian neo-Nazis are readily identifiable and obviously harmful, Nazi-themed clothing stores and bars are dangerous in a different way. They make Nazism cool. Whether unknowingly or deliberately, they numb people to the trappings of Nazism by making it all so ordinary. In Europe, a teen wearing a Nazi shirt will stop people in their tracks. In Asia, it might not even draw a stare - except from bewildered westerners.  While I understand the problem is largely one of education, and that many people in these parts of Asia simply aren't aware of what Nazism fully represents, ignorance doesn't excuse such compartmentalization. Further, this is not a point that's lost on the guilty parties either, or their patrons. I very much doubt Korean pub owners who hang Nazi flags in their establishments would be very impressed by their own arguments if they stumbled upon a western bistro draped with the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army. What would Indians who wear shirts emblazoned with Nazi emblems think of tourists bearing British Raj red ensigns on their backpacks? Just a symbol of strong national identity? Hardly.

As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia, "intelligence is a moral category." One isn't excused from behaving badly by claiming ignorance. We are each duty-bound to educate ourselves. We are morally obliged to know better. But we aren't obliged to simply educate ourselves, for the root of the problem is not a lack of education alone. It is the perception by so many individuals that if their peers see nothing wrong with it, why should they?

The impetus rests not with the ignorant majority, but with the few who know better, and I'm not referring to people like myself i.e. westerners. I'm referring to Indians, Thais, Koreans etc. who understand the issue and yet silently pass the local Nazi-themed pub or clothing store or, worse, go in to buy a scarf or grab a beer. Because when people see how their peers behave, they become more likely to behave that way themselves. That's partly what allowed Nazism to take root in the first place, and in the end it really is a matter of nationalism. It's a matter of whether the educated few have enough national pride to stand up and protect their nations from such moral corruption.

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