A stall on the Malioboro, a shopping street in Yogyakarta
If during a study-abroad trip to Indonesia you stumble across an image of the Führer, don't be surprised. Tourist stalls all over the country sell posters of Adolf Hitler, neatly displayed in between images of Kurt Cobain and European soccer teams. The swastika is also everywhere—on walls, cups, ashtrays, and T-shirts—and it's not the Buddhist kind. The strangest thing about this phenomenon, however, is that the people selling and sporting the Nazi paraphernalia often aren't confused, right-wing extremists like these guys but average locals who often have no idea who Hitler was.
To find out why so much merchandise carrying Nazi symbolism is sold on the streets of Indonesia, I got in touch with Dr. Wahid, a history professor at the Gadjah Mada University of Yogyakarta in Java.
A ten-year old Indonesian, wearing a Nazi T-shirt
According to Wahid, the people of Indonesia are anything but anti-Semitic: “The knowledge the people here have about Hitler comes from American films; there’s not much more to it. Contrary to their European peers, Indonesian students hardly receive any history lessons on World War II. They know nothing about the persecution of Jews, for example. They see Hitler as a revolutionary, similar to Che Guevara, not as someone who is responsible for the death of millions of Jews. Of course they condemn him for his deeds—if they are aware of them—but they’re attracted to emblems of Nazi Germany because they’ve become acquainted with these symbols through punk and hard-rock videos. In their view, these symbols are a representation of rebellion.”
This unawareness does not come as a surprise to Gene Netto, an English teacher from Jakarata. He once noticed that a student of his had put a swastika sticker on his mobile phone. “He had no idea what it stands for. I sat him down to explain who the Nazis were, and what they’ve done. After that, the boy immediately threw away the sticker.”
Hitler graffiti in Semarang. Photo by Kyra Dirkssen
The thing is, that between 1967 and 1998, Indonesia lived under the authoritarian regime of President Suharto. It goes without saying that the standard school curriculum was also under the regime's control: “Students were only taught stories about the glory and grandeur of Indonesia as a country,” Wahid says. "The Ministry of Education prohibited teachers from educating students on international genocide, political violence, or racial conflicts. Most students graduated without ever having heard of the Holocaust."
However, it's likely that my surprise at all this is basically Western arrogance. The reality is that the Indonesians' ignorance of Hitler can basically be explained by what was going on in the country during World War II: After the Japanese oppressors (who occupied the country from 1942 until 1945) left, the Netherlands swooped in trying to seize control. That all ended when the Republic of Indonesia became independent, in 1949. Wahid explained, “Every history lesson that focused on the specific period emphasized the independence of Indonesia. Nobody bothered with the persecution of the Jews.”
Saleswoman holding an image of Hitler: “No, I haven’t a clue who that is,” she said.
Wahid thinks that the rise of the internet has been a blessing for the Indonesian youth. “Not that long ago we were controled by the government, but now that the internet has become a common tool, everyone has free access to information. I’ve noticed the current generation of students has a much more realistic view of the world outside Indonesia, compared with previous generations.”