Last November, the all-girl Korean band Pritz took a ton of flak for performing in provocative outfits. K-pop stars are meticulously packaged, so it's pretty common for every new outfit and lyric to undergo a gauntlet of managerial and popular scrutiny. But the criticism about these new outfits was different from the normal questions about purity or branding. It was about how much they looked like Nazi uniforms.
Pritz's outfits featured sleek-yet-heavy black dresses, high collars, and red armbands with a black cross in the center of a white circle—four short lines away from swastikas. Amid the inevitable castigation from South Koreans and foreigners alike for their insensitivity, the band's managers claimed that no one on their creative team had any idea the getups would be construed as Nazi-esque. They claimed the armband was meant to look like a traffic sign with four arrows pointing outward, representing their desire "to expand without a limit in four directions."
Given how rarely a Korean teenager, several decades and thousands of miles removed from the Nazi ideologies of World War II, has cause to think back on Adolf Hitler, it might be tempting to accept the explanation of Pritz's creative team and write the whole thing off as a coincidence. But the Pritz incident was just one of a deluge of (often more direct) Nazi influences in the fashion and culture in South Korea.
Known widely as Nazi chic, it's different from the skinhead or punk swag you find in the West. The trend stretches beyond Korea—in China it was fashionable to dress up like Nazi officers in wedding photos, and a Hong Kong store once hung Nazi banners throughout their shop. In India, a Hitler boutique (with a swastika dotting the i) opened in Ahmedabad in 2012. In Indonesia, Soldatenkaffee, a bar named after a Parisian Nazi hangout and decked out with Hitler quotes and Third Reich flags, has (despite a temporary closure due to outrage) operated in Bandung since 2011; the Indonesia pop star Ahmad Dhani recently performed at a rally for 2014 presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto in Nazi regalia.
But the worst offender in Asia is Thailand. In 2007, some Thai students had a Nazi-themed parade, and in 2012 a school held an SS sports rally. Some Thai language books that use Hitler in their exercises, and a Bangkok KFC knockoff briefly called itself Hitler and used the Führer's face in place of Colonel Sanders's. In 2013, the country's top university had to apologize when students painted a giant mural of superheroes that included Hitler, with which they posed Sieg Heil-ing. And naturally they have Nazi-themed pop groups as well.
And these are only the major, international-headline-drawing cases. From Cambodia to Japan to Myanmar, it's fairly common to encounter vendors in markets selling swastika-adorned bike helmets, T-shirts featuring Hitler's mustachioed mug, and Ché-esque Adolf posters of all sorts.
It's not like Asian youths are the first to appropriate Nazi bits and bobs. Europeans and North Americans have used swastikas, martial red-on-black, and other Nazi symbols in fashion (and as parts of bad jokes—think British Prince Harry's 2005 Nazi costume at a fancy dress party) for years.
" Racist skinheads [in Europe] use Nazi imagery and motifs to deliberately communicate their racist beliefs," explains Laura Kidd, an associate professor of fashion design and merchandising at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Kidd is one of the world's few experts on the use of Nazi symbols in modern fashion.
"[But] Nazi chic as a phenomenon in fashion and in popular culture started with the punk rock movement in Great Britain. Until the 1990s, it appears that the Nazi aesthetic was not a source of inspiration for [non-punk] fashion designers," she says. "However, some fashion designers started showing couture collections that appeared to be influenced by the Nazi aesthetic. Although the designers denied any connection to fascist ideology… most people considered the use of Nazi imagery in fashion in poor taste.
"Fashion has always been used to shock people and gain some attention," concludes Kidd. "And Nazi chic fashions do that quite effectively, especially in Western countries."
But the motives behind and iterations of Nazi symbolism in Asian fashion, where Kidd says Nazi chic is growing much faster than it is in Western markets, are different—there's less cultural baggage attached to Hitler, and wearing a swastika around is less inherently shocking.
"[In Asia], the use of Nazi chic has appeared with greater frequency since at least the late 1980s," says Kidd. "Two popular styles of Asian Nazi chic are swastikawaii, or 'cute swastika,' which uses the swastika as the main design motif, and the other is referred to as 'führer chic,' which uses soft, cuddly, and cute caricatures of the image of Adolf Hitler."
Although some Asian youth, like Mongolia's Dayar Mongol movement, do buy stark and severe Nazi regalia because they believe in a fascist ideology, most are in it for the absurdist styles Kidd describes. In Thailand, for example, it's pretty common to find shirts featuring Hitler's dour face hybridized with Ronald McDonald, pandas, and Teletubbies.
"It's not that I like Hitler," a Thai führer-chic designer who goes by the name Hut told the Jerusalem Post in 2012, "but he looks funny and the shirts are very popular with young people."
The prevalence of Nazi chic has, unsurprisingly, inspired copious outrage from Western visitors and officials in Asia. Israeli and Jewish organizations especially have denounced the rise of Nazi chic in Asia, seeking official apologies and recalls. A few years back, then Israeli ambassador to Thailand Itzhak Shoham got so irked by his failure to persuade the designer Hut to stop selling führer chic or at least take down his Adolf Hitler–Ronald McDonald hybrid mannequin (which Shoham often encountered on his way to work) that he confronted Hut and damaged his displays. Rather than apologize, Hut apparently just started taking down Hitler merchandise or closing the shop when he saw foreigners coming down the lane.
Part of the Asian resistance to such critiques stems from locals' questions about what right Europeans have to dictate what's offensive, or what responsibility they have to adhere to taboos about political ideologies like Naziism that played out far away and long ago.
"What is the connection between German soldiers and Indonesia?" asked Indonesian pop-star Dhani, himself a descendant of the country's miniscule Jewish population, after he was slammed for his 2014 Nazi-esque political rally for Indonesian presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto. "We Indonesians didn't kill millions of Jews, right?"
"Nazism is a European taboo," said Indonesian historian Zen Rachmat Sugito during a round of criticism against Bandung's Soldatenkaffe in 2013. "There's no Nazi taboo in Indonesia, but it doesn't mean we deny that the Holocaust happened."
Then there's the argument that Nazi symbols were just stolen from common pre-Nazi mythological motifs, some of them Asian, in the first place. Is it a complete shock that some may just see Hitler as funny and the swastika as part of their own culture?
"In Asia, the swastika is a centuries-old symbol of peace and auspiciousness," explains Kidd, "and is often associated with religious beliefs; swastikas appear in many Asian temples, similar to the use of the cross in Christian churches."
And Westerners appropriate all sorts of political symbols from abroad in their fashion without major international critique, many are quick to add, so why should Asia take all the flak.
"Why is this different from the West's obsession with Ché Guevara?" one Southeast Asian blogger asked during the fracas over the Thai university's 2013 Hitler-and-superheroes banner.
But international critics fear that Nazi chic, beyond just being taboo, will lead to a troubling acceptance of other Nazi products and could play into worrying pro-strongman ideologies in the region. Mein Kampf is pretty commonly available in the same markets that sell Nazi chic in Indonesia, for instance, and Japan actually has a mildly popular manga comic based on the book.
"I saw this for myself in the streets of Mumbai," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, a Nazi chic expert and associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "You have the corner peddlers peddling Steve Jobs's autobiography and right next to it that great bestseller is Mein Kampf. In India the book was (and I think still is) being marketed as a reflection of a highly organized mind for business students."
Cooper adds that he recently heard about a speech by a major general in Cambodia to the police of Phnom Penh and other high officials in which he praised Hitler as a model for population control. The rabbi doesn't think Nazi chic connects to this vein of fascist sympathy just yet, but the potential linkage in the future troubles him.
Kidd thinks that softening Hitler could lead to a resistance to connect him and his ideologies to true horrors. "Hitler is often depicted in a 'cutesy' manner as a teddy bear, on a Valentine greeting card, or even as Mickey Mouse," she says. "When Hitler is depicted in such a non-threatening manner, people may find it difficult to imagine that same man ordered millions of people to the gas chambers."
Many observers believe Asian youths' appreciation of führer chic and swastikawaii is fueled by ignorance of the history and politics behind the images they appreciate out of context.
"I think they just don't know any better," Jason Alavi, an English language teacher in Bangkok, told the Chiang Mai City News last summer. "World history and geography instruction are woefully inadequate in Thai schools… The vast majority of the Thais I have known have very little real, useful knowledge of the details of the rest of the world."
"There's no ill intent," Shoham told to the Jerusalem Post in 2012. "Let's be realistic: Thais just don't know about history, including their own."
In the same piece, a Jerusalem Post reporter asked a university student who had just bought a führer-chic shirt, what he knew about Hitler. This was his response:
"Hitler looks cool because he seems like an interesting character. Actually, I don't know much about him. In school we only learn Thai history. But I know he was a communist leader." Whoops.
Cooper and Kidd are both confident that a broadening era of information and concentrated efforts and Holocaust education can illuminate the horrors of Nazi Germany and turn Asian youth off the concept of Nazi chic entirely in the near future. But that's not actually a given.
Kidd admits that throughout the 1990s the stigma against Nazi fashion waned amongst Western youth, and that as late as 2010 a boutique in Italy saw no problem in launching a Hitler-based marketing campaign. And just this last December, a toy company in Poland released Nazi-themed Lego-esque toys for Christmas, arguing that they'd be a good tool for teaching kids history. This venture didn't get nearly as much backlash as you'd imagine, and the company didn't back down on their campaign when a few stores in Sweden pulled their products.
If Nazi chic persists and grows more acceptable amongst youth in the informed and culturally affected West, then that makes it a hell of a lot harder to chide Asians for their führer chic. And it seriously damages the argument that knowledge will inherently stem the tide of swastikawaii. Kids worldwide love re-appropriation and subversion, and that's all the easier when you're far away from an object's origin and your opponents' voices can be easily muted. So the world may just have to learn to live with Teletubby Adolf until kids in Asia tire of him of their own accord.
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