In the West, the Nazi Führer is thought of as a genocidal maniac — everywhere else, he’s considered a political inspiration.
- By David Clay LargeDavid Clay Large is a senior fellow with the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many books are Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936; Munich 1972: Tragedy, Terror, and Triumph at the Olympic Games; and, most recently, The Grand Spas of Central Europe: A History of Intrigue, Politics, Art, and Healing.
If Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte were a politician in the West, his invocation last week of Adolf Hitler as a personal inspiration would have meant the swift end to his career.
“Hitler massacred 3 million Jews [sic]. Now there are 3 million drug addicts [in the Philippines].… I’d be happy to slaughter them!” So declared Duterte in describing his ongoing war on drugs, adding cheerfully that his own Nazi-like police action would “finish the [drug] problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.”
In the Philippines, however, Duterte’s reference to Hitler didn’t even qualify as a gaffe. There is no indication it hurt him at all; in fact, there’s good reason to believe that it will only bolster the president’s huge popularity among Filipinos as a man who speaks his mind and gets things done.
Americans and Europeans are probably thinking that something of Duterte’s speech has gotten lost in translation. But the context that’s missing isn’t rhetorical — it’s cultural. Duterte’s positive perspective on Hitler has long been commonplace in the non-Western world and remains so today. If there’s an aberration, in other words, it’s the West’s own image of Hitler as a paradigmatic political villain.
In the West, Hitler is known above all as a practitioner of race-based genocide, the architect of the Holocaust. He is also remembered as the hypernationalist who, in the hope of expanding German power across all of Europe, and later the entire globe, plunged the world into the most destructive war in the history of mankind.
Yet in much of the developing world, where ignorance regarding the Holocaust and Hitler’s fantasies of world domination is rife, he is perceived less as a mass murderer and ideologue of global conquest than as a stern disciplinarian who addressed social ills in a briskly efficient manner. His is a legacy of “law and order,” not of horrific chaos and collapsed cities. Additionally, and crucially, in the non-Western world the name Hitler can connote “anti-imperialist rebel” due to the German leader’s nationalistic struggle against “Anglo-French-American-Zionist domination.” Thus we have President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s 92-year-old strongman, comparing himself not only to Christ but to Hitler. “I am still the Hitler of [this] time. This Hitler has only one objective: justice for his people, sovereignty for his people, recognition of the independence of his people and their rights over their resources. If that is Hitler, then let me be Hitler tenfold. Ten times, that is what we stand for,” he said in 2003.
Indonesia is another case in point. Indonesia’s second president, Gen. Suharto, saw Nazi Germany as a model for his highly centralized, military-dominated “New Order.” But the country’s first president, Sukarno, who led his nation’s independence movement against the Dutch, openly revered Hitler’s Third Reich for its spirit of proud nationalism.
In 1955, President Sukarno hosted a pioneering conference of nonaligned Asian and African nations, many of them newly independent, in the city of Bandung, at which delegates deployed Nazi-style rhetoric in their denunciations of lingering colonialism and latter-day “Zionist imperialism.” These days Bandung boasts a Nazi-themed restaurant called Soldatenkaffee, replete with swastikas, propaganda posters, and photos of the Führer. If you ask the café owner about his decorative taste, he will note that Nazi symbolism is perfectly legal in Indonesia. He’s certainly right about that. Nazi imagery is abundant across the country — as is cluelessness about the Holocaust.
“Indonesian students know nothing about the persecution of the Jews,” said a prominent history professor at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. “They see Hitler as a revolutionary, similar to Che Guevara, not as someone responsible for the death of millions of Jews.” Yet a genuine embrace of authoritarian ideals, along with pervasive ignorance, seems to be at the core of much of modern Indonesia’s fascination with Hitler. As a respected businessman put the matter: “We need an Adolf Hitler in order to fully restore law and order.” This man undoubtedly thought he’d found the answer to his prayers in Prabowo Subianto, a popular general whose narrowly unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2014 included a music video sung by popstar Ahmad Dhani dressed in a replica Nazi uniform.
It’s no news that pro-Hitler views are commonplace in today’s Middle East, yet it bears noting that Turkey, the country with the longest tradition of democracy in the region, has its share of such sentiment. As in Indonesia, this phenomenon in Turkey has a prominent pedigree. The Turkish Republic’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, served as an inspiration for Hitler in the latter’s own self-styled “revolution.” Hitler was particularly impressed by the secularist Ataturk’s suppression of political Islam. Although Ataturk himself did not have much use for the German Führer, some of his close associates certainly did. Upon visiting Nazi Berlin, Recep Peker, the secretary-general of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (and later prime minister), expressed open admiration for national socialism. Reverence for Hitler’s dictatorial style, if not for his distrust of clerical politics, survived Kemalism’s recent displacement by Islamic-infused authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In his current push to expand the powers of his office, Erdogan cited Hitler’s Germany as a positive case study in how such an über-presidency might work. Many Turks expressed astonishment at Erdogan’s choice of role models, but in light of the president’s ever-increasing absolutism, the Führer reference seems more apt than odd.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s latest dictator, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has thus far resisted trying to legitimize his evolving tyranny by deploying open comparisons to Hitler. Some of his followers, however, have not been so reticent. On the eve of Sisi’s seizure of power, Soheir al-Babli, a once popular TV actress, expressed confidence that her countrymen “know that Egyptians need a man as strong as Hitler to punish citizens for any violations they commit.” Many Egyptians blanched at Babli’s advice to emulate the Führer, but Sisi apparently did not. His self-glorification, classification of political opponents as “enemies of the state,” suppression of independent media, ultranationalism, and xenophobia have occasioned frequent comparisons to Hitler among his fellow Egyptians (albeit from the sanctity of foreign shores).
In Pakistan, like Indonesia, a veritable Führer cult flourishes in the open. Although admiration for Hitler might be, as many Pakistanis would insist, a minority phenomenon, this minority is sizable enough to make the term “Hitler” common coinage for anyone who “sticks to his guns regardless of the cost.” Encounters with Hitler admiration understandably shock visitors from the West, especially ones from Germany. According to a story by German journalist Hasnain Kazim in Der Spiegel, after getting a haircut in Islamabad, Kazim complained to the hairdresser that the cut made him look like Hitler. “Yes, yes, very nice,” the barber beamed. Nor was it uplifting for him to drive behind a white Mercedes bearing a bumper sticker that read, “I like Nazi.”
Venturing into neighboring India, one encounters more signs of fascination with the Führer. As a report in the Jerusalem Post notes, bookstores display Hitler’s Mein Kampf prominently in windows. “It’s a classic for us. We have to sell it,” a floor manager of New Delhi’s most iconic bookstore, Bahrisons, told the Post. Some Indians claim that Hitler’s popularity in their country derives from “ignorance about the Holocaust” or “curiosity about a really sick and evil mind.” Others see Hitler and Mein Kampf tying in with India’s rising Hindu nationalist movement, with one person saying: “[Mein Kampf] can be used to support a purist Hindu India where Muslims are persecuted.” Still other Indians see anti-Semitism behind Hitler’s popularity or cite Indians’ desire to believe that a strong leader can transform society for the better. As in Pakistan, “Hitler” connotes “strong disciplinarian.”
Of course, leaders in the developing world are fully capable of deploying the name Hitler as a smear as well as an inspiration. “Hitler” is often deployed as a pejorative in today’s South America, where so many Nazis found refuge after the war and where not only the Führer legacy lived on for many years but also, according to numerous reports and sightings, the Führer himself. (He was said to have fled to Paraguay, where he lived in seclusion until 1971. Alternatively, he opened a Volkswagen repair shop in Buenos Aires or, showing his true self, administered to disadvantaged children in the Andes.) Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez compared Germany’s Angela Merkel to Hitler, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. The Germans were naturally appalled, but they could take some consolation in the fact that Chávez’s opponents at home were likening their own leader to Hitler — and, again, not as a compliment.
In Hitler’s own home ground, the West, rejecting this child of the Occident and his poisonous legacy goes hand in hand with a respect for human rights, racial diversity, and due process (which does not mean that these ideals are without their native detractors and potential saboteurs). Across much of the globe, though, openly expressed admiration for the Hitler legacy can be seen as just one more indication of the tenuousness of these social and political values in our modern world.
Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images