Asia Times: Taiwan's Hitler debacle
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  July 19, 2001  

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Taiwan's Hitler debacle
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - That young people tend to be more liberal than their parents is probably a truism. That liberal-leaning political parties should therefore assiduously court the votes of young people is simply common sense. But Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has chosen a rather strange new icon in its campaign for the youth vote in legislative elections this December - Adolf Hitler. Cases of cross-cultural misunderstanding rarely come richer than this.

The DPP's intention was to make a television commercial to encourage young film makers to help the party make more commercials targeting young voters in the upcoming election. The thrust of the commercial is to get the film makers to express themselves boldly while of course working with the DPP. During the commercial, four leaders appear for a few seconds, Hitler, the US president John F Kennedy, Cuba's Fidel Castro and Taiwan's own former president Lee Teng-hui. The DPP said it chose this oddly assorted bunch for "having the courage to speak up without fear of confrontation".

"We chose them for their bold characteristics. This has no other purpose, such as promoting authoritarianism," Juan Chao-hsiung, director of the DPP's youth department, told reporters after the commercial's unveiling to the press last week.

Answering charges that many might think the commercial to be in bad taste, Phoenix Cheng, director of the party's cultural and information department told the Taipei Times, "We thought about the negative impact of presenting Hitler's image, but felt that it was presented with a sense of humor and would not be associated with the Jews."

The commercial was to be screened on domestic TV channels for the first time last Thursday. By the time of its first showing, the party had already been deluged by protests, many of them from abroad. The presentation with "a sense of humor" was thought not so amusing. Even worse was an explanation from Cheng's department that these figures had been chosen because they were "sound" political figures.

In Taiwan, Israel's representative Menashe Zipori condemned the commercial for its insensitivity, as did a leading rabbi, while Yang Huang Mei-hsin, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, herself a DPP stalwart, said she was appalled. But soon the big foreign guns came into play, including the Anti-Defamation League in New York and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which lodged a protest with Taiwan's representative to Washington, the center's associate dean calling the DPP's behavior "historic and cultural insensitivity" which was "no longer acceptable". Meanwhile the press - particularly the English-language newspapers - received a torrent of outraged mail.

Many of the letters echoed the same theme - that the DPP was a party created out of the suffering of the Taiwanese people under the ruthless tyranny of the Chiang Kai-shek Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist regime and it, of all parties, should understand that images of tyranny should not be trivialized.

The DPP went on the defensive and in doing so managed not only to completely contradict its earlier assertions about the content of the commercial but adopted an attitude at best insultingly patronizing, at worst reeking of chauvinism.

Phoenix Cheng marshaled an army of rather dubious excuses. First he claimed that it was all a result of foreigners not understanding Mandarin Chinese - despite the fact that there are several thousand fluent foreign speakers of Mandarin on the island as well as a considerable number of overseas Chinese brought up abroad who are bilingual and, of course, that some protests came from Taiwanese themselves.

"There is nothing wrong with the film but it contains messages that foreigners cannot understand. The film was made for local Mandarin-speaking viewers who would never object to it as they have sufficient understanding of what we are promoting," Cheng said.

Continuing this astonishingly inept piece of spin control, Cheng said that the commercial continued a contrast between the "false political stance" of Hitler and Castro and the "positive" ones of Lee and Kennedy.

Tien Hsin, the DPP's director of international affairs, however, claimed that the purpose of the film's imagery was to exhort young people not to let outdated political figures speak for them - a spectacularly inept gaffe considering that the DPP is trying to enter into an alliance with followers of Lee for the December elections as well as contradicting both the party's original line about the commercial's imagery and Cheng's later spin.

The problem with Cheng's argument was that Taiwanese who watched the ad saw no evidence whatsoever of a line being drawn between the "false" and "positive" political influences, nor did staff of the German Cultural Center in Taipei who, for obvious reasons, watched the ad with great attention.

The DPP, however, insisted it had no intention of either dropping or changing the ad. It might just have brazened the issue out - probably at great cost to the party's international image - had not Lee Teng-hui himself come out at the weekend to say he objected strongly to being in the same lineup as Hitler.

"Pursuing democracy, freedom and human rights has been a lifetime goal. Showing images of me together with a dictator could lead to a misperception of values," said the grand old man of Taiwan's democratic reform.

Probably as a result of Lee's objections, the DPP showed a modified version of the ad on Monday in which the words "authoritarian rule led to catastrophe" were superimposed over Hitler's image while "democracy should speak up" were superimposed over the image of Kennedy.

It would, however, be wrong to think that the reaction to the DPP's ad was all condemnatory. By the time Lee spoke out against it the initial onslaught of condemnation, much of it foreign, was being met with a spirited defense.

Much of this was centered around anger that foreigners should presume to tell Taiwanese what symbolism and images they can and cannot use in their own country where they have a constitutional right to freedom of speech.

Such concerns even prompted a group of DPP loyalists to consider protesting outside the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei - Israel's de facto embassy. These plans were later abandoned; Taiwan was thus spared the grotesque embarrassment of seeing a group of supporters of the ruling party demonstrating outside an Israeli representative office over the party's right to use Hitler's image in a TV ad.

Nevertheless resentment that the DPP has been the victim of a Western-imposed idea of political correctness festers, all the more so, of course, because Hitler's monstrousness was, after all, a Western creation.

Finally, on Tuesday the DPP agreed to pull the ad, though it continued to claim that there was no malice in its use of Hitler.

Here it was, without doubt, telling the truth. But what this reveals is a lack of sensitivity, conditioned by a lack of understanding of what Nazi images and that of Hitler in particular represent. There was no intention to be offensive or unfeeling, and certainly no intention of showing authoritarianism or Nazism in a favorable light. There was just ignorance.

And this ignorance is widespread and has cropped up before. For example, in November 1999, K E and Kingstone, a Taiwan trading company, caused a furor over an ad for electric space heaters made by the German company DBK. The ads which appeared on buses and bus shelters and in print media features a cartoon figure of a smiling Hitler in a brownshirt uniform, hand raised in a Nazi salute saying "declare war on the cold front".

Israel and German representatives immediately protested about the ads and the German manufacturer - who had not been consulted in their preparation - ordered the campaign be discontinued immediately. K E and Kingstone had used Hitler for the ad because he was to most Taiwanese simply the most readily, perhaps the only identifiable "German". A company spokeswoman said that they had not expected problems with the ad campaign because "most people in Taiwan are not that sensitive about Hitler".

Johannes Goeth, a German trade office official agreed with her, saying he had often met Taiwanese who admired Hitler and lacked an understanding of European history. "Taxi drivers will often tell me Hitler was a great man, very strong," Goeth said.

And then there was The Jail. In this wildly popular theme restaurant customers were led to a "cell" where they ate their meals handcuffed behind bars. So far, so kitschy. The problem was with the decoration. For as well as barbed wire and pictures of the interior of Alcatraz, there were other, far more disturbing images, including groups of people in the striped pajamas of the Nazi death camps, or, in one cell, a picture of the main gate of Auschwitz with its "Arbeit Macht Frei" motto.

In the case of The Jail, the interior designer simply had no idea that the concentration camp pictures were of a different nature from those of the mostly US correctional facilities that were The Jail's staple decorative fare.

In Taiwan, Nazi iconography or paraphernalia that would be illegal in Germany and possibly get their wearer into a life-threatening fight in the United States, is often worn as a fashion statement. Nazi swastika decals, for example, are a common adornment of motorcycles. In fact, a popular crash-helmet among the younger generation sports the infamous image on a helmet the design of which is duplicated from the battle helmets of the World War II German army. The symbol is a not uncommon choice at tattoo parlors and has even been used for fashion earrings. It's true; people in Taiwan are not that sensitive about Hitler.

That is not to say that they are unfeeling brutes who would condone genocide. Rather it is to say that Germany, perhaps all of Europe, is, in Neville Chamberlain's notorious phrase, a far away place of which they know nothing. Many Taiwanese, especially the young, see Europe as a repository of everything that Taiwan lacks - art, grace, beauty, sophistication, history - views in many ways as idealized and as unrealistic as European idealization of China in the 18th Century. That Europe all but destroyed itself in the last century and will long bear the scars and the guilt means nothing.

Partly this is also a result of a general Taiwanese rejection of history. Perhaps because so much of the history Taiwanese have been taught at school is - or was during the 50-year rule of the previous KMT government - self-serving pap made to justify an indefensible semi-colonial status quo, the apathy toward the subject is extreme. And since Taiwanese don't trust their own history, they give little attention to others'.

Tiffany Feng, a 27-year-old secretary, summed up another aspect of the Hitler issue, "As far as I know Hitler didn't kill any Chinese." The idea that Hitler is a universal international symbol of monstrous evil suddenly becomes to look like a Western vanity. The monsters in the world of greater China are rather closer to home; for example the leadership of expansionist Japan in the 1930s and the war years.

The generous interpretation the Japanese afford their role in World War II in their history textbooks is a major issue on both sides of the Taiwan Strait as is that of the so called "comfort women" - forcibly conscripted sex slaves for the Japanese imperial army.

As one letter to the editor pointed out in the wake of the DPP's Hitler ad, "Mention the Nanjing Massacre and the comfort women sex-slaves during World War II and Taiwanese become indignant. Mention Hitler and you'll probably get a chuckle. People here go to Schindler's List for a good cry but think nothing of swastikas painted on taxis. Hitler is not history; Hitler is kitsch."

And then there is the ogre that all Taiwanese have been raised with: Chairman Mao, who is probable responsible for the deaths of something between 45 and 75 million Chinese between 1949 and his death in 1976.

While in the relaxed atmosphere of the 1990s even the great helmsman's image found some kitsch uses in Taipei, the iconography of Maoism is still a serious business. T-shirts bearing, say, Mao's image or revolutionary slogans might well be thought "cool" in London or New York, but in Taipei, while they would no longer get the wearer a free trip to the police station, they could certainly provoke a negative reaction. Half a world away, one man's monster becomes another's radical chic.

But is such ignorance something that Taiwan, in its precarious position, depending as it does on the goodwill of the West, especially the United States, can afford? One of the most perceptive comments on the Hitler ad issue was from a newspaper reader in northern Taiwan who wrote, "The DPP not only insults all victims of the Nazis but also insults the intelligence of DPP supporters," adding, "If it's fine to learn from Hitler for being willing to speak his mind, is it okay to learn from Chairman Mao for the same reason? If Hitler is an acceptable role model for the DPP, then the Chinese communists must be acceptable too. Why should the world side with Taiwan in the event that the Chinese communist regime annexes the island?"

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