How do Indonesians who dress as Hitler and Nazi soldiers justify their obsession?
Some Indonesians have no qualms showing respect for the strong image projected by Nazi Germany, saying it does not make them neo-Nazis. Are they just unable to fathom the horror of the time, or does the problem run deeper?
At his home in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second-largest city – Aris Setiawan had no idea that a heated debate about the rise of neo-Nazism was flaring up around the world.
The 25-year-old says he was unaware of the recent deadly clash in Charlottesville, in the US, where white supremacists marched bearing torches and Nazi flags and a woman was killed after a car ploughed into a group of counter protesters.
A few months before the Charlottesville rally, Setiawan had won the “Judge’s Favourite Award” at a cosplay festival in his hometown. Cosplay – short for costume play – is a form of role-play made popular in Japan where people wear costumes inspired by their favourite comic or film characters. Setiawan’s costume wasn’t inspired by a fictional character, however. He won the award for dressing up as Adolf Hitler.
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Images of Setiawan in his Nazi garb made the rounds on the internet. They showed a poker-faced Setiawan on stage, giving a Nazi salute while other festivalgoers, clad in fantasy attire, mimicked the gesture.
The festival committee faced heavy criticism and quickly removed all images of Setiawan from its website.
“I didn’t expect such controversy,” Setiawan says. He heard that the images appeared on websites overseas and had become an internet meme. “There was a lot of fuss around it, to the point that Facebook banned the images. But the thing is, what I did was not illegal.”
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Indonesia has no law banning the display of Nazi insignia. As such, some Indonesians have no qualms with showing their fascination for Hitler’s regime. Years before Setiawan’s cosplay act became famous on the internet, two similar incidents brought Indonesia unwanted international attention.
Prabowo Subianto, a candidate in the country’s 2014 presidential election, found himself at the centre of controversy when a music video made by volunteer campaigners featured Indonesian rock star Ahmad Dhani dressed up in a Schutzstaffel (SS) uniform. Subianto later distanced himself from the video.
That same year, a Nazi-themed cafe in Bandung – a bustling city three hours’ drive from the capital – reopened after its owner was forced to shut it down the year before in response to international outrage. The cafe was named Soldatenkaffee, after a popular hangout for Nazi soldiers in occupied Paris during the second world war. It had waiters dressed up in SS uniforms and served dishes including “Nazi Goreng”, a play on the words nasi goreng, or fried rice in Bahasa Indonesia.
Criticism resurged, mostly from overseas and particularly from Jewish organisations. In January of this year, Soldatenkaffee closed its doors for good.
Regina Widhiasti, a lecturer in German history and culture at the University of Indonesia (UI), says many Indonesians who idolise Hitler have only partial knowledge and understanding of the regime.
“They only see Hitler as a figure who was capable of leading his country to ‘glory’,” she says. “For those who love military [successes], the German army serves as a great example. As we all know, it took an alliance of countries plus the Soviet army to eventually stop Germany. [Admirers] only see the glorious part of this party, that it managed to conquer others in the name of nationalism.”
Cosplayer Setiawan echoes this view when asked about his controversial costume. “It’s Hitler’s leadership that I find fascinating, and it has nothing to do with the ideology he carried,” he says. “When I did the cosplay, I considered it a parody, just like an actor playing Hitler. I thought it was funny.”
He insists that he is well-informed about history, having learned about the second world war since primary school and, more recently, from websites such as 1cak – an Indonesia site that distributes funny pictures and videos similar to its popular overseas counterpart, 9Gag.
Some Nazi enthusiasts in Indonesia consider themselves history buffs, claiming to have in-depth knowledge about the Third Reich. They call themselves “historical re-enactors”, meeting up in their spare time to act out historical events, including the second world war, in military uniforms. Many of them collect Nazi memorabilia, books and antiques.
One such troupe is Indonesian Re-enactors. Its Facebook group has more than 1,500 members, some of whom are doctors, entrepreneurs or civil servants in real life.
One of the group’s most prominent members is Alif Rafik Khan. The 39-year-old is the author of 1000+ Fakta Nazi Jerman (1000+ Facts about Nazi Germany), which was published in April this year. He claims to have read more than 1,000 books about Nazism and is well known in the community for running a website that is dedicated to fans of Nazi Germany in Indonesia.
The roots of his passion, he explains, reach back to the ’90s when he was in high school. “I’ve always had a deep interest in historical figures, and I like to collect newspaper clippings about Nazi Germany. I started the website in 2007, but I didn’t expect it to blow up like this,” he says.
“My fascination with the Third Reich specifically revolves around the history of its military. I like Adolf Hitler. I think he’s a great orator, despite him sporting that comical Charlie Chaplin-like moustache. I admire the Nazi’s armoured vehicles, the Panzer, and I like the German language – I think it sounds so manly. Also, just look at those German soldiers, with their tall posture, blue eyes and blond hair, as well as their immaculate military uniforms. I think they’re really cool.”
Khan started doing historical re-enactments with his group in 2009. His first costume was the uniform of the Panzer troops, but lately his costume of choice has been the Waffen-SS uniform.
Despite his deep historical interest, Khan insists that he does not subscribe to Nazi ideology. “What I like to explore is the theme surrounding the Third Reich military. Regarding their ideology, I am not entirely sympathetic. This is why 90 per cent of the content in my blog revolves around the military, and not the underlying ideology behind it,” he says.
“Most people think that when people have a certain fascination with the Third Reich or the Wehrmacht [Nazi Germany’s uniformed armed forces], then they’re neo-Nazis. This is such a misconception.”
He acknowledges that his interest might be offensive to some, but maintains there’s nothing anti-Semitic about his passion. “I do believe that the Holocaust happened, and I know that the Nazis have done really horrible things in the past. But I also know that their crimes applied to all non-Aryan ‘Untermenschen’, and not just the Jews.”
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He says that in Indonesia, people can express what they are passionate about as long as it is not illegal or harmful to others. “I am personally against the spreading or the resurrection of Hitler’s ideology. It’s all a thing of the past.”
Widhiasti says that Khan’s view is common among Nazi enthusiasts in Indonesia.
“I used to think that the lack of information about Nazis, or Hitler in particular, is the reason behind this phenomenon,” she says. However, over time, she learned that this isn’t always the case. She found that some of her students, who in university specifically learned about the impact of the Nazis on Germany and the world, were among those fascinated by the Third Reich.
“What I’ve learned from these students is that they see the Holocaust and any historical Nazi Germany event as a mere story. They know that the events were real, but somehow they cannot fathom the horror. For them, it was a chapter in history which occurred a long, long time ago, in a place that’s far away from them.”
However, Widhiasti also points out that not all Nazi enthusiasts strictly distance themselves from anti-Semitism.
“I’ve also found a student who thinks that the Holocaust was justified because he truly believes Jews should be persecuted. This view stemmed from his partial knowledge regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. He agreed the Holocaust itself was horrible, but he couldn’t blame the Nazis for what they did.”
She believes there is no simple explanation as to why some Indonesians are obsessed with Nazis. “It is a complicated combination of incomplete knowledge of history, misconceptions about the Jews and anti-Semitism, and a fascination of the military. To some extent, this is cultural appropriation. There is sadly a tendency in Indonesian society to use symbols without really understanding their meaning.
“To give you an idea, one of my students showed up in my class wearing a Wehrmacht-style jacket with the swastika stitched on its upper sleeve. When I asked why he loved to wear it, his answer was ‘to show people that I am a student of the German department. I love Germany and everything related to this country.’”