Bruno and I saw a shocking sight while walking through a street market in Yogyakarta a few weeks ago. For sale at one stand, amid posters of Bob Marley, Asian boy bands, Spanish soccer teams and former Indonesian leaders, there was a poster of … Adolf Hitler. To us such a poster glorified a man responsible for genocide. Was it ignorance or poor taste — or bold anti-Semitism? Minutes later, as we passed another shop, there he was again, in black and white, the Fuehrer in full salute.
A week or so later, in Jakarta’s historic district, we saw the same poster for sale. Then we spotted a taxi with a Nazi flag bumper sticker. It was not to be confused with the Buddhist swastika: It was the unmistakable cocked, swastika, in a white circle within a red rectangle.
We had also recently read in a Jakarta English-language newspaper about a coffeeshop in Bandung, West Java, called “Soldatenkaffe,” where Nazi memorabilia lines the walls and where the staff wears replicas of SS uniforms.
International media (including Al-Jazeera and The Huffington Post, among others) picked up the story of the café and expressed reproach for the café’s seeming disregard for genocide. In response, local officials requested a meeting with the shop owner. But Soldatenkaffe has been open for over two years, and nobody had cared before the media buzz.
We couldn’t understand the phenomenon of Nazi kitsch in Indonesia. I started to do some research: Was this neo-Nazism, ignorance, or indifference?
When I asked a local driver if he recognized the swastika on the back of the taxicab, he said no. I told him it was from a German political party that killed a lot of people. He had never heard of this.
It turns out that Indonesian schools do not teach students much, if anything, about international genocide, political violence or racial conflicts. One researcher notes, “Indonesia’s Department of Education is reluctant to distribute information that is of a violent nature.” Many students graduate from high school here without knowing that the Holocaust even happened. It is not described in approved history textbooks (some books that did describe it were seized in 2007 because they described many ideologies out of line with Indonesian government policy, according to The Jakarta Post).
Many political atrocities are glossed over publicly in Indonesia, most notably that of the Indonesian government’s killing of more than half a million citizens and imprisoning many more in the 1960s. (We noticed that this was not mentioned in a museum we visited in Jakarta, despite the fact that the museum chronicles Indonesia’s post-independence economic travails.)
This may explain why the owner of Soldatenkaffe told the Jakarta Globe: “The way I see it, the Nazis didn’t commit slaughter.” In Europe, such a statement can land you in prison. It seems that many Indonesians do not have a context for the proper treatment of symbols of genocide, though there is awareness and acknowledgment that Nazi symbols are controversial at the very least.
This post would be incomplete without mentioning the presence of anti-Semitism in Indonesia. These ideas are mostly imported from Muslims in the Middle East, where anti-Israel sentiment is high. But anti-Semitism does not predominate, and it is not linked to Nazi ideology. University students interviewed in 2008 did not associate Hitler or Nazis with anti-Semitism; others did not know what a swastika symbolized. Scholars seemed to agree, “Nazi symbols are used by Indonesian youth as an expression of rebellion, not as a connection to and affiliation with Nazi ideology.”
The owner of the Nazi-themed coffeeshop offers an insight into the popularity of these symbols: In an interview, he said, “Even during the Dutch colonization of Indonesia, many Indonesians were killed. This is also the case with Americans and their bombing of Hiroshima. Why are the Nazis seen as bad guys while those belligerent nations are not?” Though his words betray some ignorance, the underlying question is important: Do we sufficiently condemn all violent regimes, or only a selected few? In the right forum, this question is worth raising. It may be particularly relevant to furthering democracy in Indonesia.