No dead political leader has been dragged into arguments more frequently than Third Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler who committed suicide more than 70 years ago. This is true even in Thailand. There was an outcry 20 years ago because the Fuhrer was shown on a public transport advertisement in Bangkok munching a potato chip in the presence of Charlie Chaplin. Several years ago, a waxworks museum in Pattaya erected a large hoarding on Sukhumvit Road showing Adolf giving the Nazi stiff-armed salute to hundreds of motorists as they passed by. Of course, neither of these episodes reflected pro-nazi sentiments but rather a total ignorance of what Hitlerism meant in the 1930s and 1940s. After all, Thailand was attacked by the imperial Japanese army in World War Two and not by the latter’s ally Germany. Other examples of Nazi-style goofs in Thailand have included selling Third Reich militaria on Pattaya Beach Road and dressing up in swastika uniforms at a school parade in Bangkok. The Jewish Holocaust is mostly ignored in Asia which has its own nightmares such as the Khmer Rouge and mass starvations in China under Chairman Mao.
In Europe, where Hitlerism is a more touchy subject, politicians and others try to obtain the advantage in a controversy by raking up what Adolf once said. Indeed, when anyone makes reference to the Fuhrer, one should think of Godwin’s Law which effectively states that the longer any debate goes on in the newspapers or on the internet, the closer to one hundred percent grows the likelihood that Adolf will be cited. The former London mayor, Kenneth Livingstone, recently tried to win the day by observing that Hitler was in favour of letting German Jews emigrate before, later on, he went mad and murdered several million people. Critics in UK immediately rounded on Livingstone for attempting to turn Hitler into a pro-Jewish crusader, but Ken refused to budge and claimed history was on his side. Maybe.
We also had the spectacle of another former London mayor, Boris Johnson, in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, comparing Hitler’s dream of rediscovering “the golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans” with the European Union’s attempt to do this “by different methods”. Presumably Boris took the view that if you can show Hitler, if alive today, would have voted to remain in Europe, then any sensible person would cast his or her vote to leave. In historical terms, there is no connection between the Third Reich’s conquest of much of western Europe and the contemporary European Union. Hitler’s empire was as ragbag of different forms of administration – Denmark was left to its own devices whereas France was partitioned and parts of Poland formally annexed – but Boris would not want to know the fact that Hitler’s aim was simply to loot subservient countries in an attempt to win the war.
Perhaps Boris’ real aim was to raise Hitler’s ghost over the Brexit debate whilst painting himself as some kind of Winston Churchill. Boris has made no secret of his liking for the wartime British leader, mentioning him at every opportunity and even writing a biography designed to impress readers with the similarities between the two. Indeed, there are similarities. Churchill shared Boris’ liking of talking a great deal, churning out books and articles galore and even being dismissed as a rogue at some moments of his career. Not only rogue but perhaps worse. The legend persists that as sea lord in 1915 Churchill deliberately sacrificed the Lusitania to bring America into the First World War in 1915, although this did not happen for another two years. He also favoured in the Second World War murdering German leaders wholesale rather than subjecting them to the Nuremburg trials: in practice the two alternatives added up to the same thing.
Actually, Hitler’s contemporary significance is a good deal more menacing than trite historical debates. He was a true demagogue who cared little for the trappings of democracy even though he always claimed to have come to power legally and by the popular will. Today, we can see something of the same phenomenon in the popularity, selective as may be, of the new Philippine president Duterte who apparently advocates extra-judicial killings and throwing the bodies of drug dealers into Manila bay. Donald Trump in the USA may not be a paid-up fascist but his programme to ban Muslims from entering the USA and build a wall to keep out unwanted Mexicans is hardly a liberal policy. Both these latter day politicians – and they are by no means unique – mimic Hitler in appealing to gut reactions and racist ideologies. Some individuals’ urge to want a strong leader with comprehensive and simple solutions to everyday problems has a ready outlet in such policies.
Meanwhile the ghost of Hitler is by no means dead. Governments in Poland and Hungary have plainly adopted anti-immigrant policies which, in Hungary’s case, have led to the success of openly fascist political parties sporting neo-nazi uniforms at rallies. The elections for the new Austrian president also illustrate the revival of the extreme right. These developments, as well as the growing importance of movements in England and France to shut out immigrants, undoubtedly reflect the movement of millions of people in war-torn Syria and Afghanistan in particular both as refugees and as economic migrants. In this context, the significance of Hitler is a good deal more worrying than his picture munching potato crisps on the back of a Bangkok bus.