This was just the latest flap: A group of students from a private high school in Taiwan held a mock Nazi rally just before Christmas with a cardboard tank, lookalike uniforms and swastikas.
The bizarre display of Nazi costumery had antecedents. In 2000, a Taipei restaurateur opened a concentration camp-themed diner. The following year, a major political party changed a campaign ad that mentioned Hitler.
Every couple of years, Taiwan catches the West off guard with a display of Nazism used for play, humor or commerce. Jewish rights groups and the Israeli government usually condemn the acts, prompting the perpetrators to stand down.
At Hsinchu Kuang Fu Senior High School in northern Taiwan, the principal offered to quit as German and Israeli officials in Taipei as well as Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen condemned the mock rally. Tsai herself apologized for the event as offensive to Jewish people.
These awkward exchanges usually stem from ignorance rather than anti-Semitism or neo-Nazi ideals, academic experts and others say. Young people may simply like the look of World War II-era German uniforms or see the Nazis as a symbol of strength.
I’m not attributing anti-Semitism or neo-Nazism to anyone in Taiwan.
“I’m not attributing anti-Semitism or neo-Nazism to anyone in Taiwan,” said Asher Yarden, representative with the Israel Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, a de facto embassy that often is the first to complain about such displays. “It is ignorance.”
Taiwan’s unique exposure to World War II, its modern-day diplomatic isolation and people’s lack of awareness about what the real Nazis did in Europe — including the Holocaust — underpin the trend.
“I don’t think it’s anything special. I just think it’s a showoff attempt,” said Linda Arrigo, an American-born academic researcher based in suburban Taipei, speaking of the mock Nazi rally. “I think it shows Taiwan’s lack of awareness about other countries and other parts of the world.”
Taiwan was a Japanese colony from 1895 to the end of World War II and fought along Japan, a German ally, in the Asian theater. Some older Taiwanese credit the Japanese for building much of today’s public infrastructure. Younger Taiwanese like Japanese food, cartoons and literature, while Japan is Taiwanese people’s top travel destination.
Taiwanese who learn World War II history might not associate it with the problematic use of Nazi symbols because formal education does not teach that kind of linkage, said Jens Damm, associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at Chang Jung Christian University.
“They memorize things … and don’t want to get the larger picture and are not supposed to do research on their own,” Damm said.
Displays of Nazi symbols for commerce or entertainment also occur in mainland China, South Korea and Thailand.
Reports of Nazi imitations in Taiwan go back at least to 1999. That year the local promoter of a German space heater brand used a smiling Hitler image on subway billboards, drawing protest statements from German and Israeli officials in Taipei.
Four years later, an Israeli government representative learned that a popular piece of Taiwanese army music was modeled after a Nazi march song, “Panzerlied,” which was composed in 1933.
And two years ago a Taiwanese restaurant struck the name “Long Live the Nazis” from the names of two of its German sausage-filled dishes after receiving complaints.
The school behind the mock Nazi rally declined comment except to say the principal had offered to resign. Photos of the rally had landed on social media, giving the event wider exposure and setting off the backlash.
Taiwan’s Education Ministry says high schools teach World War II history, with specific knowledge depending on which publisher’s textbooks a school picks.
Texts and teachers normally discuss Nazi Germany as early as middle school, said Liang Hsuan-chang, a teacher at Taipei Municipal Zhong Shan Girls High School. Teachers have the right to bar student proposals that involve Nazi displays, she added.
“Books and teachers always show the photos, and if there’s time I’ll try to show ‘Schindler’s List,’” Liang said, referring to the 1993 Steven Spielberg film about the Holocaust. “Classmates will feel sympathy toward Jewish people.”
Electronic toys and games played outside school plus the availability of knockoff German army clothes may stoke curiosity about the Nazis, Liang said.
But Pan Chih-chieh, a university student the southern Taiwan city of Tainan, said the high school rally shows a need for more education.
“How could they not know what the reaction would be?” Pan said. “We should improve on the teaching of history. We know about the [Holocaust] but we don’t have a deep understanding of it.”
Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation may stop people from making a mental link between textbook knowledge of World War II and the use of Nazi symbols, said Raymond Wu, managing director of the Taipei-based political risk consultancy e-telligence.
China sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and curbs the Taipei government’s foreign diplomacy. Taiwan has diplomatic relations with just 21 countries, most of them small and poor, with just one in Europe. China has ties with more than 170 nations.
“People can generally be informed, and the public will probably know the chronology of this history,” Wu said. “But because we have been so isolated, whether we have enough exposure, that’s not so sure. For example, you don’t have enough international news coverage in Taiwan.”
Taiwan, like other parts of Asia, has relatively few Jewish organizations that might raise public awareness of the Holocaust, Yarden said.
About 1,000 Jewish people live in Taiwan, population 23 million, said Ross Feingold, chairman of the Taipei Jewish Center. The center tries to raise awareness, he said.
“It’s pretty clear that in places where you have an influential Jewish presence or in places where there’s a direct connection to World War II such as in Europe, either you don’t see a phenomenon like this, or they’re motivated by something different,” Yarden said.
But Taiwanese are starting to understand the impacts of displaying Nazi symbols, Yarden says, pointing to the presidential apology and the school principal’s resignation offer. In January 2016, Taiwan also established an annual Holocaust memorial day, which brought out then-President Ma Ying-jeou and 200 others.
Jennings is a special correspondent.