Today, Friday, April 20 is Adolph Hitler's birthday.
Incredibly, sixty-two years after his suicide, Hitler’s image still seems to be popping up everywhere. One would think that the legacy left by the man who personified ultimate evil would serve as an antidote to hate and extremism. A good thing, right? Not always.
Here in America, character assassination—not of Hitler—but of contemporary figures abound. Attacks from both political extremes often equate America’s top leaders from President George W. Bush to President Barack Obama—with the worst world leader of all time.
Meanwhile in Germany, this April 20th still finds neo-Nazi thugs and three-piece suit bigots still drawing inspiration from the Fuehrer.
Now from China comes an incredible attack on the Dalai Lama—the Fuehrer’s antithesis—as a "new" Hitler. A commentary on China Tibet Online, also carried by the official Xinhua News Agency, accused the exiled Tibetan leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner of “Nazi” racial policies including encouraging Tibetans to segregate themselves and planning a Holocaust against Han Chinese. This from a regime whose treatment of Tibetans, it could be argued sometimes bears a resemblance to the Nazi treatment of Poles.
Elsewhere in Asia, trendy invocations of Hitler in countries with virtually no Jews are even harder to account for. “Hitler chic” manifests itself in fashion, music, advertising campaigns, and even school competitions:
In Thailand—a Buddhist country of 64 million with less than 1,000 Jews—there was a disgraceful parade at the exclusive Catholic Sacred Heart Preparatory School in Chiang Mai led by students who gave the “Sieg Heil” salute carrying Nazi flags. Gun-toting adults proudly accompanied their children.
In Japan, the popular rock group Kishidan appeared on MTV Japan wearing SS-like uniforms. To its credit, Sony responded to criticism with a press release: “We will not broadcast, transmit, or distribute the video recording of Kishidan’s performance with the said costume and the recording will be disposed of immediately.”
Of course, there was no explanation from Kishidan as to why the garb of genociders was chosen in the first place.
In South Korea, where Hitler-themed sports bars remain popular, an advertising firm produced an ad campaign with a Nazi soldier and Hitler symbolizing the “revolutionary” moisturizing and calming effects of a skin lotion.
In India, where, of course the swastika had a religious significance long before the Nazis perversely appropriated it, there was the “Hitler Crossing Café” in Mumbai and a publisher who has a smash best-seller marketing "Mein Kampf" to grad students and aspiring business leaders as a prime example of an highly-organized mind.
Closer to the epicenter of Mideast fault lines, in Turkey, the chief rabbi of that country’s beleaguered 500 year-old Jewish community, protested a television commercial for Biomen’s “100 percent male shampoo” showing Hitler shouting in a dubbed-over Turkish voice: “If you are not wearing women’s dress, you shouldn’t be using women’s shampoo either!” At a time when Turkey’s president anti-Israel rants continue unabated it took international protests to finally force the Biomen Hitler campaign from the airwaves.
Search Google and you will be overwhelmed with new titles every year containing the word “Hitler,” including those about “the young Hitler” that flirt with sympathy for that “troubled teenager.”
Nazi-themed art is also hot. Just a few years ago, artist Tom Sachs produced for the New York Jewish Museum’s Mirroring Evil exhibition his “Giftgas Giftset” exhibit consisting of simulated poison gas canisters bearing names and logos like Chanel.
Sachs explained: “I use the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion... Fashion is good when it helps you to look sexy but it’s bad when it makes you feel stupid or fat because you don’t have a Gucci dog bowl and your best friend has one.”
Historian Peter Novick justified such trendy art as a necessary iconoclastic corrective to conventional moral revulsion at the Holocaust: “There are more important lessons about how easily we become victimizers to be drawn from the normal behavior of normal Americans in normal times than from the SS in wartime.”
Do critics like Novick mean that the sins of Middletown, USA, have more to teach us about murderous evil than the esprit de corps of the Storm Troopers—or the videocam that Toulouse's serial killer Mohamed Merah wore around his neck?
Leaders of our Global Village may argue that they already have too much on their plate; that Job Number 1 is to focus on the Herculean task of regaining economic momentum. But history teaches us again and again that societies rushing headlong into the future—willfully oblivious to the past—are destined for disaster.
A generation after Auschwitz, Hitler’s aura still looms large. The only stave that can finally slay Hitler’s ghost is educating the conscience of future generations. We can either confront evil or watch our grandchildren march to its totalitarian hymns.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman, a historian is a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.