The battle over a business owner’s right to call his clothing store Hitler is heating up in Ahmedabad, India, revealing a stark divide in cultural attitudes toward the most infamous figure in modern history.
In response to fierce complaints from Jewish organizations this fall, Ahmedabad officials tore down the clothing-store sign bearing the German dictator’s name. The move came after the store’s owner, Rajesh Shah, refused to change its name. And Shah says the fight isn’t over. The Hitler brand has been good for business, he told Bloomberg Businessweek’s David Shaftel, and he plans to appeal the city’s decision in court. What’s more, he said, the only people who complained about the name were foreigners. “Ahmedabadis like the name because they know Hitler [has not done] anything harmful to India,” he told Businessweek.
The dustup is not the first time this year a company found itself in a fight over the Hitler "brand." In August, the Italian winemaker Vini Lunardelli caught heat from officials in that country when two American tourists came across a bottle of Führerwine, whose labels are adorned with Hitler’s image. The tourists -- one of whom had a father who survived Auschwitz -- were understandably outraged. But the wines had been in circulation for years. “We would not have produced them unless there was a demand,” the winemaker told Decanter in 2007.
If nothing else, incidents such as these expose a broader chasm in perceptions of Adolf Hitler among cultures with greater geographical or generational distance from the man’s atrocities. In the West, and in the United States in particular, the etiquette is well-established: Pop-cultural references to Hitler -- outside of slapstick mockery a la Mel Brooks’s “The Producers” -- is off limits. The name Hitler itself is often simply used as a synonym for evil. In Zuccotti Park last year, angry Occupy Wall Street protesters last year held up signs condemning “Hitler’s Bankers.” Conservative extremists irate over Obamacare unleashed Internet memes comparing the president to Hitler. It barely matters that such comparisons are ridiculously overstated. Our association with Hitler as the orchestrator of the Holocaust is engrained in our collective memory. It still feels fresh.
Not so in other parts of the world. Consider northern Thailand’s Sacred Heart College, which allowed its teenage students to march in Nazi uniforms and wave swastika flags during a school parade last year. Following widespread criticism from foreign diplomats, the school apologized, but the students seemed oblivious to the fact that they were doing anything wrong. Nazi imagery is not uncommon as a decoration for T-shirts and stickers in Thai culture, which has long equated the swastika cross with its Hindu and Buddhist origins. Hitler himself, meanwhile, is seen by young people as a militaristic dictator, not the propagator of genocide. In response to the parade controversy, the Thai writer Meechai Burapa wrote an open letter in the Bangkok Post explaining that he never learned about the Holocaust when he was a student.
As Businessweek reports, the same holds true in India, where the Hitler-as-brand phenomenon expands far beyond a single clothing store. Two recent Indian films -- “Hero Hitler in Love” and “Gandhi to Hitler” -- also reflect the trend. Experts say this is not the result of anti-Semitism -- which has never been part of Indian culture -- but rather a reverence for strong military leaders. (And some Indian nationalists fought alongside Hitler's Japanese allies to free India from the British.)
In the years to come, the number of people who have lived through World War II will become fewer and fewer, and the Hitler-as-brand phenomenon may only gain strength in the process. But as Burapa put it in his open letter last year, the best defense is not necessarily to condemn, but to educate. “As a youngster, I saw the Nazis and the SS guards in movies, and I thought their uniforms looked cool,” he wrote. “I was a victim of ignorance.”