In Bangkok, grinning kids pose for photos next to cartoon effigies of the man responsible for the deaths of 12 million people during the Holocaust.
It started as a craze for T-shirts printed with cartoon images of Hitler’s face. This dubious trend among teenagers in Thailand soon moved on to include SS style bike helmets, temporary swastika tattoos, and pictures of cute teddy bears doing the Nazi salute.
Soon, kids were seen on the streets of Bangkok posing for photos, grinning next to cartoon effigies of the man responsible for the deaths of 12 million people during the Holocaust. Then it emerged other incidents had taken place including a Nazi themed school fashion show and a sports day parade in the northern city of Chang Mai in which a group of students dressed up as SS soldiers as a surprise for their teachers.
“Hitler Chic,” as it was dubbed in the media last year, has quickly snowballed in Thailand, revealing a lack of historical education and awareness in a country that was left largely untouched by World War II.
Unsurprisingly, the new craze has prompted confusion among foreign tourists and outrage among several international organisations, including Itzhak Shoham, the Israeli ambassador to Thailand, who said the trend “hurts the feelings of every Jew and every civilized person.”
The complaints elicited bemused responses from Thailand’s cultural elite, who brushed it off as misplaced humor, stemming from kids who aren’t taught about the history of the Holocaust in school. One blogger said they thought the world had lost its sense of humor. “Why is this different from the West’s obsession with Che Guevara?” he wrote.
Interest in the trend seemed to be dropping off until last week when pictures on Twitter started circulating of a fried chicken joint in Bangkok allegedly named Hitler. Modeled after Kentucky Fried Chicken, the restaurant's logo features the face of the Fuhrer plastered onto the body of bow-tie wearing Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC. The images prompted a renewed outburst of anger, followed by a heavily worded statement from Kentucky Fried Chicken saying they were considering suing the restaurant.
"We find it extremely distasteful and are considering legal action since it is an infringement of our brand trademark and has nothing to do with us," a spokesperson for Yum!, KFC’s parent company said.
It was later pointed out that the pictures of the restaurant may be old and that the chicken joint in question has since changed its name.
True or not, the revival of the debate around Hitler Chic has prompted some to call for history to be re-instated as one of the key subjects in the Thai syllabus to avoid further misunderstanding and embarrassment.
Varakorn Samakoses is the president of Dhurakij Pundit University in Bangkok and former deputy minister for education. He says a lack of emphasis on history teaching in Thailand means students are graduating without a proper grasp of events that shaped the world around them.
“Kids are much more interested in the present and the future, they are not taught to appreciate or take seriously what happened in the past,” he said, adding that because Thailand avoided much of the hardships suffered by other countries during World War II and under colonial rule, people find it harder to relate to stories of genocide and chaos.
“Even teachers are ignorant of these issues,” he said. “This is something that should change. History should be one of the most important parts of the syllabus. [Children] should know what goes on because history always repeats itself.”
Lack of education and empathy may be a big problem here, but its not restricted to Thailand. Other countries have also picked up on the Hitler Chic craze, including the sale of Hitler key rings in 7/11 stores in Taiwan, Nazi T-shirts in Japan and Korea and a clothing store in Hong Kong caught decorating the counter with Nazi flags.
But the message that foreigners don't approve of Hitler Chic seems to be catching on.
Last Saturday, a young Chinese man was perusing a set of Hitler T-shirts at Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok. The man and his friend joked as they held up different T-shirts, including one of the German dictator dressed as Ronald McDonald.
“I want this. I will wear it at home in China,” he said. “I work at McDonalds so I like it very much.”
When asked if he knew who Hitler was, the man – who declined to give his name – smiled sheepishly. He nodded to indicate he did and then seemed to get embarrassed. As this reporter walked away, his friend muttered something under his breath and the pair left abruptly. Later this reporter saw the T-shirt he was going to buy, still hanging up.