Fuhrer Fashion

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LGF compiles photos froim a Hong Kong clothing store that thought swastikas and iron crosses would make festive decorations.

It's always been interesting to me that ironic deployments of Nazi iconography are always (appropriately enough) condemened as being in grotesquely poor taste, while it's generally acceptable to use the imagery of the even more murderous Soviet Union in similar ways. I used to grab an occasional drink at Manhattan's KGB Bar when I lived there, though I wouldn't be caught dead sipping a G&T in the "Gestapo Bar." In the abstract, I recognize that the former should be no more or less offensive than the latter, but I've absorbed our culture's visceral horror at one set of imagery, but not the other.

Incidentally, I recently caught a powerful lecture by Alan Charles Kors (RealAudio) on that very topic.

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  1. But I thought some people in Niger needed to smuggle out the money that they got from selling the uranium to Iraq. And they need a place to keep the money temporarily. All you need to do is give them the necessary info to access your bank account and they’ll transfer the money to you. At least that’s what they told my parish priest….

  2. I thought only Ann Coulter called Soviets evil?

    Everyone else thinks that they were only misguided agrarian reformers.

  3. MEA CULPA!

    Somehow my message got posted in here, when it was supposed to be posted in the discussion of the Nigerian banking scam.

    Sorry!

  4. Czech expatriate writer Josef Skvorecky has built a lifetime out of complaining about this double-standard, while pointing out the similarities between the two totalitarianisms.

  5. I had similar thoughts this weekend in San Diego watching a typical California surfer dude in a revolution red “CCCP” shirt, complete with sickle and hammer. I suppose it’s because it’s assumed that the Soviets supposedly had good intentions, but that’s just totally bogus, dude.

  6. I think that there are couple of other factors at play here besides leftist nostalgia. One is that Germany is considered a “Western” country to a greater extent than Russia, which makes the cultural bonds that many people feel towards Germany stronger. As a result, the horror felt at the evils perpetrated by the Nazis has a stronger impact.

    The other is that the extent of the evils perpetrated by the Soviet Union varies from one age to the next. While one can argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin was every bit as murderous as Germany under Hitler, and that it came close under Lenin, it’s hard to make the case that the USSR was that bad in the days of Kruschev, Breznhev, and Gorbachev, no matter how tyrannical it might have been. Also, the last images we have of the Soviet Union are in its most benign form, in the days of Glasnost and Perestika.

  7. I think there are two main reasons for the double standard.

    One is that Soviet ideology found a sympathetic ear with cultural elites in the West for a long time. They never really gave it up, even after evidence of Stalin’s crimes came to light. Part of it was the non-exclusive message: pro-worker, as opposed to pro-Aryan. This didn’t get their hackles up as much. The fact that one meant anti-rich and the other meant anti-Jew was less important than what they were for.

    Another is that the Soviet Union lasted a long time until it largely became a joke. Yakoff Smirnof is a case in point. So the artifacts of that regime are seen as a kitschy send up of a pathetic regime that had a quaint ideology that in the end was less dangerous than incompetent (to most people). It was always there, and (seemingly) overblown by its enemies, who were themselves perceived as being pro-Rich and anti-Poor. So familiarity bred a certain contempt.

  8. Chic American clothing stores should advertise their new lines of clothing in the form of Little Red Books of Fashion. That would show the Chinese how it feels to have some one make light of a dictator’s murderous oppression.

    Then again, it would probably go over quite well in fashionable NYC circles.

  9. Eric,

    The latter days were more peaceful because the people had already been terrorized into submission, for the most part.

    They were still bereft of the kind of freedoms we take for granted and had they pushed for some of those freedoms, it’s a safe bet that those in power would have taken the neccessary steps to protect the status quo.

    Think of how peaceful a post Mao China was and then, Tiananmen square. . .

  10. Little Red Books of Fashion might go over well with Abercrombie & Fitch, which consistently gets bad press for all sorts of tasteless (often allegedly racist) acts.

    Sean, you should pitch this idea to them ASAP!

  11. I recently noticed that the old street lamps in Glendale, CA on Broadway around Central (or maybe it’s Brand) have reverse Swastikas at their base. Just something for LGF to keep an eye on.

  12. Its because Jews have done a good job of villifying the Nazis; no one in the West has done such a number on the USSR. In fact, the only other group to have done so well in the US are blacks vis a vis the segregationist South. Of course the important could be made that there are literally no groups with much influence that could create such a pantheon of ideas concerning the USSR; there is of course a group that has done well with Marxist Cuba however.

    As to the people being terrorized, etc. by the 1980s so as to be unwilling to speak up, well whoever wrote this knows nothing of the “Refusniks,” to near-cult associated with Bulgakov, or to be frank the letters to the editor section of Pravda was assaulted daily from the 1960s-1980s with complaints about everything from fuel shortages to the war in Afghanistan. I think in the west we always assume that the USSR was this hermetically closed system where free speech was gone in all respects, when in fact there were clear avenues of dissent that were open for people to use.

  13. dont forget the sickle and hammer and red flag are still in use today in china.

  14. Oh man, I totally thought this was about Malcolm McLaren’s “Sex” shop in London. I was going to be like “man that was so done back in the 70’s. It’s so over.” Actually I guess my comment kind of still applies.

    What would LGF have done with all those guys?

  15. “I think in the west we always assume that the USSR was this hermetically closed system where free speech was gone in all respects, when in fact there were clear avenues of dissent that were open for people to use.”

    Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulog for writing letters to his brother critical to Stalin — without explicitly mentioning Stalin’s name. This, while he was an artillery officier serving at the front. Maybe in the ’70s avenues of dissent existed in the USSR, but they were pretty marginal in Stalin’s time.

  16. The blog on which the photos originally appeared, named Big White Guy in Hong Kong, has the best idea:

    I wonder how they’d feel if the Rising Sun flag was resurrected and plastered all over the city.

  17. Luckily, we never DID fight a hot war with the Soviet Union.

  18. I meant “of Stalin” not “to Stalin” above.

    The fact is that our culture has absorbed the idea that the Nazis were absoulte evil while the Soviets were not. There has always been sympathy for the Soviet experiment in the US, and this predates the late Soviet era breakdown.

    Patton caught flak for comments that the Nazi Party was just a political party, while years later Reagan caught flak for calling the USSR the “Evil Empire”.

  19. First Indymedia posts, and now Little Green Footballs? You Hit & Run guys sure do cast a wide net…

  20. “Luckily, we never DID fight a hot war with the Soviet Union.”

    Actually–we did. Well, actually it was very cold, but it was hot in the sense of bullets flying back & forth. This was back around 1918 – 1919, and the primarly motivation was British fears of the Soviet threat. Yet mostly Americans got sent.

    Back when Reagan was Pres, he made a statement about the USSR and the US having never fought, and the press tore into him about it. My guess is most of the newsmen who tore into him learned about our little war with the USSR after Reagan made the statement.

  21. Wow, we fought the Soviet Union in 1918/19??? I sure never knew that.

    Who won?

  22. Martin Amis is supposed to have covered this in his newest book “Koba”. As i recall, he had a dustup with Hitchens over this, with Hitchens drawing fine distinctions between stalinists & trotskyites etc to defend his team.

  23. Considering this thread is about fashion, I’m not seeing a lot of style discussion in these comments.

    On the superficial level, looking at this as a fashion question only confounds the question. I think it’s pretty clear the Nazis had a sharper fashion sense than the Soviets did. Exhibit A would have to be Hollywood: Even at the height of the superpower standoff, the Soviets made pretty dreary enemies; but put a guy in a Nazi uniform and he’s always ready for action. Which is one reason why Nazis continue to turn up in pictures like The Blues Brothers, The Sum of All Fears, Corky Romano, etc. that have nothing to do with World War II or the Holocaust. By this logic, Nazi style should be more popular than Soviet style. (And it’s more popular than you may think: Dig that book whose name escapes me about the Hitler Diaries hoax and the huge industry of Hitler memorabilia the hoax came out of.) But there’s another stylistic angle.

    The operative word in the Soviet fashion trend (and hasn’t this one pretty much run its course anyway?) is decadence. Note that Soviet kitsch started to catch on in the mid-to-late-eighties, when it was clear to everybody that the USSR was the sick man of Europe. To the degree that this stuff has an appeal, it’s strictly bargain-basement, retro-chic, boulevard-of-broken-dreams territory, the geopolitical equivalent of buying your hipster wardrobe from a secondhand store or wearing Clark Kent glasses. If the USSR had gone down with the kind of fireworks the Third Reich did it’s unlikely there’d be any Soviet kitsch market. Instead, it remained moribund over several decades of empty promises, dust-covered monuments and modernist gigantism that looked increasingly ironic and out of date. It’s inevitable that youngish wisenheimers would start to grok that vibe.

    By the way, Lonewacko, it’s the Nazis who used reverse swastikas. There’s a great episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker in which old people in a Jewish neighborhood are getting bumped off, and the prime suspect is an Indian guy whose apartment is decorated with old-style (counterclockwise) swastikas. Before the hour’s up, Kolchak has figured out that the killer is an ancient Hindu demon, and the Indian guy is just using the swastikas as talismans to keep the monster at bay.

  24. Fyodor, Don is correct. Look up “Polar Bear Expedition 1918” on google.

  25. Uh, I don’t much get the whole obsession with icons and iconography and symbolotry. I take the stance that there is a world of difference in the Iron Cross and the Holocaust, just as there is a world of difference in games of cowboys vs indians and The Trail Of Tears.

    It’s just good ole fashioned cultural attachment and revulsion to otherwise meaningless and isolated artifacts of history; I’m going to go out on a limb and say that hardly a single person that was interested in the Third Reich regalia actually thinks it is a good idea to murder millions of people because you don’t like their hereditary links and religion. Yet it would seem, in the reactions to it, that the difference in genocide and Swastika’s is taken to be almost unnoticable.

    This all reminds me of the fluff about how the Redskins was offensive because it used to be how settlers and mercenaries and such refered to killing indians and taking their skins to trade for bounties; no less evil, and yet the vast majority of people seem to be able to figure out that That Isn’t What It Means Now.

    We are also, generally as a culture, awash in all sorts of medieval romanticism – a time marked by it’s fanaticism, cruelty, and utter oppression of the lowest classes of societies (peasants), such that they would often be lucky to ever see their 30th birthday. But instead we pick out the parts we like, the parts that are chic and trendy and nice looking, like knights in shining armor bravely marching off to battle; forgetting, of course, that the whole point of marching off was to kill people for what largely amounted to no good reason whatsoever (often just some megalomaniacal asshole deciding he needed even more land and riches to pamper himself with). It’s all courtly love and chivarly (with no hint of the more troubling aspects of the chivalrous code) and no stunning cruelty, torture, inquisition, paranoia, and fanaticism (well, at least not so much on the T-shirts and tourist attractions).

    And yet only by offering for sale imagery, which has absolutely no causal connection to genocide or war (merely was the chosen national symbols of the country and peoples responsible), the people who offer it and the people interested in it are something very close to just having gone on wars of conquest and genocide themselves, or at least being cheerleaders. Could it be that perhaps, just perhaps, the symbols mean something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to them than they do to us? Could it be that the nazi swastika is as different to them as the ancient swastika (such as that depicted on the arms and hands of old renderings of Lord Buddha) is to every informed person? Maybe, just maybe, they don’t think murdering stunning amounts of people is a Good Thing??

    And why is it that our versions and meanings of the symbols are the only acceptable ones? Why must the Swastika stand for oppression, or the American Flag for freedom? Could it not be that symbols can be used in different ways, according to context, and we can thus CHOOSE only to be offended by that which is, well, actually offensive?

    See Rebel Flags, famous sporting teams, and all sorts of words in the american-english language for similar such instances. I wonder if this can be reasonably compared to people getting all up in arms about the word ‘niggardly’ – but perhaps that is a bit more of a stretch.

  26. Well, the Nazis were removed forcibly. We remember them for their death camps and their war machine.

    The Soviets collapsed under the weight of their own impossibility. To steal a phrase from the Marxists it was a “historical inevitability” that the Soviet Union would crumble. As they slouched toward the slag heap of history they loosened up a bit (just a tiny bit, mind you) and ended with port wine stain Gorbachev loosening things up as the Soviet Empire crumbled into dust like the souveneirs at the Berlin Wall gift shop.

    So we remember them as the enemies who just dwindled and dwindled and dwindled. Hard to get too upset over their symbols. I’m not suggesting any sympathy for them, I’m just saying that the Nazi-Soviet comparison in most people’s minds is Gorbachev vs. Hitler. If the comparison were Hitler vs. Stalin then we’d see them as equally evil.

    (I know, I know, somebody will undoubtedly come up with a reason why one was even worse than the other, but once a dictator’s body count is an 8-digit number the comparisons really don’t matter anymore. Hitler and Stalin are welcome to fight amongst themselves for the title of evilest, but I’m inclined to lump them both into hell’s 666th concentric circle, or whatever the number is. And before some nitpicker takes me to task over the 8-digit number assertion, I’m adding up war fatalies with concentration camp fatalities. And even if you still want to quibble over it, a 7-digit body count is pretty bad too.)

    Sorry, but after posting enough on discussion boards I feel like I can predict what people are going to jump all over. You think this place is vicious, check out the 24 discussion board! 😉 (as in 24, the best TV drama ever!)

  27. In WWII the Nazi’s were the enemy of the US while the Russian Commies where our allies. Pres. Roosevelt was quite chummy with old Uncle Joe. So all good Americans are required to hate Nazis, whom we defeated, but not Stalin, whom we supported and delivered Eastern Europe to. Only after making them into a superpower did they frighten us.

  28. Chinese “imagery” has its own set. We don’t much care what happened there and they don’t much care what happened in Europe.

    U.S. in Russia? Putnam. Culloton.

  29. Tim beat me to the stuff about reverse swastika’s etc.

    http://www.airindia.com/inflight/nam_kerala.htm

    Check out this air india tourism puff piece. Some of it is true, including the stuff about swastika’s right next to synagogues. And, strange as it might seem to western ears, the Jewish community really lives in a area called Jew Town
    .

  30. Thanks tim, I did that. Interesting!

    I should point out (whether you believe me or not!) that I wasn’t doubting Don, just expressing surprise. And trying (successfully or not!) to be funny.

    Anyway, the fact that this “intervention” (as the first two websites I checked out called it) is so unknown (unless I’m stupiderer than I think) backs my point anyway. What’s more important, that it happened, or that hardly anyone remembers it? And as the term, “intervention” implies, it was hardly WWII to boot.

    BTW, from the little I read, kinda seems like THEY won!

  31. Warren makes another good point. We decided in WWII that the easiest way to beat one of the 2 main tyrants in Europe would be by forming an alliance with the other main tyrant. Call it a bad idea or good idea, call it realpolitik or FDR having Communist sympathies. Call it whatever you like. It buried one of the 2 main tyrants of Europe and turned the other into a superpower. Weigh it as you will, but the point is that the Soviets helped us out in a war. For many people, that probably makes them a “lesser evil.” Not saying it SHOULD make them a lesser evil, just observing that it’s probably a factor.

  32. Why don’t people try reclaiming the swastika, reversed or otherwise, as a symbol of good?

    The cross was two thousand years ago a symbol of death, like an electric chair. It was coopted by Christians, and it today means exactly the opposite. (The same goes for the pagan rites which became Christmas and Easter).

    Why not do the same with the swastika?

  33. BTW, there is a new German TV show which taps into some of the German nostalgia for former DDR days – it takes place in the present day and concerns the efforts of a son to keep his recently revived (from a coma) Marxist mother from discovering the collapse of the DDR. I sent Hit & Run a link about this story some weeks ago, but they deemed the story unimportant apparently.

  34. His name is Alan Charles Kors.

  35. Speaking of Nazis in movies I heard a nasty rumor that Speilberg, in his latest attempt to destroy a classic franchise, will not have them in Indiana Jones 4. Since John Rhys Davies is not yet signed on for the film, the trend will continue: Nazis + Sallah = Good Indy flick. No Nazis or Sallah = Mediocre Indy flick.

    Something I find troubling/amusing about the LGFers is that they are quick to censor what they find offensive, but then freak out if some pro-Palestinian group tries to silence Zionist (I mean this in the actual sense of the word, not as a blanket statement meaning Jews) because they find Zionism offensive, they freak out. Irony, apparently, is lost on them.

  36. “BTW, from the little I read, kinda seems like THEY won!”

    From what I understand, we were not there so much to fight them, but to support the White Russians who were to do the real fighting. In fact, much of the “real fighting” was done by Czech Legion who had defected from the Central Powers to the Russians to fight against Austria-Hungry. The Czechs then found themselves in the Russian Revolution, and ended up fighting their way to the Russian Eastern coast.

    The Bolsheviks did poorly in combat against both the Germans and the Czech Legion. However, they prevailed over the piss-poor White Russians. I don’t believe the American forces made any effort to undertake any aggressive actions against the Reds. Primarly, we were there to guard some areas around Vladivostok.

  37. Hovig John Heghinian,

    You wrote –
    “Why don’t people try reclaiming the swastika, reversed or otherwise, as a symbol of good?”

    Depends on what you mean by reclaim. You can find the swastika in millions of indian homes and temples today & this has been the case for at least a couple of thousand years. The Hong Kong store used it because they obviously have no idea of how offensive it is when placed in a western context.

  38. The swastika is nearly as common in Chinese Buddhism (or whatever you want to call their Taoist/Buddhist/Confucian syncretism) as in Indian culture. You can see it all over temples and as a general good luck symbol on doorways and even T-shirts (in Singapore and Hong Kong, anyway; I don’t know what they let them do in mainland China). This must affect how the Hongkese see the Nazi symbol.

  39. The Hong Kong store used it because they obviously have no idea of how offensive it is when placed in a western context.

    No. It’s not as if the store displays unadorned swastikas. It displays the detailed iconography of the reversed Nazi swastika along with projections of Nazi propaganda films on the walls. This is not a cross-cultural confusion of symbols.

    If someone in the US were to use a blatantly offensive and insensitive decorating scheme focusing on some horror of the 20th century in Asia, they’d be rightly deemed assholes. Whomever at that store decided upon this theme is an asshole and deserves to be criticized as such.

  40. I think an important thing that is being missed by people who are trying to analogize their response to the Nazi iconography to the reaction to the A&F chinese laundry shirts is that it was Chinese-*Americans* who complained about the A&F shirts. Checking with several friends who have been teaching English in China for the past couple years, none of them were even aware of the A&F controversy.

    Here, Americans are bitching that people in China are playing around with Nazi kitsch (ironic use of Yiddish fully intended). Nazi symbols do *not* have any sort of cultural significance in China and Americans should not be expecting Chinese *in* China to conform to our cultural views on what an appropriate shirt is. (Of course, if a Chinese person visited the United States and wore such a shirt, his American hosts/friends/co-workers/etc. should point out that the shirt would be offensive to many Americans.)

    Getting upset about this is like a left-handed person sitting in a dinner in Chicago getting upset over the fact that in Yemen people would refuse to shake his hand.

  41. This just in (to my brain).

    My uncle grew up in Nazi Germany. One day a teenage girl saw him and said, “Oh, look, a Jew!” She took her father’s walking cane and proceeded to beat him. When telling this story, he said that what affected him more than the beating itself was the sound of the girl’s family, cheering her on.

    Okay, now work with me on this. I know damn well that the Soviets in general and Stalin in particular were responsible for unmentionable atrocities. And as a libertarian leaning fellow, I grasp the notion of why atrocities are a more likely outcome than utopia when operating on Marxist/collectivist principles. Still, it seems to me that there’s a tone and quality of ugliness to Nazis as people that will never be associated with the USSR or Communism, however just as bad or worse Soviet leaders and Communist regimes have been to their people in terms of mass cruelty.

    And there you go and there you have it.

  42. I think the most interesting part of this is not what the symbols themselves mean to us, but only the human attraction to the symbols. As some have suggested, I doubt these kids believe in what the Nazi’s did. Rather, they are attracted to the iconography itself.

    Therefore, we could argue that debating over “if this symbolizes x and that symbolizes y, which one is morally worse?” is really missing the point. All the point of this could very well be who had the best propaganda machine. Who created imagery that intrigued people the most?

    I wouldn’t read to much into this trend. It is equivalent to enjoying the marketing of a product, but not enjoying the product itself.

  43. Sorry, that should read “diner in Chicago” rather than “dinner”.

  44. Furthermore, humans do what works. If nazi garb gets the desired results, that’s what you’ll get. By going all fire and brimstone and causing steam to shoot out of one’s ass, and that’s the result desired, then this _reinforces_ the behavior. What I find most distressing is the sickening jump directly at illegalizing whatever one finds offensive, rather than dealing with something in any sort of actually Productive way. Because, after all, it not being legal to sell nazi garb doesn’t make people not like it – quite the contrary, actually, as illegalized things have documented and proven effects of increasing the perceived legitimacy and value of the thing banned amongst some people and groups.

    So if you want to see a good quantity of nazi garb spreading throughout the world, there is perhaps no better way of doing it than reacting with an otherwise utterly irrationally zealous “the barbarians are at the gates” kind of reaction. This is not to say that one should approve, only that this is far from a productive way of handling things.

    I think this also further goes to show that the availability to appeal to government power can so often result in better ways of handling things being abandoned, such as fighting it out in the marketplace, rational persuasion and influence, etc. It is another example of how the government getting involved in the wrong things can seriously screw up society, as the productive ways of handling things are abandoned in favor of appeals to force; it is a human universal that when force is available, it is all too often and inprudently picked as the first response, rather than the last – particularly when one isn’t the person who has to do all the dirty work and enforcing.

  45. As a designer, I think there is something to be said for visual impact of the said symbols/icons contributing to how we view them as more or less threatening. In addition to Thoreau’s comments, the iconography and imagery of the nazi propaganda machine poses a greater threat visually than does the soviet unions’. The swastika is a simpler, bolder graphic than is the hammer and sickle, and very abstracted, it is completely non-referential (visually) in form. To the western eye, it is mysterious and “scarier”. The uniforms of nazis were higher color contrast, sharper lines and more visually organized. Between the uniforms, posters, artwork, architecture and symbolism, the nazi regime had a more consistant “brand identity” which I think adds enormously to the impression that they were a more organized and thus more formidable force. As Tim posted earlier, the hammer and sickle is seen as pathetic and weak in comparison. The boulevard of broken dreams, so to speak. The nazi’s, due in large part to their consistant application of uniform design language, appear more like an impersonal, hegemonic monolith than does the haphazard westward trickling of artifacts from a waning soviet “empire”. This is not to say that the soviets didn’t have their own powerful brand identity, but it’s availiability to the west has been a slow leak rather than the well documented nazi imagery we see from the nazi’s own documentary films. Frankly, the nazis just did a better job of scaring people using visual language as the powerful tool it is.

  46. things would probably be different were there a museum of soviet atrocities in every major city, as well.

  47. Different people have different views?But I support your point of view?

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