Taiwan apologizes to Israel for Nazi photo gaffe

A picture of summer campers in Nazi uniform drew Israeli ire. The fascination in Taiwan with Nazism could be a product of ignorance about its history, say observers.

The Taiwanese have long embraced icons of Western cultures. No one seems to get ruffled when it’s just a "French bread" fad, widespread use of the word “hello,” or displays of Christmas decorations in shop windows.

But when someone on the island dresses like a Nazi soldier or recruits 1,000 people to study Adolf Hitler, the Taiwanese suddenly get their first, hard lesson in widely reviled symbols from the West.

Taiwan’s uncanny fascination with the Nazis, a trend that has been documented for at least 10 years, was challenged last week when the de facto Israeli embassy in Taipei complained about a photo on the island’s Ministry of National Defense news website depicting three summer camp students from Taiwan and didn't happen to notice they were decked out in uniforms reminiscent of Nazi-era Germany.

The complaint prompted the ministry to remove it from the site and apologize twice. “The military and citizens should both deeply remember that Jewish people were brutally slaughtered in Germany by the Nazis in World War II,” the ministry said in a terse online statement.

But such remembrance will only happen in Taiwan if enough people actually study World War II. And that would be a break from today’s focus on domestic issues and a shift to learning from academic research instead of sound-bite-driven talk shows, scholars argue.

“They’re not anti-Semitic, just ignorant,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, calling military education especially weak. “They think the Nazi uniforms look spirited, that the high hat looks very heroic. Reading and understanding of history is very poor.”

Due to the same types of gaps in education, locals associate Christmas more with Jingle Bells than the birth of Christ. Authentic French bread is hard to find, though spongy knockoffs are for sale in every neighborhood. One’s English may halt after a “hello.”

Ideas that the Nazis were spirited or heroic may have motivated a local company to use Hitler’s image in a 1999 ad for German-made heaters. They may explain why Nazi insignias have been spotted on motorcycle helmets and why at least one drink shop named itself after Hitler, as documented on local politics blog The View from Taiwan.

An association set up in 2005 to study Hitler’s "achievements," luring 1,000 mostly younger people, outraged an overseas Jewish group, in turn confusing the founders who believed massacres to be just part of the legacy.

Last week’s complaint from Israel was not a first in Taiwan, but the predominantly Jewish country wants to help teach the Taiwanese a few facts that will make the Nazis look less spirited or heroic going forward. Israel is proposing to add its input to Taiwan's educational system so students here learn more about WWII and the Holocaust.

“I am sure it was out of ignorance and not support or identification with the atrocities committed during the Holocaust by the Nazis,” Israeli Representative Simona Halperin said in an e-mailed statement on the military website photo. “This is a sad demonstration of how important is the inclusion of the Holocaust studies as part of the curriculum for all high school students here in Taiwan.”

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