Do you know what that means? Nazi symbols in Indonesia’s election campaign

Even though singer Ahmad Dhani has taken down his controversial video, internet users can still search for it on Youtube.

Campaign teams of Indonesia’s presidential candidates have used historical references as part of their strategy. But nobody expected the election campaign to take last month’s turn when an Indonesian rock singer wore a costume similar to a Nazi uniform to promote Prabowo Subianto.

Ahmad Dhani created an uproar after turning Queen’s “We Will Rock You” into an election campaign anthem for Prabowo. Accompanied by young Indonesian singers, he sang in a video dressed in a military outfit similar to that of SS officer Heinrich Himmler.

Before long, the media picked up on the video. Queen said this use of their song was unauthorised. But despite taking the video down, Dhani, like some Indonesians, seemed to not understand what the fuss was about.

Dhani’s fashion crime is not the only example of the use of Nazi symbols in Indonesia. Recently, a Nazi-themed cafe in Bandung re-opened. It had closed last year following international uproar.

Why is Nazi symbolism used unthinkingly in Indonesia, while elsewhere in the world its use is political and social suicide?

Missing cultural reference and conspiracy theories

It is not uncommon for Indonesians to say “I like Hitler” when meeting someone from Germany. This fascination with Nazism comes from a complex combination of elements, from poor history teaching and imported anti-Semitism to a long-standing romanticisation of the extreme right.

Suharto used history lessons as a tool for government propaganda during his 32-year-rule. Everybody knew that the stories they learnt in school under the New Order regime were distorted. But sorting reality from fiction was difficult.

Suharto’s fall in 1998 was followed by an outpouring of writings that aimed to “correct” history. Many were unreliable. The lack of formal education and the availability of unreliable information resulted in unique adaptations of history in general and Nazi symbols in particular in Indonesia.

Bookstores in Indonesia now sell Indonesian translations of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, along with a range of Holocaust-denial writings.

These sources convey the idea that a global Jewish conspiracy is working against Muslims. Indonesian support for Israeli-occupied Palestine feeds into a widespread belief in this Zionist conspiracy. The near absence of Jews from contemporary Indonesian society makes it easy to construct a distant and unknown enemy.

Strange twist

Interestingly, Dhani is of Jewish descent. The long-standing and small Jewish community of Indonesia was largely driven out of the country in successive waves between the 1950s and late 1990s. But a few individuals have married into prominent families. Another well-known Indonesian of Jewish descent is Yapto Soerjosoemarno, the leader of the paramilitary organisation Pemuda Pancasila, which features heavily in the documentary The Act of Killing.

This is where things become weird in the election campaign. Prabowo is a cashiered general and former son-in-law of Suharto. In his attempt to be elected president he has courted a range of violent groups from Yapto’s Permuda Pancasila to the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI). The latter are thugs who attack anyone they deem anti-Islamic, including members of unorthodox Muslim sects.

Strongman image

Historical references in Prabowo’s campaign include a combination of symbols that represent the strongman image. Mussolini-style, he rides a horse in a stadium full of supporters standing in formation wearing white uniforms and red berets. He dresses in the style of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, harking back to the period of “Guided Democracy”. At the same time he visits Suharto’s grave, appealing to the spirit of Sukarno’s enemy and successor.

Prabowo Subianto wants to project a strongman persona.

The appeal of Nazi imagery is that it symbolises militarism and the idea that Hitler brought Germany out of poverty and political defeat to become a world power within a few years. This message is still found in school textbooks, which make little or no mention of the Holocaust.

In various parts of Asia forms of Nazism and Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s were used as a tool for nationalist movements. Sukarno spoke highly of Hitler’s rhetorical skills while denying any association with Nazism as an ideology. Sukarno’s famous “year of living dangerously” line was taken from Italian fascist speeches.

Team Prabowo claim they do not see any problems with the offending video, although Dhani’s label, Republik Cinta, has taken the video off its Youtube channel.

It will be interesting to see how this scandal will influence the July 9 election result, particularly whether it helps increase support from hard-line groups for Prabowo. Perhaps one outcome if his opponent wins may be that a new government would add Holocaust history to the nation’s school curriculum.