"They Dressed Well"

  • Share
  • Read Later
A small photo of Adolf Hitler adorns the entrance to the Fifth Reich, an upscale watering hole in Seoul's Shinchon university district. A larger picture of the Führer hangs across from the bar, where waiters and waitresses with swastika arm badges mix drinks that have names like Adolf Hitlerand Dead. Young people chat at booths surrounded by statues of golden eagles, romanesque columns and large glass display cases of SS insignia. Nazi pins and Iron Crosses are on sale beside the cash register. It almost looks like a quiet shrine to the man who sent 6 million Jews to their deaths in the Holocaust. But this isn't a neo-Nazi hangout. Some of the patrons aren't even quite sure who Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were. Others, like regular patron Chung Jae Kyung, 22, are aware of the evil the Nazis did but not especially moved by it. I don't hate them, I don't like them, says Chung, a neatly dressed English-lit student with an easy smile. But at least they dressed well.This is Nazi chic, Korean-style. An unthinking fascination with the icons and imagery of the Third Reich is a small but troubling trend in South Korea, a country that suffered enormously under the harsh colonial rule of Germany's ally, Japan. The Fifth Reich is one of at least three bars in Seoul that have decked themselves out in Nazi regalia over the past year. A big confectioner, meanwhile, used Hitler's image in a television advertising campaign. And the subways carry an ad, for a popular online community, that features a young man dressed in leather Nazi garb. The ad's slogan: We just want masters.It wasn't long ago that Korea shook off its own authoritarian past. But the flirtation with things Nazi doesn't reflect an attraction to such politics. Nor does Korea, with no Jewish community to speak of, have an anti-Semitic streak. For many of the young people at the Fifth Reich, it's simply a fashion statement, with part of the appeal being the taboo nature of the symbols. What is puzzling is the seeming lack of outrage at the commercialization and trivialization of the Holocaust. While Koreans still feel resentment and anger toward Japan, few make a moral jump of empathy with Hitler's victims. It just doesn't ring bells, says Cho Hae Jung, an anthropologist at Yonsei University in Seoul. It was a war in the West, not here.The Fifth Reich did trigger protests earlier this year, but they came from Korea's foreign community. Following complaints from the German and Israeli embassies, the government pressured the bar, which was originally called the Third Reich, to shut down, although no Korean law restricts the purchase or display of Nazi memorabilia. Amid the controversy, the bar changed hands and the new owner, Kim Kwang Tae, promised to redecorate. He did, sort of: the big Nazi flags came down and Hitler's Third Reich morphed into the Fifth Reich. But the Nazi theme still dominates, and the menus and matchbooks carry the old name beneath an image of a menacing black eagle. Kim still hangs the Hitler portrait because, he says, I don't have anything to put in its place. Anyway, he adds: It's just for decoration. (He hung three new Hitler photos in recent weeks.) Nazi interior design is also the look of another Seoul bar, where outsized wall paintings of Jim Carrey, Marilyn Monroe, Whoopi Goldberg and Adolf Hitler adorn the entrance. Inside is an eclectic mix of Nazi and American memorabilia and an uncaptioned photo of dead bodies sprawled on the ground. (The secret to a good interior is making a place that is agreeable to everyone, says owner Kim Jie Tae.) Across town, posters advertising a high-end bar in the Itaewon entertainment district recently featured a young man dressed in a black Nazi outfit doing a Hitler salute. The owner denies it ever had a Nazi theme: the ads, he says, must have been put up by a waiter who called himself Hitler. Hitler the waiter, says Kim, has changed his name.And what was Crown Confectionery thinking when it kicked off an ad campaign for chocolate covered cakes? Inspired by Charlie Chaplin's Hitler in the 1940 movie The Great Dictator, the ad featured one of Korea's top comics as the Führer. After taking a bite, Hitler suddenly switches from German-sounding gibberish to fluent Korean and his mood mellows. The campaign was pulled after the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles protested to Korean diplomats in the U.S. Stylist Koh Jung Won, who designed Hitler's wardrobe (she used an East German army uniform and sewed on Nazi patches bought in Seoul) says the ads weren't meant to offend. It was a fun thing, she says. We were trying to portray Hitler in a funny way.The German and Israeli embassies, which have worked closely on the issue, aren't laughing. They thought they had won a promise from Seoul to pressure the Third Reich to shut down or de-Nazify, according to a German spokesman. They plan to investigate the bar's latest incarnation. That's probably not what Kim of the Third, sorry, Fifth Reich wants to hear. Already annoyed at the fuss and media attention, he asked a recent caller: Do you know anybody who wants to buy this place? Maybe somebody could just recommend a new interior decorator.