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How to Look Good as a Nazi

by Anke Richter 30SEP09

Bad taste is easy for me. I come from a city that's famous for its carnival season. Once a year, all of Cologne stops working, dons their most imaginative costumes, and misbehaves for an entire week. I once dressed as Monica Lewinsky in a black suit, with decorative yoghurt stains down my front. My then-boyfriend partnered me as Bill Clinton -- complete with a Frankfurter hanging from his fly. Needless to say, our shared sense of questionable humour quickly led to marriage.

I struggle with some New Zealand costume parties, though. One that we were asked to attend shortly after moving to Christchurch, and as the only Germans on that night, had a WWII theme. How anyone could see the funny side of genocide, killings, torture, suffering and destruction escaped us. What should we go as -- bomb raid victims, maybe? Fold my yoga-exercised leg into a stump? Or even better, scribble a fake concentration camp tattoo on my forearm and put on striped pyjamas? Hilarious.

There is nothing to celebrate or spoof from our point of view, and that is not -- as one sympathetic Anglo-Saxon friend assumed -- because we "lost the war".

If you have a grown up in Germany, then the Third Reich is not about winning or losing. It's not about military accomplishments, Hogan's Heroes or Dam Busters. It's about human tragedy and atrocities of the worst possible kind. It's shameful, and it's painful, and it's impossible to grasp in its monstrosity. Your grandparents were either victims, perpetrators or witnesses. Your parents -- some not even born at the time -- were affected by it as the surviving or post-war generation. They were in denial or became overtly political.

Some turned into left-wing radicals, some worked for reconciliation in Israeli Kibbutzim. The guilt and the awareness is always there, even three generations later. This is why most young Germans today would rather poke out their eyeballs than proclaim themselves "proud to be German". We don't like uniforms, clapping in unison or singing our national anthem. We were raised with national shame, not national pride. Anything that reeks of being "typically German" makes us cringe and hide in our über-cool dens of urbanism, angsty art and intellectualism. That's why you'll seldom find any self-respecting German at the Munich Oktoberfest (which is for tourists). There is so much widely accepted self-hatred between the Alps and the Baltic Sea that Sigmund Freud would have a field-day with us.

To throw a party themed around the darkest period in German history is as fitting as having a 'Stolen Generation' ball in Darwin ("Bring your black and your white mum"), or a 'Killing Fields' piss-up with a Pol Pot look-alike contest at the Cambodian cultural centre.

In my home country, only a right-wing white supremacist would ever don Nazi outfits of any sort. Fun or no fun, he would be arrested. Displaying (or spraying) a swastika is not only highly offensive, but a criminal act. When the long-running Broadway musical The Producers was put on stage in Berlin this year, for the first time ever the symbols on the red and black flags had to be pretzels instead of the infamous four-armed cross. Complicated, if all you know about 'the Krauts' comes from Commando books, The Sun or Fawlty Towers.

Only in the last couple of years have the descendants of the 'Reich' allowed themselves reluctantly to make fun of Hitler and the evil that he represents. And no, that is not because of their renowned absence of humour (or because they don't shave their legs, wear socks with sandals, lie nude on the beach and shout "Jawohl, Herr Kommandant" all the time). The first German comedy about 'Mein Führer' only came out in 2007 (and under that title), created by a Swiss-born Jewish film-maker. He had lifted the taboo -- but only just. Others are about to follow. It's a brave and difficult undertaking, but a necessary one if done in the right spirit. It helps to keep the memory alive, instead of it merely becoming an over-repeated history lesson with a chest-beating moral.

The students who attended the Oktoberfest party at Lincoln University a week ago don't quite fall into that same category of comedy. Well, they tried to push boundaries: there was a lot of creativity on display. Spray-painted Stars of David, rattling chains, two-finger moustaches, whips and guns -- you name it. According to one party-goer, the crowd got so carried away that they ripped a basin off the wall. Hey, there were no proper bathrooms in Auschwitz either, so I guess that was an attempt to be historically correct. Don't blame the kids for having fun.

The Nazi costume parade at Lincoln didn't just offend me because of its belittlement of crime and suffering. In the six years that I've lived in New Zealand, I have adjusted to the fact that -- with the distance between here and Europe -- Adolf Hitler is (to many) no more than a cartoon character like Batman or Shrek. What shocked me and hurt my national feelings (or the miniscule remainder of those feelings) was that if you invite a group of young adults who have qualified for tertiary education to a party "dressed as Germans", then about half of them will turn up as Nazis. Call me sensitive, but even Dirndl and Lederhosen would have too much for me to stomach. I feel for the large number of German students who attend Lincoln University. Talk about culture shock (and I don't mean the gumboots outside the library).

Anyone who is in two minds about what to mock and what not should listen to the brilliant history-buff, Dan Carlin. His answer is simple: as long as there are still people alive who bear the number on their arm -- it's not a joke. That tattoo is real.

Anke Richter is a foreign correspondent for the German media. She has written two books and is currently working on her third, a satirical novel about the perception and stereotypes of Germans in New Zealand.

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