THREE years of a new century have seen us haunted by the foulest blight of the old one. From the people who brought you Adolf Hitler came a coalition government reviled for including the far-right Freedom Party. Clearly, old habits die hard in Austria. Here in Britain, it has seemed that those few remaining pensioners yet to be unmasked as Russian spies would turn out to be ex-members of the Waffen SS. Then came the David Irving versus Deborah Lipstadt libel trial. Irving has since indicated that he intends to appeal the verdict against him, proving that his capacity for denial is not limited to the Holocaust. Soon after, Hitler's preparatory notes for a 1939 speech were put up for auction. One can only imagine the contents.
HITLER: “Ein Reich! Ein Volk! Ein - what? [Remember to ask Goebbels about this bit.]”
But the most startling news of all is that a hundred-year-old woman is putting the finishing touches to a nature documentary about tropical fish. This makes her the oldest film-maker in history. Which would be just lovely, were the old lady in question not Leni Riefenstahl, Adolf Hitler's pet director.
Riefenstahl more than anyone was responsible for transforming the rabid little tyrant's image into that of a titan, a demigod, the saviour of his people. Her film of the 1934 Nuremburg rally, Triumph Of the Will, is a propaganda masterpiece, depicting Hitler as the embodiment of all German power, past and future.
After the war, Riefenstahl's career came to an abrupt end, something she considers an awful injustice, and has moaned about for six decades. Now she's back in business. Not only is her own film due for release, but Jodie Foster is rumoured to be planning a Hollywood movie about her life. Riefenstahl has resurfaced looking in remarkably good nick for a centenarian. Of course, that is supposed to be one of the upsides of selling your soul.
As a cursory glance at the television schedules will confirm, we remain obsessed with Riefenstahl's greatest subject. The Nazi Party was not simply a bloodthirsty, mystical movement. It was, and remains, a highly potent brand. Hitler knew this better than anyone; and Riefenstahl was invaluable in helping him to develop and market it. In the 57 years since it was put out of the murder business, the Nazi brand has diversified with astonishing success. Books, films and memorabilia we all know about, but the swastika has found itself applied to some highly unlikely merchandise.
The most extraordinary story of all has come from Taiwan, where you might not expect the Third Reich to be all the rage. How wrong you would be. A theme restaurant called The Jail incensed Jewish and German residents of the island by decorating its walls with murals of concentration camp victims. It also hung a sign above the toilets reading “Gas Chamber”, alongside an empty cylinder of Zyklon-B poison gas. Some restaurateur actually sat down and thought, “Rock music, film stars, supermodels, the rainforest - they've all been done;” and promptly came up with genocide as the next big thing. Quite a leap of the imagination. The objectionable decor has since been removed by a bewildered management, who say they didn't realise the images would cause offence.
Bizarre as this might seem, it makes a horrible kind of sense. The Taiwanese businessmen were acting naively on a much-recognised but rarely stated premise: that the Nazis constitute a brand. If you want to sell something, then Nazify it. It's one of the strongest and most resilient brands in the world today. The old advertising maxim, “Product plus Personality equals Brand”, holds particularly true here. There's the product; in this case, spicy crab by the plateful. And there's the personality; an incomparably vile one, to be sure, but one that continues to be a source of fascination the world over. Result: a brand that is universally lucrative.
The publishing trade, for instance, knows only too well that the most effective way to cajole a new book from the shelves is to emblazon the cover with Nazi insignia. That, or a picture of Delia Smith. And Delia might not be best pleased to find herself adorning that particular kind of potboiler.
As far back as 1976, the humorist Alan Coren issued a collection called Golfing For Cats. The jacket showed a moggy in a wielding a five-iron at a Swastika-flagged hole. In his preface, Coren explained that while the book had nothing to do with Nazis, cats or golf, he was counting on these commercially sure-fire topics to boost his sales. Curiously, the one place this jape would certainly have misfired is Germany, where the law is stern about the use of Nazi imagery. Almost two decades later, the English paperback edition of Robert Harris's excellent novel Fatherland was banned there - because the cover design included a modest swastika. Even had this been removed, the gothic lettering set on twin bars of red and black would surely have done the trick. Readers invariably recognise the Nazi style of graphic design,
rumoured to be of Hitler's own devising.
That said, in America, where the public is never knowingly overestimated, the cover of Fatherland bore a grotesque gold swastika so large there was barely room for the title. This kind of nauseating kitsch, we tend to forget, permeated every aspect of the Third Reich except for its livery. It's ironic that, in its simplicity and clarity, Nazi regalia has strong overtones of the hugely influential Bauhaus art movement whose leading lights were hounded out of Germany in the 1930s.
AT THE cinema, Nazi branding has helped to sell countless tickets over the years to action pictures, war movies, thrillers and even sordid “sexploitation” flicks with such unlikely titles as Deported Women Of The SS Special Section. More recently, in the wake of the box office and Oscar successes of Schindler's List, the Nazis - and fascism in general - have become seen as a fit topic for other kinds of film. One that guarantees a great deal of attention for the films in question, too: Life Is Beautiful, Apt Pupil, American History X, Tea With Mussolini. Then there was the Russian arthouse film Moloch, sensitively depicting the affair between the Führer and Eva Braun. It might as well have been titled Hitler In Love. Presumably we can look forward to Sleepless In Nuremberg, My Dinner With Goering and a series of slapstick Gestapo Academy comedies.
In Europe and America, we have restricted ourselves to stamping the Nazi brand on cultural products, because we can justify these as being ostensibly “about” the Nazis. In Taiwan, as we have seen, they have no such misgivings. In 1999 cartoon caricatures of Adolf Hitler were used to promote German-made electric heaters. I suppose that if Hitler is the most famous German in Taiwan, then there's a certain logic to that, however twisted. You're capitalising upon his renown in much the same way that, say, British crisp manufacturers might do with packets endorsed by pop stars or footballers. It suggests that to the Taiwanese, Hitler is simply a cuddly character with a high recognition factor, like Charlie Chaplin or Mickey Mouse.
The Taiwanese have also placed Nazi emblems on sports shoes and motorcycle helmets, no doubt in the belief that they look vaguely cool. The mind truly boggles. Picture a pair of trainers embossed with an SS lightning-flash logo and the slogan: “Nazi: Just Do It.”
Nazi Germany is, rightly, modern Europe's political bogeyman. The far Eastern counterpart is imperial Japan, under which Taiwan itself suffered a brutal occupation. Nor are the Taiwanese overly fond of the Communist Chinese government, which caused the death of millions in mainland China over the brutal course of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Yet symbols of both these regimes have been adopted with insouciance in the West, along with those of Soviet propaganda. Particularly in areas which are hardly less trivial than a theme restaurant: pop music (a promotional video for the band Leftfield was shot - brilliantly - in the heroic manner of Red Chinese opera, which wouldn't play too well in Taipei); advertising, where the Heroic Art propaganda of China and Stalin's USSR (as bloody an enterprise, if not more so, as the Third reich) is routinely and japingly plundered; and, of course, fashion.
This brings us back to Leni Riefenstahl, who, in addition to being the supreme Nazi image broker, is also a huge and unacknowledged influence on fashion. She invented the visual language which now fills the pages of glossy magazines - the smooth monochrome; the submission of the camera's lens in the worship of its subject; the implied nobility of physical perfection. A typical Calvin Klein ad resembles nothing so much as Riefenstahl's 1936 Berlin games documentary, Olympia, set on a New England beach. They may not realise it, but when anti-fashion campaigners speak of “body fascism”, it is no coincidence.
It also calls to mind the ruckus caused when GQ magazine numbered Field Marshal Erwin Rommel among the world's 200 most stylish men. Given that icons of male style tend to be distinctive, theatrical and give off a whiff of danger - three criteria which certainly apply to the Nazis - the magazine had a point. Although unlike Rommel, the rest of the German high command, even in their smart uniforms, had the air of either screaming queens or circus sideshow freaks. The obese Goering, with his white suits, managed to resemble both.
Is there any lesson to be learned from The Jail, and from our own use of the hallmarks of barbarous regimes for frivolous purposes? Perhaps only that nowadays, any branding is good branding, just as long it's not too close to home. The most telling detail of the whole affair? The Jail was hugely popular among its Taiwanese customers. Not one of them complained about it. The trouble started only when the newspapers caught on. Of course, the press is well aware that a good Nazi story shifts copies like nobody's business. Hitler may have been a lousy watercolourist, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he was - perhaps literally - a devil of a brand manager.