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September 20, 2017

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'Nazi parade' not a mere PR scandal

A school event in Taiwan came to the forefront of international media attention last week. A group of students from a private high school wore self-fashioned Nazi uniforms and wielded swastika banners at their school's "Christmas and Thanksgiving Costume Parade" on Dec. 23. Photos taken at the parade served as fodder for a heated debate on PTT, Taiwan's largest online forum. When one netizen forwarded the photos to the Israeli representative office in Taipei, the debate escalated into a diplomatic affair.

The Israeli representative office condemned the display of Nazi paraphernalia as "deplorable and shocking" and called on Taiwan to initiate programs to teach students about the Holocaust. The Presidential Office apologized for the presentation, which it described as "disrespectful to the Jewish people's suffering at the hands of war and representative of ignorance toward modern history." The Ministry of Education also responded by threatening to cut subsidies to the school. Before the day ended, the school's principal had apologized for the school's negligence and failure to educate the students. He resigned the next day.

The parade was widely criticized in Taiwanese society, but there were also people who questioned why representations of Nazis deserved universal and high-profile condemnation in a nation where people seemed to have no problem role-playing, or even outright worshipping, other authoritarian figures such as Taiwan's former President Chiang Kai-shek.

Taiwan's complicated history means that some of its citizens have a less-than-straightforward interpretation of World War II history. Taiwan came into the war technically as part of the Axis powers, as it was a colony of the Japanese empire. Taiwan was handed to the Republic of China by Japan after the latter's defeat in the war. However, this "retrocession" — which, incidentally, the high school in question (Kuang-fu Senior High School) is named after — is regarded by a number of people in Taiwan as merely a change of rulers.

The ambivalence of Taiwanese people toward their national identity remains one of the biggest sociopolitical issues in the nation.

Just as the event was going the way of all gaffe-prompted scandals in Taiwan — with strong reactions, public condemnations, heads rolling and the public moving on to the next buzz topic — some of the school's students released a strongly-worded online response rallying for support for the resigning principal and challenging the government. In the post, the students said that they did not deserve such public humiliation as they had "done nothing wrong" and were simply taking part in a "costume event." They questioned why they were expected to understand taboos about Hitler, as they were Taiwan-born citizens who only loved their country and high-school students whose only concern was to finish school. They concluded by challenging President Tsai Ing-wen for siding with Israel and Germany while punishing her own people.

Instead of drumming up support for the principal, the article was criticized even by people who regarded the government's response as heavy-handed, who decried the students' astonishing lack of civic consciousness in a global community, their narrow-mindedness and their blatant nationalism. Online sleuths continued their probe into the school and released video footage of other racially offensive parades held during past school Christmas events.

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