The Spectre of Comparison: Nationalism, Southeast and the World
By Benedict Anderson
Verso, 1998; Ateneo, 2004
At the height of the bloodiest coup attempt against President Corazon Aquino in 1989, my graduate adviser, Ben Anderson, found himself crouching along the wall of the Mormon Tabernacle down the block from the besieged military headquarters. He was seeking safety from possible gunfire, and beside him was a rebel junior officer “shouting imprecations” at the Americans helping the government put an end to the mutiny.
“My fear that his anger would be vented on me as a probably American was only allayed when the officer fixed on a fellow croucher – a large and corpulent man with two cameras, who announced himself nervously as a German,” Ben wrote in The Spectre of Comparisons, appending this amusing footnote on page 24. “To my complete astonishment, the young rebel gave the stout fellow a Heil Hitler salute and enquired about the health of Field Marshall Rommel. This was a perfect moment to slink further away behind the sheltering Tabernacle.”
This hilarious scene, where a German journalist and an Irish academic found themselves crouching alongside military rebels, was one of many side-stories series of a series events in which the Philippines grabbed world attention. It began with the peaceful ouster of the dying Ferdinand Marcos ending his 15-year autocratic rule, and his replacement by Cory Aquino, whose regime rested on a tenuous coalition of businessmen, rightwing colonels, oligarchs, social democrats, and the Church. The coalition quickly unraveled when the colonels of the Reform the Armed Forces of the Philippines (RAM) movement – believing that they were the rightful heir of the “People Power” revolution – launched one coup after another to bring Aquino down.
All seven attempts failed, and after the last one, in 1989 (when Ben and the German journalist met the rebel officer), coup plotting ceased to be taken seriously by the public. It later on became fodder for comedians seeking a good laugh, and rambunctious talk show hosts finding nothing else to talk about.
So, who would not be attracted to the spectacular events of this post-authoritarian moment, especially one who has seen coups and counter-coups before? Then only to be startled – briefly – by these weird sympathies for a long gone Nazi general? But Ben likely saw nothing strange in the Mormon Tabernacle church scene for he had seen all this before.
And we know about this in pages 1-2 of Spectre where Ben quotes the charismatic Indonesian president Sukarno saying this to an enthralled audience:
“Take Hitler, for example – wah, Hitler was extraordinarily clever really – perhaps he wanted to say that happiness isn’t possible on a material basis alone, and thus he pronounced another ideal. This Third Reich would really and truly bring happiness to the people of Germany. The First Kingdom was that of de alte Fritz, a kingdom led by Old Fritz; the Second Kingdom was that existed before the World War, and now this kingdom had been destroyed in the World War. ‘Come let us build a Third Kingdom, a Dritte Reich, and in this Third Reich, hey, sisters, you will live happily; hey, brothers, you will live happily; hey, kids, you will live happily; hey, you, German patriots, you will see Germany sitting enthroned above all peoples in this world.’ How clever Hitler was, brothers and sisters, in depicting these ideals!”
Here was Sukarno, the Father of Indonesian nationalism, praising Der Fuehrer – something bizarre if seen from where we stand now (a European diplomat sitting beside Ben was completely shocked by the speech). For was he not a progressive and even flirted for a time with socialism?
It turns out Sukarno was not alone. An entire corpus of Southeast and South Asian personalities turned out to treat Europe’s brutal dictators in high regard. Gen. Aung San, founder of the Union of Burma and father to the Burmese icon Aung San Suu Kyi listed as his heroes Mao Tse Tung, Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Stalin, while Field Marshall Phibunsongkhram copied the Nazi and Italian fascist propaganda techniques to try to nurture a personality cult that rivaled the Thai monarchy and keep the military in power. Across the Bay of Bengal, the Indian left-wing revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose promised to raise a 100,000 “Free India Legion” to help Germany defeat Britain and Hitler reciprocated by recognizing his leadership of “Free Indian Government” in exile. When Hitler “betrayed” him by invading the Soviet Union, Bose shifted to the Japanese, and like our very own Artemio Ricarte, tried to lobby hard for militarist support.
Why this odd reverence for these leaders who were responsible the repression and brutality that killed and imprisoned millions of people across Europe and Asia? How can we explain this fondness for such unappetizing personalities (Mussolini and Stalin were overweight and the latter quite dull and a buffoon; Hirohito had a rodent’s face; and Hitler looked like Charlie Chaplin)? And why was there remarkably little public and academic attention in the Philippines and Southeast Asia towards this dark era – a disinterest that even extended to this very day?
The obvious answer is distance. Europe, after all, was “over there” and the histories of that region that trickled into the colonies were vetted and censored by the colonial offices that governed Asian colonies in behalf of their respective metropoles. The only Asians who were able to see Europe up-close were the likes of Rizal in the late 1800s and Ho in the early 1900s, and the knowledge they brought back only trickled in dribs and drabs to the localities and peripheries. And any openly writing critical of Europe would never pass colonial censors.
Europe’s representatives in Asia – colonial officials, unscrupulous traders, friars and military men – were not exactly well-liked, with the colonized’s antagonism boosted after having heard of Japan’s routing of Tsarist “White” Russia in 1901. If the Japanese could do it, surely they could do it, too. Then the First World War sent shock waves to the colonies, and the rise of communist parties throughout Asia, mobilizing the great masses against capitalism and imperialism, gave organizational gravitas to many of these anti-colonial sentiments. And the inspiration? Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini and the way in which these dictators brought unity to their movements and the regimes they established.
For the first time ever, Asian nationalists found both the ideologies and the political evidence that showed them they way out of subjugation.
World War II brought everything to a fruition: Burmese, Filipino, Indian, Indonesian, and Thai nationalists welcomed the invading Japanese, and when the latter were defeated everyone, save the Filipinos, found confidence to fight back the returning oppressors. And they did it quite well, winning independence and the unceremonious removal of white colonials who never imagined this insult could be done to them. The new republics began to try to find their place in a Cold War age, trying to fend off neo-colonial advances and outright interventions, but also being caught in the inward-looking complicated process of nation-building and forging inter-community unity. One of the things that fell on the wayside was learning more about countries beyond their range of vision and their corresponding histories.
As late as 1963 Sukarno still adored Hitler, while in the Philippines, twenty years later, the paucity of serious textbooks on “world history” allowed a young officer to still believe that Irwin Rommel and his Panzer divisions were still running the show in Europe. The continued inability of Filipino historians to connect Philippine to world history today further enables the unsurprising resilience of this fondness for what Anderson, in an email to me, wonderfully calls “this washed out late fascism symbolism.
Its latest fan is the “constitutionalist” and lawyer of the detained former President Gloria Arroyo, Ferdinand Topacio.