Pakistan is the opposite of Germany. The mountains are in the north, the sea is in the south, the economic problems are in the west and the east is doing well. It's not hard for a German living in Pakistan to get used to these differences, but one contrast is hard to stomach: Most people like Hitler.
I was recently at the hairdresser, an elderly man who doesn't resort to electric clippers. All he has is creaky pair of scissors, a comb, an aerosol with water. He did a neat job but I wasn't entirely happy.
I said: "I look like Hitler."
He looked at me in the mirror, gave a satisfied smile and said: "Yes, yes, very nice."
I decided not to challenge him, went home and tried to get rid of the strict parting he'd given me.
I was glad I avoided the usual Hitler conversation. Pakistanis always hone in on that topic whenever they talk to Germans. "We're Aryans too," they say, because there was an Indo-Germanic race, the Aryas. Besides, Hitler was a military genius, they add.
Sometimes it's better to keep quiet about one's German origins. It's embarrassing because people here think they're doing you a favor by expressing their admiration for the Nazi leader. I suspect most Indians and Pakistanis have no idea what this man did. They see him as the bold Führer who took on the British and Americans.
In the Islamic world, not just in Pakistan but right across from Iran to northern Africa, anti-Semitic sentiment of course plays a role. Conversations with German visitors rapidly turn to the injustice being suffered by the Palestinians who were robbed of their land.
The Desire to be Swallowed up by the Ground
One can try to cut such conversations short, like a German acquaintance of mine did recently. He told a taxi driver in Iran he should stop talking nonsense because he as a dark-skinned person wouldn't have survived long in Nazi Germany. The taxi driver looked at him surprised and said: "But I'm Aryan!"
The alternative is just to wish the ground would swallow you up, like when German friends visited us while we were staying with our Pakistani relatives in London. Out of the blue, one uncle started talking admiringly about Hitler, his supposed military feats and how he led Germany out of economic misery. Our friends just sat there stony-faced and didn't know what to say. Later on my parents apologized to them.
I don't know where this fascination comes from, not just for the Nazis but for all things German. Most people don't realize that today's Germany is very different from the Third Reich. It's not surprising. Many have never even been to the next big city in their own country, so how should they know what things are like in Germany these days?
"I Like Nazi"
As a result, many Pakistanis easily switch from Hitler to Mercedes ("Very excellent car, but a little too expensive"). A few days ago a white Mercedes built in the 1970s was driving ahead of me in the center of Islamabad carrying a family of seven. On the back was a sticker bearing a black swastika in a white circle. Underneath it read: "I like Nazi."
It's not just Muslims who maintain this Nazi cult. A few years ago, a Hindu businessman in India opened a restaurant called "Hitler's Cross," complete with a portrait of the Führer at the entrance. Another Hindu sold bed linen emblazoned with swastikas that had little to do with the Hindu swastika symbol for good luck. The sheets, pillow cases and bed spreads were advertised as being part of "The Nazi Collection." English editions of Hitler's "Mein Kampf" can be found in bookshops even in the most remote parts of India. And Indian schoolbooks have been known to celebrate Hitler as a great leader.
Once my wife and I visited the cafe in the beautiful Hotel Imperial in New Delhi. It has a garden lined with palms, excellent tea and friendly waiters in uniforms that recall the colonial era. A young man served us. The name tag on his uniform attracted my interest so I asked him why he had this rather unusual name for an Indian man. "Oh, my parents named me after a great historic person," he explained.
The name, in black letters on a golden plate, read: Adolf.