By Niels Hegewisch and Julian Dierkes
Recent attention to ethno-rock sensation The Hu has revived concerns about the (seeming) use of fascist iconography in Mongolian politics. While fascist symbols are immediately distasteful to Western observers, in Asia such symbols need to be placed in local contexts to understand their use. While it is important to call out rabid nationalism and xenophobia in Mongolia, not every ignorant embrace of fascist symbols is necessarily a sign of larger political tendencies. The challenge in distinguishing real worrisome political tendencies from context-specific symbolism, from purposeful provocation, or from plain ignorance can be seen in particularly stark relief with the rising popularity of The Hu.
Swastikas and Iron Crosses in The Hu Videos
The Mongolian folk rock band The Hu has become an international sensation (NPR | The Guardian | Foreign Policy). One of the crucial elements in their success may have been their striking, professionally-produced videos featuring rugged nature and nomadic Mongolian culture in rather bombastic fashion.
The band is popular in Mongolia itself in part because of their lyrics that offer thinly veiled jabs at the common fixation on material wealth and at politicians‘ populist nationalism.
However, some are casting doubt on this perception of the band as likable and principally critical. YouTube comments and various online discussions have focused their attention on close examination of one particular scence in the video for „Wolf Totem“.
At 5‘12“ in the video we see a hand wearing two rings. The designs of these rings suggest different interpretations some of which are clearly problematic.
The first ring shows a swastika and can be interpreted as a Nazi symbol or the Buddhist symbol for good fortune. The ring also features the symbol of the Mongolian state, the Soyombo, pointing toward “good fortune for Mongolia” as a possible interpretation. Swastikas (including the clockwise-turning version commonly associated with fascism) appear commonly in Mongolia in official as well as casual settings. They adorn government buildings, picture frames, and bumper stickers. Unfortunately, the Nazi version is sometimes portrayed as cool or fashionable as well, often out of apparent historical ignorance. Whereas Nazi symbolism is unambiguous in a European context, use of similar symbols in a Mongolian context is much less clear in representing any kind of association with fascism.
The second ring in the video displays a symbol of the Mongolian Choppers Brotherhood. This includes the German “iron cross”. The Brotherhood is well-established in Mongolia and generally perceived as an apolitical grouping of motorcycle enthusiasts. As such it is one of several similar clubs. The Brotherhood is particularly well-known for joining with the city of Ulaanbaatar in organizing the Steppe Wind music festival. The Hu performed at the 2019 festival and the opening motorcycle parade was led by Prime Minister and Harley-Davidson-enthusiast U Khurelsukh.
Mongolian motorcycle clubs largely look toward North America to model their activities and representation on. That is how the iron cross has most likely come to be incorporated into Mongolian symbolism as well. The iron cross has its origins in Prussian military decorations, continued to be awarded by the German army under Nazi rule, is still in use by the German Bundeswehr, and has had a surprising currency in usage in pop culture. Motor cycle gangs in North America are known to incorporate the iron cross into their iconography as a symbol of rebellion. The iron cross today also shows up in very different contexts like some extreme sports, where it appears to be in use without any political associations. The context of the use of such symbols is thus of particular importance. The care in interpretation would also apply to comments on a possible explanation for photos of a Brotherhood Facebook page that was only active in 2014 and is frequently mentioned by critics of The Hu. Photos on this page appear to show Brotherhood members showing off various Nazi symbols. While these photos in particular are provocative and disturbing, they do not appear to be reproduced in other Brotherhood materials, so any political leanings of the Brotherhood remain ambiguous.
The rings that appear in the video can be interpreted as a reference to historical and contemporary fascism, but they can also be placed plausibly in an Asian context of Buddhist symbolism and North American motorcycle culture. In their public statements, the band has not hinted at any affinity with fascist ideology. The band webpage offers a derivation of their name from the Mongolian word for “person”. The band emphasized that Mongolia should not only be known for its military leaders and soldiers in an interview with The Guardian. They noted civilian accomplishments like the creation of a transcontinental postal system, the development of trade routes and the introduction of diplomatic passports.
Obviously, a clear statement from the band disassociating itself from fascism and its symbols would clarify much of the debate that has sprung up. There have been responses from people close to the band who emphasize that any symbolic connection to fascism is not intended by the band, nor should it be taken as an endorsement of political extremism. Instead, the band is explicitly and critically grappling with contemporary society and politics. Symbols that appear in their videos are metaphors for the current situation of nomads in Mongolia. Nevertheless, as the band continues to gain international recognition, they would be well-advised to recognize the context in which they will be performing in Europe or North America and to recognize the harm that a political misinterpretation of symbols can do to any messages they are trying to convey or any popular success they hope to have.
Jan 21 Update:
Alert Reddit readers have pointed out that The Hu have responded specifically to the appearance of the swastika in the video:
Response by @TheHuOfficial unlikely to be seen by many buried deep in YT comments.
“The Хас тэмдэг is a sacred symbol to our culture for 1000s of years.
We’ve noticed that symbol on our instruments drawing unforeseen negative views.” https://t.co/yJuvLztQnr pic.twitter.com/o321Tkjx2o
— Julian Dierkes (@jdierkes) January 21, 2020
Nationalism in Mongolian Politics
Some of the reaction to The Hu in Europe and North America seems to be an unfortunate confluence of ignorance of the Mongolian context on the part of some observers, and lack of awareness of the inflammatory nature that is ascribed to symbols in other countries on the part of the band. However, even a more context-aware interpretation should acknowledge that Mongolian society and even more so Mongolian politics has a massive problem when it comes to a heightened and non-reflexive nationalism that can lead to racist and even anti-Semitic statements and can also lead to the use of Nazi iconography. Just recently such symbolism was visible in demonstrations by the short-lived “National Mongolian Front”.
Western journalists are prone to fall victim to the apparent provocation of the embrace of Nazi symbolism and this kneejerk search for Nazi symbolism has been extended to The Hu. While the provocation is real particularly in terms of rhetoric, its substantial relevance for contemporary politics is so far extremely limited.
It is important to emphasize that even vaguely coherently nationalist or fascist organizations like Tsaagan Khas do not play a significant political role in Mongolia. They may appear in public at demonstrations or rallies, but they have not wielded any influence in elections either in terms of shifting debates or frames of reference or in achieving any kind of electoral success at all. Such overtly nationalist or even fascist groupings will not shape the 2020 parliamentary election either. This is in clear contrast to virtually all of Europe where right-wing populism seems to have established itself firmly in national legislatures.
Niels Hegewisch is a political scientist and the Mongolia country representative for the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, a German political foundation that is dedicated to global promotion of freedom, justice and solidarity. The Foundation has been active in Mongolia since the early 1990s.