For Jews the world over, the number 18 has long enjoyed a special status. In Jewish liturgy, the prayer known as the Amidah is also called the “Shmoneh Esreh” (“the 18”), referring to the number of separate blessings that originally comprised the prayer. In the Jewish numerological tradition of gematria, the number 18 has long been viewed as corresponding to the Hebrew word “chai,” meaning “alive” (derived by adding the eighth and 10th letters of the Hebrew alphabet, chet and yud).
Anyone who has written a check on the occasion of a Jewish simcha using a multiple of $18 knows that the number is synonymous with “mazal tov!” The number’s celebratory meaning has even been confirmed in present-day architecture, as is shown by Daniel Libeskind’s Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, whose plan is based on the upbeat slogan, “To Life!” (“l’chaim!”), and features a hall graced with 36 windows (or “double chai”).
Yet while the number 18 has an affirmative meaning in Jewish tradition, it has a much more controversial reputation in Germany. This past August, the Hamburg-based coffee company and online retailer, Tchibo, made headlines when it released a new item for sale: a pair of children’s sneakers emblazoned with the number 18 on the side.
Howls of protest ensued. After an Internet blogger drew attention to the sneakers on his Facebook page, other German web users condemned the product as highly offensive. For its part, Tchibo swiftly responded to the complaints and within a week issued an apology and withdrew the product from the market.
The reason for the ruckus comes directly from the strange bedfellows department: It turns out that Jews are not the only ones who cherish the number 18 — neo-Nazis do as well. For some time now, neo-Nazis have employed their own right-wing version of gematria to link the number 18 to the initials of the former Führer, Adolf Hitler (“A” being the first letter of the alphabet, “H” being the eighth).
This numerological calculation is part of a larger counter-cultural tradition on the German right. Ever since the end of World War II and the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the historic symbols of the Third Reich (swastikas, SS runes, and the like) have been officially banned from public display. As a result, right-wing Germans, like their colleagues in other Western countries, have tried to circumvent the prohibition by developing an elaborate semiotic system of doubly-coded signs and symbols that appear superficially benign, but covertly communicate their political allegiances to those in the know.
Among these symbols are combinations of numbers and letters, such as 88 (translating to “HH” and denoting “Heil Hitler”) and H8 (as in “hate”); occult symbols, such as the 12-armed “black sun” that serves as an ersatz swastika; items of clothing, such as Fred Perry shirts (whose trademark laurel wreath has been appropriated as a sign of “victory”); and even footwear (Doc Martens boots have long been favored by skinheads, but New Balance running shoes are now apparently en vogue (the capital “N” apparently signifies “National Socialist”).
Given the depth of this covert symbolic universe, it is no small wonder that the Tchibo sneaker design caused such a furor in Germany. Especially in light of growing concerns about neo-Nazi activity — epitomized by the ongoing trial in Munich of Beate Zschäpe, the lone surviving member of an extremist National Socialist underground cell that killed 10 people, mostly Turkish immigrants, between 2000 and 2007 — it is hardly surprising that the coffee company sought to defuse the controversy before it got any larger.