Ferdinand Topacio and Adolf Hitler

Chay F. Hofileña

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The maverick lawyer sees him as a revolutionary with a single-minded vision worth emulating.

MANILA, Philippines – Ferdinand Topacio, the controversial lawyer of the Arroyos, caused a stir over Twitter and Facebook recently – not over his clients, but over a painting prominently displayed in his office.

It isn’t that of the former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo or even the incumbent President Benigno Aquino III. Rather, it is a painting of Third Reich German chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Hitler, the infamous Fuhrer, had long been scorned by historians because of his anti-Semitic views which led to the inhumane killing of Jews. As many as six million are believed to have perished, many of them in gas chambers.

But to Topacio, an “amateur historian” by his own admission, Hitler is “one of the most misunderstood historical figures. “His main fault, his main crime, was that he lost the war. And as you know, history is written by the victors,” he says in an interview with Rappler.

Single-minded vision

Under threat of being charged with revisionism, Topacio says that Hitler was, in fact, a revolutionary.

“Very few people know that the concept of the paid vacation for workers was a brainchild of Adolf Hitler because his party, the Nazi party, is the national socialist workers’ democratic party. That is national socialism, and national socialism was formulated for the benefit of greater rights for the working class.”

Topacio adds, “From a relatively obscure retired corporal in the German army, he rose to prominence. He was not wealthy. He did not have pedigree. He did not have a high degree of education. He became chancellor of Germany through sheer will power and his vision of a greater society for the German people.”

What is worth emulating in Hitler, according to him, is his “single-minded vision for what he felt was better for all members of society.”

When Germans were starving in the streets, Hitler rose up and said that “with a determined leadership, Germany can be a great power again. And in fact, he made Germany a great power – something that the Germans can be proud of. It’s just that he lost the war,” Topacio says.

Law school challenges

The maverick lawyer of the Arroyos, known for taking on unpopular cases, was a provinciano working student in law school. He dropped out of the Ateneo Law School in his third year after having a run-in with fellow-Batangueño and then law professor Hernando “Nani” Perez.

A professor who built a reputation as a terror among students, Perez picked on the pint-sized Ferdie Topacio when he found out that he worked for his political nemesis then, Salvador “Doy” Laurel.

Not wont to run away from challenges, Topacio came prepared for class and even humiliation. But when Perez started picking on students around him because he was able to answer the tough questions, the Batangueño law student stood up to defend them.

“Sir, with all due respect, if you want to go after me, by all means, that’s your right, but spare these people, they have nothing to do with us,” he recalls telling Perez.

“Mr. Topacio, you’re impertinent,” Perez snapped back. Topacio countered, “No, you’re impertinent. Why are you taking it out on innocent people? You want to tangle with me, tangle with me. You want to tangle with me outside?”

After failing in another law class, Wills and Succession, Topacio was forced to drop out and move over to the University of the East (UE), where working students like him were given more leeway and understanding.

At UE, he got to know the law school dean at the time, Artemio Tuquero, who like Topacio, is a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo. Tuquero was justice secretary under former President Joseph Estrada.

Topacio was one of the 11.25% who passed the Bar in the late 1980s. This percentage is said to be the third lowest in the history of the Philippine Bar. There were 599 Bar takers at the time, Topacio recalls.

He now teaches Legal Ethics and Constitutional Law at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, and is described as a lawyer who has a good grasp of both sides of an argument. Tart and glib, he is a known comedian who has mastered the art of the sound bite.

Law is like jazz

NUDES. Some of the artwork displayed in Topacio's office. Photo by Ayee Macaraig.
NUDES. Some of the artwork displayed in Topacio’s office. Photo by Ayee Macaraig.

Unknown to many, Topacio is also a mean jazz singer who can play the percussion and a rhythm guitar.

A performer through and through, he says that jazz is much like law because it can’t be done by the book. “You have to improvise which is the essence of jazz. In jazz, you do not sing the song in the way that the composer wrote it. You sing in the way that you feel it at that very moment and improvise. You bend the note without breaking the note.”

Law is no different, he says. “The law is not rigid. It is flexible. The trick is to bend it without breaking it. And that, to me, is an art form. Both require performance, a lot of skill and a lot of thinking on your feet.”

Topacio’s office is like a small art gallery that features nudes and other artwork. Among them is one by Fidel Sarmiento, a photo realist and the president of the Artists’ Association of the Philippines. The painting won third place in a competition in Paris for social commentary, Topacio says proudly.

NEWSPAPER. An artwork featuring the front page of the Manila Times when it was closed during the Estrada administration. Photo by Ayee Macaraig.
NEWSPAPER. An artwork featuring the front page of the Manila Times when it was closed during the Estrada administration. Photo by Ayee Macaraig.

It features the front page of the last issue of the Manila Times when it was closed down by its owners on account of a multi-million-peso libel suit filed against the paper by Estrada.

The artwork was deliberately placed by the media-savvy Topacio on a wall directly opposite his desk and the portrait of Hitler.

“This painting keeps me grounded. I put it here and I did not remove it because I could see it exactly from where I am sitting. Because it reminds me that fame is fleeting. Being in the news is illusory because you are on the front page now and tomorrow that same newspaper will be used to wrap dried fish.” – Rappler.com




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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.