“I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle,” Adolf Hitler wrote with satisfaction in Mein Kampf of his efforts to design a flag for his new political party. “After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.” In finalizing his design, the aesthetically-inclined Hitler transformed what had been an innocuous symbol with antecedents in Indian as well as Native American culture, that had once been employed by the Boy Scouts and Coca-Cola, into an emblem permanently associated with racial hatred, fascism, and genocide.
The modern taboo against the swastika has been invoked more than a few times this week as the United States goes through a long-overdue debate of its own symbol of militarized white supremacy, the Confederate flag, which Atlanta’s first African-American mayor Maynard Jackson once called the “American swastika.” Sadly, it took last week’s murders in Charleston for many to reckon with the fact that a symbol proudly brandished by the likes of Dylann Roof still flies on U.S. government buildings, is incorporated into the flags of several American states, and enjoys a prominent place in American popular culture.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley along with most of the leading presidential candidates have said this week that the flag should come down. Several major retailers, including Wal-Mart, Target, and EBay, are removing items featuring the flag from their shelves. In an unrelated but remarkably timed decision, the Supreme Court upheld Texas’ right to reject license plates emblazoned with the flag. In Germany, though, the post-war question about the swastika is not over whether an old racist symbol should be displayed on government buildings or sold in major retailers, but whether it should be allowed in public at all. The way that debate has played out sheds some interesting light on what we might and might not want to aim for in the U.S.
Publicly displaced Nazi iconography was systematically destroyed by the occupying allies at the end of the war, and today, the German criminal code prohibits the public use of a symbol of any “political party which has been declared unconstitutional by the Federal Constitutional Court.” This includes the swastika, the Nazi salute, and several other symbols of the Third Reich. Punishments can range from fines to up to three years in prison. Mein Kampf and other Nazi propaganda works are also banned.
Some exceptions are carved out for educational purposes—you can put a swastika on a book about Hitler—and satire, though even there, the lines can be blurry. In 2006, the city of Stuttgart filed charges against a make of anti-Nazi paraphernalia, featuring swastikas being smashed, crossed out or thrown in the garbage. "The danger of familiarization is ever present," the judge said, explaining his reasoning. "In particular, this mass-market business risked undermining [the swastika’s] taboo status." The case, which was eventually thrown out, caused a nationwide controversy, with the head of the country’s Green Party reporting herself to the police for wearing a crossed-out swastika button in protest. Publically displayed swastikas have been allowed for the filming of historical movies, though when Mel Brooks’ satirical Nazi-themed musical The Producers opened in Berlin, the swastikas on red banners were replaced with pretzels.
While some might like to see a similar zealousness applied to the suppression of the Confederate flag, the German case also provides an example of how such blanket bans can be counterproductive.
For one thing, the law hasn’t stopped the surreptitious use of the swastika and the Hitler salute by far-right groups. Its taboo status may even enhance its appeal, with the symbol of an authoritarian state ironically transformed into a symbol of rebellion against state authority.
As the fascinating recent documentary Forbidden Films showed, Nazi era propaganda films—some of which are literally locked away in heavily guarded vaults— have become cult classics in Germany, not just among skinheads, who hold Rocky Horror-like screenings of some of them, but among curious cinephiles as well. (Censorship has also become increasingly difficult in the Internet age. Mein Kampf has been widely available on the Internet for years.)
The law hasn’t stopped the emergence of the neo-Nazi NPD party, which has had several significant electoral victories, including winning a seat in the European Parliament. The NPD would never use a swastika in its public materials—unlike its counterpart in Greece, Golden Dawn, which uses a modified version of the symbol—but its links to its National Socialist predecessors are pretty apparent.
Given America’s comparatively absolutist attitude toward free speech, it’s hard to imagine the Confederate flag being suppressed in a similar way (Bill Kristol’s dire warnings notwithstanding). It’s for the best that the flag is being taken off government buildings and off the shelves of major retailers, but anyone who really wants to make, sell or display one will still be protected by the First Amendment—which is also for the best.
A better point of comparison for the U.S. attitude toward symbols of the confederacy might be Germany’s World War II ally Japan, where leaders have continually paid tribute to symbols associated with war crimes, and downplayed or denied historic atrocities. The U.S. has expressed disappointment with the current Japanese government’s attitude, but as our own experience shows, some dark chapters of history take a very long time to process.