I was wandering through one of the many mega-malls in Jakarta when I saw it. You’d think spotting any one thing among the thousands of tiny shopfront windows that festoon such shopping complexes would be impossible, but a lifetimes worth of cultural programming did its work and my eye was drawn with great confusion to one single shirt on display.
A shirt with a big fat red, black and white swastika on it.
At this time I was less than 48 hours off the plane from Australia, and right in the middle of the cultural training necessary not to make a complete arse of myself over my next year in Indonesia (which I did in any case, but that’s another story). As such you might say I was primed to forgive the very many horrible things that one sees in a major city of the world’s most densely populated developing nation, but this laid me absolutely flat. A swastika? Really? What the hell Indonesia, you fought tooth and nail against the Axis powers in world war two, how the hell is someone selling Nazi memorabilia in broad daylight without having their shop burned to the ground! Wearing that shirt virtually anywhere in Australia will get you socially ostracised so hard you’ll never see the sun again, assuming you don’t get your teeth kicked out first. And that’s from a nation that wasn’t invaded during the conflict. You’d think given the frankly brutal occupation by the Empire of Japan, the Indonesian people would be significantly more sensitive than us when it came to symbols of their oppressors.
Imagine my surprise then when the those I met on my journeys not only appeared to tolerate this grand and powerful symbol of hatred, but positively embraced it, plastering it across their cars, incorporating it into their clothing and even flying friggin’ flags with it on. In public. On their homes.
‘Why yes, I would quite like a fire-bombing.’
Naturally I brought the matter up with my fellow volunteers, and they were quick to remind me that the swastika is actually a symbol with a 4000 year history, conveying messages of luck, auspice and goodness for Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, long before Hitler got his mits on it and ruined it for everyone. Which you have to admit, is kind of his thing.
And of course I was quick to bow to this truth, and acknowledge that while the swastika may indeed be a symbol for hatred for westerners and Europeans in particular, the same is not true for those cultures who owned it long before fascism was ever a thing. Of course Indonesians are more than entitled to use it to celebrate their religions as they have always done, and our western sensibilities should not interfere with that.
All of which would have been a far more compelling argument, if I hadn’t then seen a guy walk around the corner wear a shirt with Hitler on it.
Some frantic googling later and, yes, it turns out it wasn’t just me; large parts of Asia have a massive enthusiasm for what has become known as ‘Nazi-chic’ – intentionally displaying Nazi symbols, dressing up in Nazi uniforms, and even doing little Nazi-themed parades down public streets in broad daylight.
Sure you MIGHT see this in other countries, but it’s usually against the backdrop of 10,000 screaming anti-fascist protesters.
There is naturally a bit of cross-over here with people using the swastika in its original non-genocidal sense, but there’s no denying that there are a hell of a lot that think the yes-genocidal version is great stuff. This sort of thing is absolutely verboten in nearly every western nation, sometime legally so. Everyone understands that regardless of whether you like the style of the symbol or uniforms, the political and historical implications they carry with them are so overwhelmingly massive that you absolutely DO NOT show or wear them unless you want to be accused of being a fascist, anti-semite, hatemonger or worse. So what the hell is going on here?
A few people have put some research into the question and it turns out the answer is pretty simple: pure ignorance. See despite Asian nations have debatably the worst experience of the entire war (seriously, some of the things Imperial Japan got up to during the war are like Auschwitz on a national scale) that suffering was at the hands of the Imperial Japanese military – not the Nazis, who they never came into contact with, and likely never even knew about at the time. Combine this with a generally poor access to education in many developing Asian nations, and the fact that history is largely recorded in English and only translated into other languages if enough people care about the topic, and it’s hardly surprising that the most your average citizen knows about the Nazis is that they had some pretty spiffy uniforms – and they’re hardly alone in thinking that.
Yeah, that wasn’t a joke.
All of this leads us to a fairly weighty ethical question: is it ok to show off the Nazi swastika in public?
For a non-racist westerner the answer seems pretty obvious; of course not, you idiot. Now put that thing away before someone sees you and destroys your life. The swastika and related symbols are so heavily tied to a racist, hateful, genocidal and generally unethical ideology that they are permanently tainted by association – as such, wearing it without a MASSIVE disclaimer is guaranteed to make you look like you endorse the Nazi ideology. And even if you can demonstrate they you actually don’t, you’re going to get some pointed questions about why you thought displaying such a totem of murderous hatred was a clever idea?
Mistaking ‘offensive’ for ‘clever’ pretty much sums it up, I suspect.
But Asian cultures that don’t have this stigma are in a unique position to call us westerners out on this bias. Sure the Nazi uniforms and icons used to be a symbol of extreme bigotry, but who says they still have to be? After all, here we have sizable subcultures, spread across an entire continent for whom these symbols are no more sinister than the Hot Topic logo. Large groups of people who consider Adolph Hitler more on par with Ronald McDonald than Julius Caesar or any of history’s great leaders.
If this is meant to promote the ideals of national socialism then it’s doing a pretty terrible job of it. On the other hand I can totally imagine the Telly Tubbies going genocidal, but that’s probably just me.
In a way, ignorance over what they’re celebrating has lead members of these subcultures to mock the living crap out of the ideals their idols stood for. Here we have a rabid ideology of genetic purity, sacrifice for the state, and persecution of deviants, reduced to an edgy fashion icon that is popular with teens, largely of a race the Nazis absolutely would have considered ‘lesser’. They’ve turned the essential symbols of fascism into the cultural equivalent of Hello Kitty, and utterly gutted it in the process. I mean it’s basically cosplay for crying out loud – an activity so incredibly socially liberal that even diehard social libertarians find it kind of uncomfortable.
Even in our highly sensitive western nations we’ve seen this happen to a degree. Phrases such as ‘grammar nazi’ are becoming common place, reducing their ideology down to the simple characteristic of being kind of uptight. And when it comes to the most common depiction of Nazis today, then look no further than video games, where they have been reduced to the archetypal ‘bad guy’; jackbooted thugs that are either unambiguously evil, completely incompetent, or filling the same ambiguous role of Big Bad that Sauron did in Lord of the Rings – a character we never know much about or even see, but who we all know by default to be the bad guy.
Scary? Yes. A convincing proposal for a political ideology? Not so much.
So if this sort of accidental appropriation of the Nazi symbols can actually work to undermine their politics, then surely displaying the swastika in public is a good thing then? Is it time to throw off the shackles of the last century and fly this symbol of historic love, and modern evil vanquished once again? Doesn’t the example of our Asian friend demonstrate that the symbol can be reclaimed?
Well, maybe. See that’s the problem with ignorance, it’s a fickle bugger. It may well be true that followers of Nazi Chic have accidentally undermined the very political doctrine they ape, but this could very easily go the other way. More than once in my time on Indonesia I came across those who had learned enough about their icon to pick up some nasty beliefs in the process – dislike and/or hatred of Jews was a particular theme I found worrying. Sure, such beliefs are pretty academic in a rural region of a nation which has virtually no Jewish presence to start with, but in a way that makes them all the more worrying – hatred for a group of people you know nothing about and have never even met is hardly a positive sign.
Given Asia’s total lack of contact with the Nazis when the Nazis actually existed, the only possible explanation for these people picking up such a hatred is through the influence of Nazi Chic, which in turn lead them to investigate what these Nazi fellows were actually all about. And while a bit of critical thought might have lead them to realize that the Nazi ideology was a massive load of crap, the simple fact that so many people seem to think they’re pretty cool (ie. well dressed) MUST mean they’re on to something, right?
23 million Germans can’t be wrong!
So if Nazi Chic could easily lead to either the mockery of or re-introduction of the Nazi ideology, then how are we meant to decide if the swastika can be reclaimed or not? Well the answer comes down to a firm question of context.
What Asia’s experience tell us without a doubt is that Nazi iconography can be used to mock, and ultimately eradicate the unethical ideology of fascism – even if this result was accidental. But what this same experience tells us is that, without a firm understanding of what Nazism was all about and why that was a bad thing, exposure to Nazi icons can indeed provide fertile ground for those hateful ideas to take root again. Ultimately then, what we need is a way to reclaim the swastika so that it undermines fascism, without accidentally promoting it in the process.
Can this be done? Well of course it can! Thanks to roughly 70 years of social programming, western society has been conditioned to reject the swastika as a symbol of the evil ideology of fascism. If we hold to this core intention then what greater victory can there be over this evil than to tear from it its most essential image? We’re already well underway doing this to Hitler – most children these days identify him more as ‘the baddie with the stupid moustache you have to kill on level 5’ than any source of life goals. Why can’t we extend this process to the swastika as well? What greater victory could there be than to fly the swastika as its original meaning once again? A swastika over a rainbow gay pride flag. A swastika on promotions for multicultural events. Swastikas on a background of green to promote environmental awareness, and even one day perhaps, the Jewish community itself claiming the swastika for their own use in the final and greatest desecration of Hitler’s banner that could ever exist.
Much like labels, symbols only have meaning that we as a society give to them. Just as the swastika was once a symbol of peace and love before the Nazis perverted it, so too can our modern enlightened society take it back and give it better meaning once again. As with all ethical issues, context is king, and no effort to reclaim old symbols of hatred can succeed with without a firm understanding of why those old ideologies were, indeed, bad. Fortunately the west has never been short of this knowledge, and with work we can spread it to those nations untouched by the Nazi scourge. But with dedicated effort and the ceaseless spread of information that the internet provides, such understanding is practically certain given time.
For those that suffered through the horrors of Nazism, and for those that fight those same ideas today, the swastika may rightly inspire feelings of dread which I will never try to deny. But if our goal is to not only counter these toxic ideologies, but to wipe them from the face of the earth, then mere oppositions is not enough; we must reclaim the things that these movements took from us. The swastika is no exception.