Saturday, April 23, 2005

What The Swastika Means To Me

My last blog entry about racism in the early L.A. punk scene got quite a bit of feedback and I'd like to clarify and expand on one of the subjects: the use of the swastika by punks.

Ever since reading the Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank when I was about 10 years old, I've had strong negative associations with the swastika. It's pretty much inextricably connected with the horrors of the Nazi regime in my mind. Even to this day, when I'm watching an Indian film and the swastika image appears, I have to remind myself that it is an ancient symbol and appeared in various cultures throughout the world long before it was employed by the Nazis. Unfortunately, for my generation and our parents, it was redefined during the middle years of the 20th century.

Some people mentioned wearing the swastika as a way to take away the negative power of the symbol. I understand that idea. I suggested in another blog that we might choose to redefine sexist or racist terms by using them in a way which empowers, rather than demeans, the subject. However, the Nazi emblem of the swastika is something much more than an epithet. Unlike derogatory language, which we seek to eliminate, the Nazi swastika and what it represented should not be eliminated, precisely because we need to remember what it once meant. For the same reason that we do not raze Auschwitz and sow the ground with salt, we must not try to do away with the Nazi swastika's negative connotations. We must remember that part of history, not redefine it. To use the swastika merely to shock people is to trivialize the meaning of that symbol. With each trivialization, we lose a little bit of that memory until it becomes a distant reality, another page in the history books which are filled with lessons that we never seem to learn.

I'd like to say that I understand the interest in Hitler and the Nazi regime. I've long been interested in Nazi history and I've read quite a few books about it; I even took a course in college about it. I grasp the incredible power of their imagery. Hitler and Goebbels were, for lack of a better term, fascinating personalities to me and the way the Nazi Party rose to power and orchestrated a bid for world domination is still astonishing to me. There is a great deal to be learned from studying that period of time. Even though it was and remains a fascinating period to me, I was never tempted to wear a Nazi swastika. Everytime I see it, it makes me uncomfortable and a little bit angry. I know that there were punks who wore it precisely for that reason, to provoke and shock, but there were others - like the Clash - who felt that it was inextricably linked to the Nazi attempt to eradicate an entire race of people and that it should not be taken lightly. Joe Strummer once said, "I think people ought to know that we're anti-fascist, anti-violence and anti-racist. We're against ignorance." I agree with that statement and I think that using the Nazi swastika simply as a joke (Prince Harry) or as a means of shocking people (Sid Vicious) is wrong. To put it succinctly, I'll use the words of my pal, Phranc: "Take off your swastikas, you're making me angry!"


motomama said...

Thanks for that post, Alice. Very thought provoking. As a Jew, I cringe every time I see one - I have always thought there are better and more creative ways to be "shocking." I wrote in my blog once how I found this "movement" of people who want to reclaim the symbol for it's original meaning and have tattooed it on themselves for that purpose. I say bullshit - it will take a good 500 years before that can happen again. My late father fought in WWII and toured the camps and I have met several Holocaust survivors throughout my life. When I think of those horrors, it pisses me off that a symbol of that horrific time in history is used for purposes of a shocking fashion statement.

Anonymous said...

I second Motomama's comments. The bitter irony of tattooing oneself with the emblem of those who tattooed our ancestors before exterminating them is just too much to bear. I'm getting angry just thinking about it.

Sara said...

There's a ton of shit that has and continues to piss me off about my fellow punks, skins, and heshheads. I can't get so irritated about ignorance (what you don't know is not always your responsibility - it becomes so when you are unwilling to learn), but stupidity and walking comfortably washed in white privilege has long been a source of frustration for me. Like you, I've had a long history in the scene. I grew up in the SF/East Bay scene in the late 70s and thru the 80s watching the cultural shifts make their way through and amongst the various clubs, parks, and streets of our youth. I've always noted the contradictory symbolism here and there. I remember once seeing a young Black skinhead thrashing around at a Beatnigs show with a Skrewdriver shirt on at The Farm. Images such as this stay with me.
My background is Jewish, Cherokee, Irish, and Romany/Gypsy. Plus, I'm a fag so the swastika is a part of my history whether I choose to acknowledge it or not. Back in the day when skinheads were White AND Black, and Chicano, Jewish, and Indigenous - back in the day when to be a skinhead was a mark of the working class - the swastika was briefly off the radar save for Vicious's armband and the occasional moke who wanted to shock. With the advent of Metzger and WAR in our community things changed. You remember this. Our ranks became violently separated and fisticuffs flew not out of drunken stupidity but out of hate and predjudice. Stories of being jumped by our own brood (fellow punks and skins) were the stories of the day and the swastika symbolized that break.
So the problem I have with it is twofold. First, the sheer horrific history of it but also the way in which it came to represent the beginning of the fall of our scene. For me, the swastika represents terror. It means that an ancient symbol of varying meanings can so violently shift that its present meaning can not only eclipse all others, but it can be used to mark the beliefs of and unification of so many people supporting that hatred so many years later.
A huge part of punk rock has always been to shock; to redefine symbols of beauty; to reshape what sounds pleasant to the ears; to reinvigorate a certain kind of passion in youth. But I would argue vehemently that if you're going to shock, send a fucking message (i.e. Holiday in Cambodia) rather than shock for shock's sake (Sid's leather daddy t-shirts).
So I'm on board here, Alice - and thanks for posting it. You give pause to think and that's about as punk as you can get.

rexcurrydotnet said...

Although the swastika was an ancient symbol for "good luck" in India, that is not why it was used by the monstrous Nazis. Under the Nazis it was called a "Hakenkreuz," not a "swastika." made the astounding historical discovery that the swastika was sometimes used to represent overlapping "S" letters for "socilalism" under the German National Socialists. People forget that "Nazi" means "National Socialist German Workers' Party." It is the site that changed the way people think about the swastika.

It is also the site that made the news-breaking discovery that the straight-arm salute of the horrid National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis) came from the USA's original pledge of allegiance in government schools (as written by a national socialist in the USA) and also from the military salute. It did not come from ancient Rome. and see more photos at & The website changed the way people think about the pledge.

Some critics make the absurd argument that during the 25 year existence of the horrid Party no Nazi noticed the "S" shapes nor attached any meaning (nor anyone in the SS Division). They also ignore the fact that the Party's leader was an artist.