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talkingI once had the unsettling experience of being served by a guy in Tesco who had a swastika tattoo on the back of his hand. Not that the experience itself was unsettling. He asked if I wanted help to pack my bags and when he handed me my receipt he politely told me about fuel savings for my non-existent car. In other words: it was a typical Tesco checkout experience. It just had more than the usual amount of Nazi symbolism.

I was reminded of this as I read about Tim’s experiences with the football fans singing their anti-Semitic songs. As shocked as I was to learn that such things still happen, it wasn’t much of a surprise. People who think the gas chambers of Auschwitz provide a funny end rhyme for a football chant might well be the kind of people to wear a swastika tattoo and vice versa. Trying to understand why they sing about the gas chambers or wear the swastika on their hands is another matter…

History is largely a mental state. Unless personal to us, actively thinking about it rarely gives us pain. Quickly think or read the words ‘Rwanda genocide’ and what do you genuinely feel? Unless you were there or had family involved in that that atrocity, the words probably makes you feel no more or less than the phrase ‘Renault Clio’ or ‘A.C. Milan’. Only when you think about that genocide with more focus do you produce a physical response: a chill run down your spine. Look at a photograph of the mass graves and you might have a more physical response — revulsion, shock, — but even that is different to the reality of being there. You can perhaps intellectually position yourself in a place where your emotions lie shallow on the surface, where individual stories somehow parallel your own. Tales that end ‘and that was the last time he saw his father alive’ would touch any of us who have lost our fathers. Suddenly, you feel emotions about events that are far removed from your reality.

Yet all of these take acts of will. You generally have to think about history before it really affects you. The rest of the time, history is an abstraction and it’s only through social agreements that we deal with them with any degree of tact. The child talking loudly during a remembrance service learns to be quiet if they’re scolded.

Another accepted convention of our civil society is reverence for the Holocaust. I am neither Jewish nor have relatives who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Yet I know that respect is due. Education, upbringing, and a sense of common humanity demands that. I know the facts and even if the numbers are beyond my comprehension, I understand the significance of numbers that are beyond comprehension.

All of this is perhaps just a long way of saying that many of the people who wear swastika tattoos or sing anti-Semitic songs really don’t understand or feel the history they’re invoking. Others, of course, do know and there’s really very little we can say beyond that they are probably sociopathic or worse. We point our fingers at those that willfully insult and intend to hurt. Yet, at the same time, how often do we do something similar but on a far less objectionable scale?

Do people gathering around the bonfire to burn their traditional Guy Fawkes really understand the anti-Popish origins of the tradition? Could they conceive of the horror of actually burning a man alive at the stake? A few years ago, mannequins of Jimmy Saville were being thrown on bonfires as if a nation was exorcising its demons. Yet it was another abstraction. We laughed. It seems like a suitable end for some awful shell suit and blond wig. But did people really want to throw Jimmy Saville on a bonfire? And if you answer that you did, then have you considered what that would involve? The sights, the sounds?

I wrote recently about the habit of comparing things we dislike to the Nazi regime. Seinfeld has the famous ‘Soup Nazi’ but there are many more commonplace examples. I’ve been particularly drawn to the number of times I’ve seen Hitler’s name littered throughout debates about Donald Trump. It bothered me so much that I recently started to spend my evenings slogging my way through all 1500 pages of William Shirer’s ‘The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich’. It had occurred to me that I largely knew Hitler’s biography but I had not actually read the kind of account that would let me to argue for or against the proposal that ‘Trump is like Hitler’. How could I condemn people for using Hitler as a reference point if I didn’t fully understand that comparison?

It is easy to be ignorant of history. History is unknowable. At some point, we have to acknowledge that facts have gone missing but that end is no reason not to begin. Yet, too often, words like ‘Hitler’ and ‘Nazi’ litter our commonplace speech merely as tokens of something offensive. In terms of depth of understanding, they are no better than the lout who wears the swastika on his hand simply to say ‘I wish to offend you’.

There is a difference and I don’t make an equivalence between those seeking to offend and those trying to express their how offended they feel by Trump. Yet I am saying that both are reductive, discarding history and replacing it with a signifier which is, in itself, trivial. Yet isn’t that shameful and isn’t it also dangerous to make our most dreadful history into something so banal? Has the swastika become so meaningless that a guy can go through life with it tattooed on his hand and end up working for Tesco? How trivial has our understanding of recent history become that we treat Hitler’s name so lightly? To describe Donald Trump as being ‘like Hitler’ is meant to demean Trump but, surely, doesn’t it really elevate Hitler?

It elevates Hitler because even Trump’s enemies know his ‘crimes’, if that’s what they are, are trivial compared to the crimes of the Fuhrer. What has surprised me the most about Shirer’s analysis of Hitler’s rise is, really, that the politics read almost as an irrelevance. The real story of the Third Reich is the story of Hitler and the thugs, villains, and outright psychopaths with which he surrounded himself. Hitler was not simply a product of his context. Nor was he an absolute evil. He was a warped human being whose passions, vices, dreams, disappointments, hatreds, and loves all contributed to his rise and downfall. He was a peculiar child, adolescent, and young man; already victim to a pathological hatred of Jewry and obsessed with German nationhood. His sense of his own power was thwarted when he unsuccessfully applied to study art at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He joined the army where he was wounded (recent studies possibly confirm the old song regarding his lost testicle). He decided that his future lay in politics. He developed skills and became a great orator, often making impassioned speeches that lasted hours. He was also a gifted propagandist, having a hand in the symbolism of the Nazi party.  He knew he could use the party to further his dreams of a unified Germany, made weak by the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles. His plan involved setting up a structure of government in opposition, including his own security forces, amounting to an insurgent movement which led to his imprisonment. In prison he wrote the first rambling volume of Mein Kampf. His career would have ended there had the Great Depression not happened and the ruling elite not made some disastrous decisions that allowed the National Socialists to rapidly expand their vote. The German people looking for people to blame bought into the rhetoric offered by the National Socialists and it was on the back of this that Hitler rose to power.

The Nazis systematically murdered six million Jews and five million non-Jews. Surely that is enough detail to know that Donald Trump is nothing like Adolf Hitler.

We are right to be sickened by the louts singing anti-Semitic songs and the guys with the swastika tattoos but surely we should also be careful not to make Hitler banal. We think we know history but in no way do attempt to feel it. If we did, we perhaps wouldn’t say the glib things we say and would feel greater shame when the greatest crime of the 20th century is used for fun or insult.


David Waywell writes and cartoons at his blog The Spine.


11 Comments on "Swastika-shaped thinking"

  1. David, an interesting and thoughtful article. I have often felt the same though it really depends on one’s paradigm in relation to the positives and negatives of Herr Hitler. However we should all remember that what make Herr Hitler powerful is the support of vast numbers of people. Mostly ordinary people who were sucked-into that evil and sociopathic political machine that was the Nazi party.

    I have often wondered how I would have behaved had I been a white middle-class German with a reasonable education during the Nazi rise and fall. I guess I’ll never know for certain but the ordinary German on the Berlin omnibus was probably more like his opposite number in London than were other Continentals at that time.

    • Thanks David. Not sure paradigms come into it. By any measure, Hitler was a fount of pure negativity. Even his ‘love’ drove his niece to suicide. However, I agree that it’s better to remember that he was a human with all the complications that entails. The sense that ‘it can happen to us too’ is an important lesson and possibly the only real lesson.

      Germany being ‘sucked into that evil’ makes it sound very absolute. The concepts of good and evil lull us into a very simple model of thinking. Surely there are infinite shades of grey and our concept of those shades of morality can be shifted when people operate in a large groups. It’s the Derren Brown trick of mind control. How many drink drivers succumbed to that encouragement ‘Come on, just one more drink, it’s Christmas’ line from a well meaning friend? Nazi Germany would have existed in a state of constant mental conditioning, reinforcement, propaganda, self-interest, mental conditioning, as well as ignorance. I think all people of all cultures are capable of falling into a pattern of moral compromise. America has Guantanamo Bay, which Obama said he’d close, yet here we are with Republican candidates running on a policy of keeping it open and keeping the weatherboarding going. Of course, there is no moral equivalence between Nazi German and modern America but can we really argue that German was somehow a nation of people sucked into evil? They were surely a nation of people to whom notions of morality had become badly calibrated over the course of a decade. We judge them against ourselves, as though we’ve put our hand into the Nazi flame and immediately snatched it back recognising it for what it is. Yet hold your hand in that heat as it’s slowly increased and you can withstand the pain longer. That, I suppose, is what happened to the Germans.

      Comparisons between nations wouldn’t hold. Biologically no difference, no predestination or moral programming in their (or our) genetic sequence. Yet culturally Germans were very different. Their notion of ‘nation’ was different which probably made them susceptible to Hitler’s message of nationalism and, possibly, the subservience to a state authority.

  2. David, For me Nazi and Germany go together like peaches and cream. That despite attempts to rewrite history with the Germans as the unwilling victims of Nazism (which I must say irritates the hell out of me). NDSAP, National Socialist German Workers Party. Not so catchy now is it?, hard to call an American a German or even worse a socialist, ditto for a muslim fundamentalist, thats the problem with acronyms – the meaning is lost. The NDSAP contrary to what you might expect was indeed a broadly socialist workers movement when it started and you could argue that given that when it gained power the party took control of industrial production and distribution of goods that it was indeed a socialist party. Unlike Trump Hitler spoke warmly of muslims, hey hang on a minute, Jeremy Corbyn likes muslims and wants greater state intervention. Trying to distill history so people will take notice of what is being said and not find it boring is a dangerous thing to do, 30 years of the BBC version of WW2 has led to a really lopsided understanding of the conflict and the period preceding it.

    Shirers book is entertaining, (he was a journalist after all not a historian) but he was limited by the material available at the time which means there are inaccuracies. Just for example in one instance he states that Ludendorff cut off Hitler after the putsch, thirty years later records emerged which showed that in fact he continued to visit him in prison. Not his fault of course but inaccurate. nonetheless. I would recommend Kershaws double biography of Hitler as the best work around on Hitler to date, but that would be another 1200 pages or so for you to read i’m afraid.

    • Thanks Rob. Peaches and cream? You mean it could only happen to the Germans or that Nazi thought was somehow harmonious with the German mindset? Isn’t that a dangerous thought, though I think you might be partly right? I don’t want repeat the argument I’ve just made to David but, even if there was something in the mindset of Germans before, say, 1930, that made them susceptible to the Nazi message, doesn’t that take away our culpability? Perhaps ‘culpability’ isn’t the right word, though I’d point out that not everybody outside Germany was for war in 1939. We tend to think of 1939 as inevitable when some wanted to appease Hitler. Was that really impossible? Who is to say that they wouldn’t have carried that appeasement on once it was agreed? Isn’t this the argument we now make about ISIS or, indeed, the broader problem with Islamic fundamentalism? How, for example, do we treat the Saudis when they behead young boys to make political points or lash bloggers within an inch of their lives? We are now talking with Iran and some politicians are talking about keeping Assad in power, despite his use of chemical weapons. What about those people who excuse the views of Palestinians who, when asked about the Holocaust, turn it around to say that the Israelis are doing the same to the Palestinians?

      I don’t have answers to any of these questions except to say that Nazism being a peculiarly German problem is right but also wrong in that we are all prone to warped ideologies which drive us to make crass/bad/evil arguments.

      Of course, the problem is that we rapidly moralize ourselves into a deep hole and we’d end up cutting off diplomatic relations with most of the Middle East, thereby handing it over to the Russians who wouldn’t share our qualms.

      My point, however, is that aren’t we all making these moral decisions, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aren’t easy. For instance, how many people died trying to cross the Med today? Yesterday? This week or last month? We don’t know. But are we bad people for not knowing? Or are we trapped inside a history that is so abstract and unknowable that we keep our eyes fixed six feet ahead of us and just try to keep going? Easy to argue these things after the fact when the Holocaust is so apparent but I’m just willing to accept that inside that history, as it unfolded, it would not have been that easy to understand or rationalise.

      Thanks for the recommendations. Hadn’t seen the Kershaw book but I was limited with what I had lying around. Nearly bought the ‘New History’ by Michael Burleigh but since I had the Shirer book, I went with that so save my £££.

      • David, What I mean is that Nazism was a German nationalist movement, with at the heart of it peculiarities that were distinct to Germany at a given time, it wasn’t Italian Facism or Spanish Falangism it was German Nazism. The dire consequences of it’s rise are also directly related to Germany, if the Nazis had grown and come to power in Belgium for instance their impact on the world would have been minimal.
        If someone calls Donald Trump a Nazi what do they mean?, do they mean he believes in reversing the treaty of Versailles?,that he’s big on building autobahns?, that he wants to set up cruises around Baltic for his supporters? or that he want’s to remove the human rights of Jews and eventually exterminate them? in all cases it is inaccurate and feeble labelling and when put this way seems ridiculous, which it is. As the link between Nazism and Germany 1920-45 becomes eroded so does understanding of what it actually is and it is increasingly used as an unhelpful label to denigrate anyone with supposed right wing views, though as I said previously the Nazis were not a right wing party per se. That is why for me Nazi and Germany must always go together.

        The Burleigh book is decent David, it is interesting in that it highlights just how chaotic and disorganised the Nazi party was once it got to power. If you haven’t read it already an oldie but goodie is The Origins of The Second World War by AJP Taylor, quite a thought provoking book which when published was very controversial, it asserts that almost from the signing of the treaty of versailles another war was inevitable a sentiment shared by General Pershing who in 1924 said.

        “We never really let the Germans know who won the war. They are being told that their army was stabbed in the back, betrayed, that their army had not been defeated. The Germans never believed they were beaten. It will have to be done all over again….”

        • Thanks, as always, Rob. All nationalisms are surely unique and characterised by the peculiarities of the nations that suffer them. British Nazism would have been very different to the German one, not least because we’d call it something else and we’d have different places we want to conquer to re-establish our greater Britain, or however it would be described. Perhaps we’d have gone for the land that used to belong to the Duke of Normandy and we’d have demanded all of Ireland. The greater point, however, isn’t that our Nazism would be different but that we would not be / are not immune to those dangers. Listening to people talk, I often wonder if they think they’re somehow better than other people in history who have succumbed to these hateful ideologies. Yet the seeds are surely there if you look carefully enough.

          As for Trump: people don’t mean anything beyond some inarticulate grunt of ‘he’s bad news’ and even then they aren’t entirely sure why. They simply want to abuse him but by using Hitler’s name, they actually continue the process by which the horrors of the Third Reich are reduced in severity. The dangers of totalitarianism won’t come by something as obvious as a Donald Trump but something as pervasive as the Twitter mob that accept no reason beyond their own certainty in their liberal righteousness. It’s the only point where I disagree with your regarding Germany. Absolutely, a product of Germany but that doesn’t mean we should simply say ‘Oh, that happens over there and could never happen here’. I think these dangers are universal and whatever facets of our culture have saved us from them in the past (British satire, for example, and ability to laugh at the establishment) should be preserved in the now.

          I already have the AJP Taylor so I might break my Shirer slog with a bit of that. I notice it’s only a few hundred pages.

          Interesting quote from Pershing. The idea that a nation has to be properly beaten in order to have peace sounds sensible. I suppose it’s the capitulation of Iraq that surprised everybody but really disguised a tactical retreat and became a war that will last decades rather than a few years.

          • Of course we aren’t immune here to the dangers of totalitarianism, racism, anti-semitism and rabid nationalism David, indeed we are already halfway to demonising our muslim population but I’m not sure making an apples with oranges comparison using the word Nazi helps things, it just allows people to dismiss the argument. Just ignore me though it’s a little pet irritation that I like to nit pick over I’m afraid.

            Pershing was a great opponent of signing an armistice, of course his army and country hadn’t been fighting for 4 years and been bled white so his position is understandable.

          • I think we’re actually agreeing about same things but in different words. My thoughts about Hitler were really an extension of the piece I’ve already written about the word ‘Nazi’. The problem isn’t that people compare apples and oranges but, when they do, they start to attribute the qualities of the apple to the orange. By saying Trump is like Hitler, they also say that Hitler was like Trump. The business of historians is to find patterns among the mess of reality but every theory and explanation is a reduction. Over time those reductions all get reduced until we have an oversimplification such as ‘Hitler’ representing something ‘evil’. The problems start when people start treating those deep reduction as being the same as the reality they represent. It stops them arguing rationally about the object in front of them.

  3. David, I think the weakness in your analysis is to treat ‘The Germans’ as one people, with the same cultural, social and racial ingredients. I read as a young man a theory that Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism was a reaction to a section of the Jewish world who had lived well to the East of Germany and who were socially deprived, and rather badly behaved. I don’t know how much truth there is in that but there’s nowt as queer as folk. For example, I don’t like any girl or woman called ‘Gertrude’. All because of an experience I had as a boy. Completely irrational, but Man tends to be, at times.

  4. Possibly problems like “swastika shaped thinking” occurs these days because of the lack of history teaching in schools. I was fortunate enough to go to a good school where all of the teaching, no matter what the subject, was in depth. Not only were there endless lists of dates to learn but we also studied WHY things happened. So, as a result, I would not think of drawing a swastika on the back of my hand because I know what it represents.

    Anti-Semitism though is a different animal and I suspect that it has always been with us in one form or another. How far back do you want to go? In Shakespeare we have the character of Shylock demanding his pound of flesh, that’s a good five hundred years or so for starters. For some reason I cannot fathom the Jews have always been a target and it’s an institutionalised blame system that is now deeply rooted into the pages of history.

  5. Was my last comment post deleted or was there an accident with it?

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