Nazi symbols no more than harsh reminders

On Sunday night in a Pierson-wide e-mail, Master Harvey Goldblatt informed the students about a swastika and an SS symbol written on an Old Campus tree in packed snow. “Let us ALL agree that such behavior is completely INTOLERABLE,” he wrote in the e-mail.

I disagree with Master G. In the modern context, we should not rush to assume that the author or wearer of a historically evil symbol endorses that evil. I come from Estonia, and whenever I see a T-shirt that says CCCP (Russian abbreviation for the Soviet Union), I tell myself that the Yalie in the shirt probably does not, after all, endorse the regime that destroyed my grandparents’ homes and sent their families to labor camps in Siberia. If you wear a hammer-and-sickle T-shirt, I kindly assume you are either stupid or mean to say, “Remember the evil – and do not let it happen again.” I give the same benefit of doubt to the authors of the snow swastika.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as a right to not be offended. But I have often wondered what would happen if I one day wore a T-shirt with a swastika on it. People would probably attack me verbally and physically, and possibly I would get expelled from Yale. Strangely, the symbols of an equally evil regime, the Soviet Union, are ubiquitous and make nobody flinch.

But in truth, the hammer and the sickle and the letters CCCP and KGB (abbreviation for the Soviet Union secret police) should scare us infinitely more than the swastika and SS. The regime symbolized by the swastika was toppled more than 60 years ago. On the government level and the individual level, Germans today are aware, ashamed and apologetic of what took place in their country two or three generations in the past.

But Russia, the core of the Soviet Union, openly regards the downfall of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster in recent Russian history. Moscow provokes conflicts with its neighbors and tries to restore control over former satellite states. The increasingly popular youth organization Nashi is eerily reminiscent of the Hitler-Jugend. Russian schoolchildren are not taught about the murderous history of their country, and the Russian people tend to nostalgically remember the Soviet Union as a period of power and glory.

In her award-winning scholarly book “Gulag,” Anne Applebaum argues that it is time for the Western World to realize that the Soviet regime was as evil as the Nazi one. Dramatic films and books, and decades of unimpeded historical research, have hammered it into everyone’s heads that Nazis were evil. Somehow, the Soviet Union is still seen as quaint and comical, as a good ideology foolishly executed. The cruelty of the Soviet Union, which in my opinion sums up greater than that of Nazi Germany, gets overlooked by the Western consciousness.

The question of whether Hitler or Stalin was more evil is not only a matter of historical curiosity. During World War II, my country, Estonia, was first conquered by the Soviet Union, then the Nazis, and then the Soviet Union again. In the minds of the current Russian government and much of the Russian population, the Soviet army liberated the Baltic countries from the Nazis. The “ungrateful” Balts, however, unanimously regard the Soviets as their occupants. And disagreement over the past translates into violence today. In April 2007, hell broke loose on the streets of Tallinn as ethnic Russians protested the Estonian government’s decision to remove an old statue that celebrated the “heroes” of the Soviet army.

Unlike Germany, Russia today seems unaware, unashamed and unapologetic about the suffering it inflicted on the world and on its own people during the 20th century. The world must condemn the Soviet Union in the same way that Nazi Germany is condemned, or else Russia will repeat its past – it is evident it has the ambition to do so.

For starters, let us treat the swastika in the same way as we do the hammer and the sickle. We can either let the symbols serve as provocative reminders of past evils or call in scandal and summon another panel of hate at the sight of them.

Kristina Mois is a senior in Pierson College.

Comments

  • bgants

    The author's historical/cultural point about the differences between the ways old regimes are viewed in Russia and Germany is both well-argued and interesting, but the argument with respect to the swastika is flat wrong.

    I've never worn a hammer and sickle T-shirt, but my best guess from observing those who do is that their intent is not to create some kind of powerful historic reminder that will deter people from becoming Stalinists. Rather, there was a time in this country when a radical subset of (mostly young) Americans held a romanticized attachment to the Soviet Union or, more commonly, figures like Che Guevara. Those who wear the shirts today are typically hearkening back to that old 60's/70's radicalism. It's stupid - it's always been stupid, it was stupid then - and not many people do it, but there is cultural precedent for it.

    There is, however, no cultural precedent for glorifying Nazism or the swastika in our country. That's why there is a difference between wearing a hammer and sickle shirt and a swastika shirt - there is a measure of ambiguity in the former but none in the latter. If you draw a swastika or wear a swastika shirt, it is an unequivocal endorsement of genocidal anti-Semitism. Stop looking for the ambiguity here - it doesn't exist. The meaning of a symbol is, by definition, embedded in a cultural context - it's not determined by a dispassionate, rational assessment of which regimes did what. In our culture, a swastika in unambiguous.

    Moreover, there is no reason it shouldn't stay that way. The romanticization and glorification of Soviet symbols like the hammer and sickle always have and continue to OBSCURE recognition of the awful crimes the Soviets perpetrated. The failure to recognize such crimes is exactly what the author is complaining about here - but then why does she want to transfer that confusion and obfuscation over to another symbol of oppression and tyranny, and genocide as well?

    Let the swastika stand as the hated symbol of evil that it is. Let us denounce it and all those who use it. Most importantly, let us take incidents like the one that occurred this weekend as reminders that while we have come far in overcoming anti-Semitism in this country, we haven't come nearly far enough, and there is so much more to do. The use of a symbol like the swastika is unequivocally hateful - but by calling the hate what it is and standing up against it, we can use these incidents as an opportunity to move our society forward, and thereby to defeat the bigots who try to spread hate. If we instead confuse these symbols by drawing bogus analogies, we will have lost that opportunity.

  • JA
  • Kristina Mois

    No glorification of nazis in your country? Check this out: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4861099270516462721&hl=en

  • Anonymous

    You make a good point, but the fact that the Nazi regime is over doesn't diminish the gravity of the act. I think things like this should remind us of past and present wrongs and get us to deal with them now. If you see the KGB symbol somewhere, you should say something about it. It's when you don't say anything that people think it's okay.

  • anon

    Or, to use a more controversial analogy, Che Guevara shirts to Cuban exiles.

  • JS

    to #2
    Left-facing and right-facing swastikas are completely different:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swastika

    And the one for Nazis has to be tilted 45 degree.

  • Beth

    Bgants, I think you said it very well. Katrina, you are right to point out that the Western memory pays less attention to the evil of the Soviet regime than to the evil of the Nazi regime. That should change. But you are wrong to suggest that the swastika is as ignorantly benign an invocation as the hammer and sickle. Over the past 65 years, the swastika has come to serve as a shorthand for hatred. The hammer and sickle has not.

    And JA, in regards swastika on SML: My suspicion is that it was inscribed in 1930 when SML was designed and constructed, before the Nazi party and its symbol had gained much international prominence. But the swastika has a much longer history than the Nazi party, before it was apppropriated for hatred: it is an ancient Hindu symbol (hence its Sanskrit name) and it stood for luck and good will.

  • TA

    #2:

    The symbol dates back to the Neolithic period, and was used as a decorative symbol for a few thousand years before the Nazis got ahold of it. The swastika above SML isn't even the same symbol: it faces the opposite direction from the Nazi swastika. Furthermore, the Nazi swastika is tilted 45 degrees, and has longer outer arms.

    (Anyone know enough about SML or symbology to identify the origin of the particular swastika above SML?)

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps we are giving too much credit to those who would wear a CCCP t-shirt. They are probably intending to sport such markings with some kind of detached irony. They should be educated about the history of the regime for which they are displaying support.

  • Anonymous

    Kristina: pointing to a documentary about a radical fascist group of Americans does not really show that Nazism is glorified in American. Soviet symbols have become "hip" -- check out Urban Outfitters.
    I in fact bought a "CCCP" shirt in 10th grade from that store, not knowing what it meant. I then looked it up online and never wore it. Still, when I tell my friends about it, as an example of how easy it is to accidentally wind up with something highly offensive, many do not even know what CCCP refers to. I doubt that many wonder what the meaning of the swastika is.

  • Tilted

    #6 makes a good point… doesn't the Nazi swastika have to be at a 45-degree angle? And wasn't the Old Campus swastika at a 90-degree angle?

    Maybe there are just roving bands of drunk, nationalistic Hindus on Old Campus.

  • Tilted

    #6 makes a good point… doesn't the Nazi swastika have to be at a 45-degree angle? And wasn't the Old Campus swastika at a 90-degree angle?

    Maybe there are just roving bands of drunk, nationalistic Hindus on Old Campus.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree strongly with the previous writer: #6 makes hardly any point at all.

    Yes, the swastika has to be tilted and rotated to make it a Nazi symbol, but even if you see one that hasn't been tilted and rotated, you still consider it a Nazi symbol. A bad example, I know, but in history textbooks nobody writes that "A swastika, tilted by 45 degrees and rotated, became a symbol of Nazism." Instead they'll write that "A swastika became a symbol of Nazism."
    Yes, factually a Nazi swastika is a traditional swastika modified, but the the absolute majority of people will still perceive any swastika as a nazist swastika.

  • Ronald Pulaski Dwight

    As a Pole and American, I was extremely pleased to see this intelligent and balanced comment. Poland suffered as well from 300 years of Russian/Soviet totalitarian aggression, which makes the Nazi period pale by comparison. Russia has made no apologies - even for executing 15,000 Polish officers in the forests of Katyn. The Russians tried to blame it on the Germans. Central Europeans who bore the Soviet and Russian yoke would agree with the comments.