One of the worst things about a swastika being carved into the wall of an elevator in the U.S. State Department this week is that it isn’t surprising. Already in 2021, elementary, middle, and high schools, universities, parks, playgrounds, and private properties across America have been vandalized with swastikas. It’s part of a global problem that’s been called the “swastika epidemic.”
Why is this happening, and what does it say about the state of Holocaust education?
The swastika’s strange history holds the answers to these questions.
The West appropriated it in the 19th century from religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, which had used it as a divine symbol for thousands of years. In Germany, it attracted far-right nationalists who were sifting ancient civilizations for traces of “Germanness.” One was Lanz von Liebenfels, an eccentric monk who began flying a swastika flag from his castle in the early 1900s. He also led a sect called “The New Templar Order” and published a seedy magazine “for masculine blondes.” Radicals like him used the swastika to symbolize the hereditary racial purity of a near-extinct race of supermen they called the “Aryans.” More often, it was used as a mystical good luck symbol, similar to the four-leaf clover or the yin-yang sign today. In the first two decades of the 20th century, it was common in sports insignia, and in adverts, company logos, and greetings cards.
The swastika was hardly an original choice when the Nazi Party adopted it in 1920. It also created a problem. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler pompously described it as a symbol for “the victory of Aryan mankind.” Like all populist leaders, though, he relied on a brand to win supporters. The swastika was the most distinctive part of his brand, and opportunistic German citizens cashed in on it. They used it in unofficial souvenirs from beer glasses to matchboxes to strollers. The Party thought that such things were tacky, and that they contradicted Nazi ideology. They took the issue seriously enough to introduce a new law “For the Protection of National Symbols” in 1933. The law was vaguely worded and weakly enforced, and a cottage industry of swastika kitsch continued to flourish.
Farcical situations like this characterized the Nazi era. This has been almost completely forgotten in the 21st century. Perhaps that’s because we imagine the Nazis as we encounter them in pop culture: efficient, ruthless, and of one mind.
All graffiti undermines buildings and signs, but the swastika has a unique ability to cause pain. Like a virus, it proliferates because conditions allow it to do so. Populism has become normal across the U.S. political spectrum. Issues are oversimplified, division is stoked, and unthinking, die-hard support is encouraged. This will always whet the public’s appetite for distinctive political brands and symbols. Antisemitism is growing in thought and in action. Stories about anti-vaccination protestors wearing yellow stars are as routine as stories about Jews being assaulted in the street.
The swastika’s use in contemporary pop culture compounds all this. From Derek Vinyard’s swastika tattoo in American History X (1998) to the swastika sculpture on the Nazi Party’s New York headquarters in The Man in the High Castle (2020), it’s become a generic but ominous symbol for strength and renegade outsiders. This helps to explain why it shows up in the most unlikely places. (In 2020, Little Caesars fired two chefs for making one from pepperoni slices on a pizza in Ohio.) It also helps to explain why some people feel an impulse to use it in graffiti. At best, it’s a deeply misguided attempt to show resistance against a supposed “elite.” At worst, it doubles as an explicit show of antisemitism and racism.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken (who’s Jewish himself) says the swastika graffiti in the U.S. State Department is being investigated, and that “we must be relentless in standing up and rejecting” antisemitism. Strong words – but what practical steps can be taken?
To disempower the swastika and Nazism itself, America must urgently overhaul the way it teaches the Holocaust. We need new approaches that cast a spotlight on the weaknesses at Nazism’s core. It was always a fragile movement, destined to fail. But for as long as it retains the antiheroic aura bestowed on it by pop culture, we can expect its primary symbol, the swastika, to continue making unwelcome appearances in everyday life.