Please note: This is a volatile enough subject that I must preemptively state that I’m not advocating for the display of hateful symbols. I present this topic only as food for thought.
For thousands of years, the humble swastika was a symbol of peace, prosperity, and good luck in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. This earliest known use of the ancient character dates back to 10,000 BC, in Mezine, Ukraine, where it was found in archaeological remains. For most of its existence, the swastika was regarded as a positive symbol promoting auspiciousness and bounty. But then came World War I, when the swastika was co-opted by other organizations. Then there was World War II, Adolf Hitler, and the Nazi Party, which carried out the Holocaust. Now, swastikas are regarded by most people in western culture as a symbol of terror, racism, and hatred.
In Germany today, it’s illegal to display swastikas or any other symbol related to Nazism. Many people from the west recoil when they see a swastika, even though it’s still revered in Eastern cultures.Yesterday, I read a news story about a ride at a German amusement park that opened in late July. It’s operated less than three weeks, but is now shut down because its design looks like a couple of swirling swastikas. The ride, called Eagle Fly, was designed by an Italian company and had just been installed at Tatzmania, an amusement park in the Black Forest town of Löffingen. The park’s owner, Rüdiger Braun, had not noticed the ride’s resemblance to swastikas when he made plans to have it built. When the unfortunate design was pointed out to him, Braun was quick to take the ride out of service, where it was reconfigured so that the gondolas no longer resemble swastikas. There will now be three gondolas per axle instead of four.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing that the ride is now reconfigured. Germans are understandably very sensitive about swastikas. It’s forbidden to display them in Germany, and someone no doubt would have complained about the design. Mr. Braun probably would have been fined and forced to change the design, anyway. However, when I was reading about this mishap, once again, I was reminded of how much emphasis we put on symbols and their ability to offend. I wondered if the ride’s designer had really intended the gondolas to be configured in such a way that they’d remind people of the Holocaust. I also wondered how many people immediately thought of Hitler when they saw the ride in operation. Obviously, Mr. Braun hadn’t noticed it himself.
I shared this article on Facebook. My German friend, Susanne, is very familiar with Tatzmania before it was named such. She is originally from Freiburg, and Tatzmania, which used to be called Schwarzwaldpark, is located not far from there. She wrote that Schwarzwaldpark used to be pretty awesome, but then it was purchased by new owners, who kind of ran it into the ground. She hoped that the new owner would bring the park back to its prior “super” level, although having a ride that resembles swirling swastikas may have gotten things off on the wrong foot.
Susanne shared another story with me about clothing racks at a Berlin outlet of the German store, Kik. The racks looked like swastikas, and a teenager had criticized it. Later, it was said that the teen was banned from the store for making that comment. Kik representatives later said that teen had not been banned and furthermore, the clothing racks were not meant to symbolize anything hateful. They were simply intended to hold up clothes. Officials from Kik also plainly stated that the company is opposed to racism, xenophobia, and neo-Nazism.
It occurred to me that even though I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed that the clothes racks were shaped like swastikas. Maybe it’s because I’m not Jewish. I also doubt that the people behind the racks’ design meant to offend more than they meant to present a practical design for displaying clothes to paying customers.On my old blog, I’ve written a couple of posts about how I’ve seen Europeans displaying the “stars and bars” version of the Confederate flag, especially on the Autobahns.
A few years ago, I saw several battle flags on display at a truck stop in northern Italy, not far from the Swiss border. One of my Italian friends explained that the Confederate battle flag has been adopted by some southern Italians who relate to it, not because they believe in slavery or white supremacy, but because of the “battle” between the northern and southern regions of Italy. They identify with the southern United States and its rivalry with the north.I also saw a Confederate battle flag in Ireland. It was on the back of our cab driver’s car. I doubt it had the same significance to him that it did to Bill and me. He probably just thought it was a cool symbol of rebellion. That symbol doesn’t mean as much to him because he’s Irish, and American history isn’t a priority to him. It would have been strange to tell him that the battle flag on his car is offensive to many Americans, even though I’m sure it got a lot of double takes from my countrymen. After all, Ireland isn’t my country, and I was a guest.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I think revising the attitudes behind hateful symbols is much more important than quashing the symbols themselves. In my opinion, symbols only have the power that people give to them. Does that mean I think it’s a wise thing for someone to display Confederate battle flags and swastikas willy nilly? No, it doesn’t. But I also think people should use common sense and determine context before they get too excited about some things.
This isn’t a new topic for me. I’ve written lots of times about how much I dislike the idea of banning words and burying symbols. I think all words have a use, even if the use is mostly negative. I’ve read too many slave narratives and listened to too much Stevie Wonder to be in favor of banning the so-called “n word”. Taken in context, that word has a purpose. It should never be used to hurt others, but it would be crazy to remove it from historical documents. That word has been used to hurt and denigrate Black people for hundreds of years. No, we shouldn’t continue to use it to hurt and denigrate, but erasing it from history would also be wrong. It’s an ugly part of history, but it’s still a part of history. If we remove it simply because it’s offensive, then people might forget about its impact.
But also consider that even words like “fag” and “retard”, considered “hateful” in some societies today, also had practical uses before they were co-opted by the hateful. In fact, in countries other than the United States, those words are used all the time and aren’t considered offensive. They don’t mean the same thing in England or Italy as they do in the USA. And if we ban those words and symbols, those groups will simply come up with new ones.I did share my basic thoughts on the swirling swastika ride on Facebook.
I think one of my Jewish friends was slightly offended that I wasn’t more outraged by it. I certainly mean no disrespect to my Jewish friends. The Holocaust was absolutely a horrible time in history. But swastikas were ripped off by Nazis. For thousands of years, they had no negative connotation at all. If the world doesn’t end in the next couple of hundred years, there may come a time when people no longer see it as offensive. It will be just another part of history.
I think many westerners think only about their own cultures and perspectives when they see or hear certain things. It may be helpful to broaden one’s perspective regarding words and symbols before allowing them to be too upsetting. Isn’t there enough legitimately awful stuff in the world to be offended about, rather than something that brings to mind something offensive, even if it really wasn’t meant to be?