The Prince and the Swastika


 The international furor caused by Britain’s Prince Harry sporting a Nazi armband at a fancy dress party is perhaps surprising to those of his compatriots who do not feel themselves to be represented by the royal family in any way, and are not surprised when the British tabloid press catches one of its members acting stupidly. Yet the continuing concerns and discussions caused by this incident, centered on the swastika symbol itself, warrant discussion here.

The timing of the Prince’s ignorant and irresponsible display could not have been worse, occurring only two weeks before an event was held at Auschwitz to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the death camp’s liberation. The owner of the local costume shop where Harry hired his uniform informed the Sun newspaper, which broke the story, that he first looked at SS uniforms, but they all came in sizes too small for him and so he settled for a lower rank. Disregarding the bizarre fact that such a range of Nazi outfits were available in a provincial English shop (and the implication that SS men were short), it is perhaps not certain that the controversy over the incident would have taken the same course if the SS insignia had shown up in the grainy, cellphone photograph instead of the swastika, despite the fact that the SS was the division that ran the death camps. The mysterious power of the swastika and its capacity to cause instantaneous outrage and disgust is once again confirmed.

Members of human rights groups around the world have called for greater expressions of regret from Britain’s third-in-line to the throne. Although many reactions in Britain itself have tended to play down the incident as simple, youthful folly, the Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, whose grandmother died at Auschwitz, called for a proper apology. The affair comes soon after damning research was published that over half of young Britons have never heard of Auschwitz and know nothing of what happened there. Hopefully, the excellent new documentary series that has just started screening on BBC2 in the UK (and PBS in the USA) will help to remedy this.

German politicians have now called for an investigation into possibly extending a ban on Nazi symbols, which already exists in Germany, to the rest of Europe. Franco Frattini, the European Commissioner for Justice, Freedom and Security, has expressed his willingness to consider the possibility. A discussion of this issue on BBC Radio 4’s Today program on 17 January inevitably abbreviated the terms of reference to the swastika itself. The German ambassador to Britain, Thomas Matussek, helpfully pointed out that it is an error to simply say that Nazi symbols are banned in Germany: what is illegal is their public manifestation or distribution, as is the case for symbols of any anti-constitutional groups or parties. Their use in “socially acceptable” areas such as the arts and education is allowed. On the same program Shami Chakrabarti, director of the civil liberties organization Liberty, commented that she felt banning the swastika on a wider basis was not the answer, instead advocating more education about the facts of the Holocaust. Yet she did say: “I have a strong emotional response when I see a swastika, it makes my stomach turn.”

The symbol invokes a gut reaction; there seems to be no intellectual space between the graphic mark and what we now know happened under its banner, no room for dissociating the two. In the discussions about the recent incident, the swastika has been interpreted as a symbol of the Holocaust itself. Referring vaguely to how the Prince’s private education has not served him well, the first words of the Leader article in the Observer newspaper for 16 January were: “You do not need much education to know that the swastika represents a crime to shame humanity.” The swastika was in fact a national symbol for Germany, incorporated in the country’s official flag by the National Socialists in 1935. As such, it was used in all manner of official capacities during the remainder of the Third Reich. So, the symbol’s meaning, even in the sense of its relation to the Nazis, has been shifted slightly by the legacy of their heinous deeds.

History shows us, of course, that the swastika is not solely a Nazi symbol. It is the Sanskrit sign for good luck and wellbeing and was used independently by ancient cultures all over the world. Indeed, in the wake of the Prince Harry affair, Hindus in Britain have already sought to reclaim the symbol with “pro-swastika awareness” workshops being planned. Ramesh Kallidai of the Hindu Forum explained how the swastika has been important to Hindus for 5,000 years. In a London Times report of 19 January he said: “Hindus wish to continue to use this symbol as part of their religion, but they risk being labeled a Nazi or, in the case of a ban, risk breaking the law. We need to educate people about the historical context of the symbol, its wrong use by the Nazis and its importance to Hindus.”

It is the four strokes joined in perpendicular fashion to the ends of the main shafts of the cross, which render this symbol so much more complex and versatile than a simple cross. This makes it a “hooked cross,” as it is called in German (Hakenkreuz), and thereby gives it the added element of direction. The Nazis predictably chose the clockwise orientation, tilting it at 45 degrees to accentuate this. They prescribed how the swastika should be applied, and protected it by legislation from unauthorized use. The current legal restrictions on usage of the symbol in Germany make sense as a way of repealing its former official status there, and, in effect, an attempt to outlaw any behavior reminiscent of National Socialism. A swastika with a counter-clockwise direction, without angled orientation, or without the particular characteristics of the Nazi emblem, does not have quite the same effect. One might suggest that a wider ban on the swastika should specify the particular Nazi form, but that would perhaps be too reminiscent of their own banal bureaucratic tendencies.

Adolf Hitler, himself a frustrated painter, was always keenly aware of the role of art and design in the National Socialists’ public image: it was really the most disturbingly thorough program of corporate identity. Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf to have personally dictated the precise form of the Nazi swastika: “I myself, after innumerable attempts, had laid down the final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.” Words to give any graphic designer pause for thought about the potential force of such branding.

Has the National Socialists’ particular appropriation of the swastika, and the horrors with which it is now consequently associated, tainted the symbol once and for all? In his book, The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption?, Steven Heller concluded yes to this question, having fairly represented the opposite view. He expressed the same opinion in an article for Print magazine (July/August 2000): “To my mind, the swastika has been irrevocably destroyed as a viable symbol for anything other than Nazi barbarism. It should be retired with its Nazi trappings intact.”

The ridiculous costume party incident has now triggered official investigations into doing exactly that in Europe, although a longer tradition of alternative meaning for the swastika has also been raised in opposition. In Europe’s multi-cultural societies, this will prove to be a controversial issue.