No, the swastika can't be rehabilitated

An international effort to return the Nazi symbol to its peaceful roots is deeply misguided

(Image credit: (Marc Asnin/CORBIS SABA))

If you ventured into a tattoo parlor yesterday, you might have thought you were witnessing the second coming of the Third Reich.

At some 120 studios around the world, tattoo artists were offering their customers a chance to have a free swastika permanently inked on their skin. The giveaway wasn't a mass Nazi revival, but part of "Learn to Love the Swastika" day — a controversial campaign to reclaim a symbol that for thousands of years served as a Hindu and Buddhist sign of luck, peace, and strength. That was, of course, before Adolf Hitler got his hands on it.

The event was so popular at the Meatshop tattoo parlor in the Danish capital of Copenhagen that the store had to "stop taking in people after the 54th client," Peter Madsen, the parlor's artistic director, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. To make sure they weren't giving out free tattoos to fascists, said Madsen, the parlor made every customer sign a waiver specifying that they were not getting inked for neo-Nazi reasons.

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What if neo-Nazis — who are not exactly known for their strong morals — simply lied to get a free tat? "Well, then they may think they are wearing a symbol of racism," said Madsen, "but that doesn't change the fact they are actually wearing on their bodies the symbol for a better world."

Not surprisingly, the campaign caused outrage among the Jewish community. "I believe that a symbol that was once something else, but which the Nazi's took hostage, cannot just be washed clean," said Finn Schwarz, president of the Jewish Congregation of Copenhagen. Jonathan Arkush, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told that turning the swastika into a fashion symbol will "trivialize the Holocaust and give succor to neo-Nazi sympathizers."

Madsen shrugged off those arguments. "I accept the legitimacy of this criticism from the Jewish community, which was hit hardest by the Nazis," he said, "but [I] refuse to let evil keep this symbol."

The tattooist and other swastika rehabilitators undoubtedly mean well. But the swastika is not theirs to reclaim. That right belongs to the victims of Nazism. Most white people, for instance, understand that it would be tasteless and disrespectful for them to use the N word, and then claim they were merely trying to cleanse the word of its racist associations. That word belongs to African Americans, and it's theirs to do with as they wish. Similarly, the discussion over the swastika's fate should be led by Jews — more than six million of whom died under the Nazi flag.

And as the Jewish Federation of St. Louis points out in a blog post, the pro-swastika movement isn't simply trying to reclaim the symbol, they are trying to transform its meaning in the Western world. "The reason that the swastika became such a powerful symbol of evil," they note, "is not merely because of the evil propagated under its flag but also because it never had the depth of meaning or connotations that it did in India or elsewhere in the east." The swastika may stand for peace in parts of Asia, but for most people in Europe and the U.S., it symbolizes the horrors of totalitarianism, anti-Semitism, and race hatred.

At some distant point in the future, notes the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the swastika will likely lose its resonance and will seem as benign as a "Cossack's boot or an inquisitor's robe does to us today." Such natural evolution is beyond anyone's control. But in a world where anti-Semitism and racism is still rife, and where acts of genocide continue to occur, it's in our interests to keep the swastika as a reminder of what can happen when we look away from evil.

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Theunis Bates is a senior editor at The Week's print edition. He has previously worked for Time, Fast Company, AOL News and Playboy.