Stars, Bars and Swastikas: Morality and Historical Whitewashing

by | Oct 13, 2016 | We Have Something To Say | 0 comments

Recently, a minor controversy took place when the Daily Telegraph website ran a story entitled: ‘The Worst Proposal ever?’. The article centred around a Mr Tom Sweet who, aged 21, recently proposed to his girlfriend on holiday in Wales. What made this story unusual, however, was that Mr Sweet had asked his significant other to marry him while dressed in the uniform of a Hauptmann, or Captain, in the Nazi German-era Wehrmacht.

Of course, the wardrobe choice was not simply incidental. Prior to the proposal, his partner and he had been attending a historical re-enactment event at Blaenavon Ironworks in which she had dressed as a member of the Wehrmachtshelferinnen, the German female auxiliary service of the period, and the pair had spent two days with other like-minded historians, some of whom were also dressed as soldiers of the Axis powers, while other uniforms included British ARP costume and Home Guard battledress. At the end of the event, Sweet stepped forward from the crowd and went down on one knee of his jackbooted jodhpurs, much to the applause and tears of the rest of the crowd; she said yes.

The controversy around this touching, yet bizarre, the moment became clear when the Telegraph posted a link to the article on Facebook. Readers took to their keyboards to express their feelings about the proposal, with some simply wishing the happy couple well, while some expressed their distaste and disgust at Mr Sweet’s wearing of a uniform of a service that, by the end of the war, had contributed to millions of battlefield and civilian deaths globally. Some took different approaches, such as identifying the difference between a ‘German’ and a ‘Nazi’, while others pointed out that his uniform was that of the Wehrmacht, rather than the Waffen-SS, the military wing of the Nazi party itself.

This wedding proposal controversy is simply the latest manifestation of a phenomenon that Europe and the world have had to deal with since 1945: how to confront one’s own history, when some elements of that history are, at best, inconvenient and, at worst, unacceptable. With a simple Google search, it is possible to find scores of examples of controversy over the ownership or display of Nazi paraphernalia, often that of the swastika itself. In Germany, possession and distribution of ‘symbols of unconstitutional organisations’, written to refer almost exclusively to swastikas, is punishable by up to three years in prison, a law that has been regularly used in the last few decades in an attempt to prevent the rise of neo-nazism. The law, Section 86a of the German Criminal Code, had been also used to crack down on possession of the Wolfsangel symbol of the Hitler Youth, the singing of the Nazi German national anthem or the use of Nazi party salutes. In an ironic twist, Section 86a was used by German federal police to raid the headquarters of an anti-fascist music group and seize their merchandise, which displayed swastikas being crossed out and thrown into a bin. This censorship of Axis history, however, is not limited to Germany. In May 2016, a Scottish man was arrested after teaching his girlfriend’s dog to perform what was considered to be a ‘Nazi salute’ upon hearing the words ‘sieg heil’. Saying in his defence that it had been done against her as a practical joke rather than a serious expression of political belief, he is currently awaiting trial for hate crimes.

In recent years, an easy parallel has been drawn by many commentators between the seemingly endless debate over swastika possession, and the controversy over other historical symbols. In June 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American worshippers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina with a handgun, before being apprehended by police. Mr Roof, a committed racist who admitted to carrying out the shooting in an attempt to provoke a racial ‘civil war’ in the USA, was convicted under 33 federal hate crime charges. Further controversy arose when images of Roof holding perceived symbols of white supremacism and the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, were found on his website. Although never used in itself as the official flag of the CSA, the Confederate flag was later used as the Confederate Naval Jack, was later incorporated into the CSA ‘stainless banner’ national flag in 1863 and ‘blood-stained banner’ in 1865, and has become the most widely used symbol of Southern secession during the Civil War. Since the Confederacy’s defeat, the ‘Confederate flag’ has been used at different times as part of the state flags of Mississippi and Georgia and has been flown over many public buildings in the Southern states. The 2015 Charleston shooting resurrected a dormant debate over the flag: some see it as representing the unique history of the 13 states that seceded from the Union in the Civil War along with the valour of their citizens, while others see it as an ongoing symbol of racism and white supremacy. Matthew Guterel, Professor of Africana and American studies at Brown University said that “When someone says it’s about history, well, that particular history is inseparable from hate because it is about hate. It’s about racism, and it’s about slavery.” Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said that the flag “belongs in a museum” and nowhere else, and several attempts were made by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) to forcibly remove the Confederate flag outside the South Carolina State Capitol, in line with other Southern states that had taken it down in response to the shooting. The US House of Representatives submitted a bill to ban the flag at US Veteran events, and several states banned the display of confederate insignia on vehicle registration plates. Eventually, on July 10, 2016, the flag at the South Carolina Capitol was removed permanently in a short ceremony by uniformed Highway Patrol officers that was watched and cheered by hundreds of bystanders.

When the controversy over the Confederate Flag broke, I had recently installed a piece of art on the wall of my study that immediately made me begin to consider the historical implications of the debate. The piece at hand was a reproduction of a section from Paul Philippoteaux’ stunning 1883 cyclorama ‘The Battle of Gettysburg’, which depicts the decisive battle of the Civil War in astonishing detail. My reproduction, which I had purchased on holiday at the battlefield itself, displayed Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the climactic moment of the battle when, under Lee’s orders, Major General George Pickett led 12,500 men to their deaths under the guns of entrenched Union positions on Cemetery Ridge, a move that would cost Lee the battle and the war. The painting brilliantly captures the valour and chaos on both sides of the engagement, an event that has come to symbolise the futility of the Confederate cause in the Civil War- and, being wielded by a Virginian battalion as they are cut down by Federal musket fire, the reproduction displays a pair of Confederate flags. Like the swastika, the Confederate flag is the symbol of a nation that has gone down in history as being based on racism and xenophobia- which, to some degree, is true. In the same way that Nazi Germany was responsible for the deaths of millions of Jews, Slavs and other ethnic groups, the Confederate States of America, if not genocidal, were fighting to preserve the institution of slavery, on which the entire antebellum Southern economy and culture was built. Lee himself may not have been a racist, but many men under his command unquestionably were- to a greater degree than that of the Union troops that opposed them.

As a historian, I find the debate over ‘racist’ symbolism fascinating because it stems primarily not from how we view racism itself, but instead from how we view history. The history of mankind is something that has always enthralled us in one way or another; with every civilisation that ever existed devoting considerable time and effort to the preservation and remembrance of events and individuals. However, it is in the history of conflict that it becomes more complex to be in touch with one’s past, particularly when ideologies held at the time are no longer acceptable in contemporary society. The approach of the German government from the late 1940s onwards to the swastika is markedly similar to the approach of many Americans to the Confederate flag today, due to the fact that it represents a period in their nation’s history where members of that nation held unacceptable ideologies and committed unacceptable actions. Is it better to ban the symbol in an attempt to pretend that the atrocities never existed than to face the crimes of one’s ancestors?

Indeed, the approach to history as being something that should be changed to fit the standards of the present is certainly nothing new. One of William Shakespeare’s most memorable characters was King Richard III of England, the villain of his play of the same name. Shakespeare presents Richard as a hunchbacked, psychotic, Machiavellian presence on the stage, who gained his throne through treachery, had his nephews murdered, and is ultimately dethroned by the noble force for good that is Henry VII at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It makes a good story, with such memorable lines as ‘now is the winter of our discontent’ and ‘a horse, my kingdom for a horse’, but in its characterisation of Richard III, it is almost entirely false. King Richard was not physically deformed to the extent that Shakespeare depicted him, he had no intention of marrying his niece, and historians today are unable to find evidence that connects him either with the usurpation of the throne or with the murder of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. Shakespeare’s writing was a product of its time- Richard III was written in 1592 when England was under the rule of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry Tudor, who had displaced Richard from the throne in 1485. Due to what can only be called the political correctness of the era, Shakespeare’s depiction of history had to be twisted to fit the narrative of the period. He did not deny it but, in the same way that the legacy of the swastika and the Confederate flag has been distorted by a one-sided, whitewashing view of history, he dealt with an awkward part of his nation’s past by presenting it in a more acceptable way though the outright denial of fact.

When the Telegraph ran the story about Mr Sweet’s proposal, I joined in with the online debate and soon found myself having to counter the claim that he was ‘wearing the uniform of a Nazi’ and that that was unacceptable. Initially, I tackled it as a military historian: I identified his uniform as an M36 Feldblaus, an early-war uniform, and by comparing this with his rank symbols and his Long Service medal, I could see that it depicted a soldier who had enlisted prior to the Nazi party taking power, thus going some way towards exculpating him as a Nazi. Shortly afterwards, however, I tackled it from a philosophical standpoint, and came to the conclusion: what does this matter? The Wehrmacht had 20 million servicemen and women serving between 1936 and 1945, of whom a significant proportion were Nazi party members and a larger number were Nazi sympathisers or supporters. The pre-Nazi German armed forces were a major support base by which the Nazi party was able to get into power in the 1930s, while conversely, even the Waffen-SS was full of non-Nazis. Mr Sweet’s uniform could have depicted that of a rabidly anti-Semitic national socialist who would go on to commit war crimes, as many Wehrmacht units did, or it could have represented a pre-Nazism German patriot who had been forced into service by a government that he despised- we simply have no way of knowing, and here we find the dilemma of confronting the past. Not all Germans were Nazis, but a very significant proportion was. In the same way that it is wrong to consider all 1940s servicemen war criminals, as many did when the Telegraph ran the article and as German courts would today, it is wrong to solely blame an ideology, instead of individuals, for atrocities beyond count. This problem is described memorably by the Franco-Spanish writer Jorge Semprun, in his novelised autobiography Le Grand Voyage (The Long Journey). Semprun, a member of the French resistance who was captured engaging in guerrilla warfare against German occupation in France, survived a long spell in Buchenwald concentration camp and, in the book, confronts a German citizen after the war about her nation’s past. He asks her if any of her family members were Nazis. When she denies it, he says ‘Of course. There were never any Nazis, never any SS, never any Gestapo. I was just dreaming.’

Like the Second World War, the American Civil War was a war between citizen armies – armies that consisted not simply of strong idealists but of people from all walks of life. The vast majority of Confederate soldiers, like those of Nazi Germany, were conscripted in any case, but this hides the fact that they still saw themselves as fighting for their homeland against invaders. Pickett’s Charge, like the battle of Normandy or indeed Bosworth should not be viewed as struggles between good and evil, as the NAACP, Mr Sweet’s critics or Shakespeare likely would, but as historically monolithic events in conflicts between citizens fighting and dying for what they as individuals strongly believed in. Ultimately, the flags that they bore should be viewed in that context: not simply as flags of ideology, as they were created, but as flags of sacrifice and tragedy, which is what they became. Moreover, a consistent theme throughout military history is that combatants identify far more with the men next to them rather than the belief system that put them into combat in the first place. In the same way that there are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, as they old adage goes, there were probably few ideologues at the Seelow Heights or Appomattox. Any lawmaker that seeks to prevent their banners from being displayed would do well to remember that.

The Duke of Wellington famously said that ‘history is written by the victors’- and, indeed having notoriously minimised the involvement of his Prussian allies in the accounts of his victory over Napoleon in 1815, he himself is an example of this. This inescapable fact- that victors will seek not only to magnify themselves but also to justify themselves to future generations- makes the impartiality of history difficult. Nevertheless, we must always strive to maintain that impartiality, along with its intrinsic nuance- something that flag-banning does not account for. More importantly, however, we must maintain history itself, in all of its beauty and terror, and not allow it to be divided into sides of good and evil and censored. Mr Sweet and the South Carolina Capitol did not display their respective symbols, symbols of nations that both contained reprehensible ideologies and have been unconditionally vilified in the public eye, in expressions of hate- they did so in an attempt to keep a connection with the past alive.

So I keep the painting on my wall, I wish Mr and Mrs Sweet the best of luck in their future re-enactments and their marriage, and I leave with this message: those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.