August 26, 2022
By Dr Breann Fallon, Manager of Student Learning and Research
In the summer of 2016 I spent time in the archives of different concentration and extermination camps throughout Europe as part of my research for my PhD. During those months I was attempting to further understand the power of symbols in the propulsion of genocide. After all, symbols are imbued with meaning, influence and emotion.
I wanted to know if the symbols that perpetrators of the Holocaust were exposed to over many years via propaganda – like the Hakenkreuz (Nazi swastika) and Reichsadler (Imperial Eagle) – were at all relevant to them amidst the violence. More than this, did these symbols perhaps even drive their abhorrent actions against their victims through what they represented?
Indeed, reading through thousands of perpetrator accounts looking for evidence I did find evidence of the influence of symbols on the actions of perpetrators. But it was outside the archives that I stumbled across something I truly did not expect.
Walking back to my hotel, after a day in the archives of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, I saw a small sticker on a metal street sign. It showed a nondescript person throwing a Hakenkreuz into a waste basket above the words “Keep Germany Beautiful.” Such a simple design with a powerful message: the importance of discarding Nazi ideologies and any discrimination, division or hate.
I like to think that this sticker is still stuck to that pole, visible to passersby; for there is no denying that the ideologies this particular swastika represents continues to stain our contemporary world including here in Australia. Sadly, I can recall Bondi Beach being defaced with the Hakenkreuz many times in recent years – well-reported cases of 2016, 2019 and 2021 come to mind.
Such public displays of Nazi symbols are not only an affront to those who lost family in the Holocaust and those who survived it, but also send a clear message of discrimination, racism and hate. More than this, it makes a disturbing public statement that certain minorities are not welcome and not wanted. Perhaps most importantly, we cannot be complacent in the truth that such narratives of hate do not take much to slip into violence.
Yet, up until this year the public display of Nazi symbols was not a crime in New South Wales. On 11 August, New South Wales passed a new law making it a criminal offence to knowingly display a Nazi symbol in public without a reasonable excuse. The new offence in the Crimes Act 1900 carries a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment or a $11,000 fine or both for an individual; or a fine of $55,000 for a corporation.
NSW Attorney General, Mark Speakman, says that the criminalisation of these symbols “sends a clear message that the display of Nazi symbols, and the hatred and bigotry they represent will not, and should not, be tolerated.”
Importantly, there is a section of the new bill that clearly states that the display of a swastika in connection with Buddhism, Hinduism or Jainism is permitted and is distinct from the illegal display of the Nazified swastika, the Hakenkreuz.
The criminalisation of the public display of Nazi symbols is an important recognition of the past trauma they represent but also the power and influence such imagery can hold in the creation and propulsion of violence in society today.
Symbols represent entire movements and drive humans to act.
As British Novelist, Dion Fortune once said: “Symbols are to the mind what tools are to the hand.”
The banning of Nazi symbols is not only about the abhorrent past they signify, it is about safeguarding our present and future from the rise of the ideologies imbued within these symbols.