Face-to-face with a Hakenkreuz

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A very perfectly legal neo-Nazi symbol © imago images / Pacific Press Agency

For the first time in my life this Sunday I saw a swastika quite literally “in the flesh.”

I had just stuffed my laptop back into my bag after going through security at Edinburgh Airport, when I noticed that the man behind me, who’d had to take off his jacket, had the Nazi symbol tattooed onto his left forearm. Rubbing my eyes, I had to register the iron cross on his right arm before accepting what I’d seen.

It’s one thing knowing that there are still Nazis out there, seeing someone who has permanently inked a symbol of mass genocide into their arm is quite another. I felt an anger boil up inside me. I wanted to shout to the other people there: “Look! That guy is a Nazi.” But I didn’t. I just stood there gawping.

The man, a flabby 40-something with a Glatze, supinely answered the security personnel’s questions, then took back his jacket and bag and walked off to join his gang. They were all wearing jackets bearing the insignia of the Blue Angels, who it turns out are a biker gang founded in Glasgow in the 1960s.

In Britain it is perfectly legal to display Nazi symbols and, judging by the support for a 2017 petition to the UK parliament, that’s not about to change any time soon.

Germany is one of the few countries in western Europe that bans their display, punishing breaches with up to three years in jail.

There was a brief period at the start of 2005 when German politicians pushed for an EU-wide ban. Curiously enough, the impetus was given by a young Prince Harry, who, long before his awokening, attended a fancy-dress party dressed as a Nazi.

Silvana Koch-Merin, a member of the FDP, said at the time that "all of Europe suffered in the past because of the crimes of the Nazis, therefore it would be logical for Nazi symbols to be banned all over the continent."

But the idea quickly fizzled out, with liberals in Britain showing no interest in getting on board.

"I don't think we should, in this country, sweep the swastika under the carpet. I think we should understand its full significance," said Shami Chakrabarti, the then head of the civil rights group Liberty.

Banning the symbol would not help solve "a serious social problem," she added.

While this argument ignores the fact that swastikas can still be used for educational purposes in Germany, it has a certain appeal.

I’ve always been ambivalent about German legal suppression of Nazi symbols and literature. Arguably, banning swastikas, Hitler salutes and other Nazi codes is a waste of time, as neo-Nazis will quickly invent new symbols to get around the law. Furthermore, suppressing Nazism per Verbot allows them to claim that liberalism is a sham.

Sunday’s airport encounter gave me a different perspective. 

Firstly, there is the consideration of victims. While I cannot say how everyone directly impacted by the Holocaust would feel when confronted by a Nazi tattoo, the anger I experienced, as someone who never lost a family member, is surely nothing compared to what they would go through.

Secondly, if there was ever a time when liberalism acting intolerantly is likely to serve a useful purpose, it is in confronting these twisted acolytes of Hitler, with their fetishization of strength and power.

In Germany, if a neo-Nazi wants to take his top off on a sweaty summer’s day, he has to put plasters over his tattoos first. Being forced to submit to liberalism in this way is perhaps the only way they are capable of learning to respect it.


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Who we are:

Jörg Luyken: Journalist based in Berlin since 2014. His work has been published by German and English outlets including der Spiegel, die Welt, the Daily Telegraph and the Times. Formerly in the Middle East.

Axel Bard Bringéus: Started his career as a journalist for the leading Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet and has spent the last decade in senior roles at Spotify and as a venture capital investor. In Berlin since 2011.

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