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Srdjan Suki/EPA

The Hamburg swastika – and why we haven’t learnt from history

The foundations of a giant Nazi swastika monument in a sports field in Hamburg were recently discovered during the construction of a changing room at a local sports site. Local politicians decided to remove the swastika, which because of its size, had to be destroyed by jackhammers. Bulldozers were also enrolled when the Nazi relic was removed on November 24.

The story prompted a rush of commentary and interest. My social media feeds displayed wildly varying views on what to do with the discovery.

There were broadly two perspectives, the first to destroy it – “blow it up”, commented a number of people. The second was that it should be preserved or given to a museum. “It’s history, you can’t destroy history” some said; others “how is this any different to what ISIS are doing?”. That well-worn adage “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” also cropped up regularly. There were, sadly but predictably, also a number of people who directly responded to the find with xenophobic comments about Germany and the people of Germany.

The variety of viewpoints demonstrates the power of the past to generate interest and sell newspapers. But although the find attracted so much attention and debate, one crucial point was missed.

The giant concrete Nazi swastika. Srdjan Suki/EPA

It is clear that the history of Nazi Germany and World War II looms large in the Western world. The horrors of Nazi genocide and the war mean that the Nazi regime has rightly taken its place in the canon of evil in humanity. But as this story shows, by dubbing the regime evil, we categorise the Nazis and their supporters as “others”, not like “us”. We cannot imagine behaving like them or understand how people could think this way. But this encourages us to forget that they were human beings, not the monsters devoid of humanity we want them to be. And this tendency does not help us to learn from history.

History lessons

Popular media is saturated with documentaries about the Nazis; the history sections of bookshops are packed with books on Hitler and the Nazi Regime. A national day of remembrance to the Holocaust takes place every year. But, of course, this has not prevented racism, xenophobia and far right activity continuing in force today. Why? Perhaps part of the answer lies in how overly emotive the narrative we have of World War II is. Nazism, after all, was defeated by the military might of the allied powers, not by reason, argument or a call to human rights and freedom associated with democratic ideals.

The responses to the discovered swastika show that “lessons” have not been learnt. Find something offensive or the opposite of your view – blow it up. Disagree with someone’s decision about how to deal with their own past – forcefully impose your point of view and draw untenable comparisons which do not consider wider context or the right of people to deal with things in their own way. Read a story about an event in another country – reduce everyone in a nation to a crude caricature of an event in their past.

The freedom of speech we have to put our views on the internet is a right we should all enjoy, but dashing off a couple of ill considered lines about a subject which is so complex is essentially just a knee jerk reaction to a stimulus, and demonstrates thoughtlessness and often a violent response (“blow it up”). It is this response which is concerning, because it is such thoughtlessness which led to the establishment of the Nazi regime in the first place.

Other options

So what else could have been done? Excavate it and house it in a museum? I’m not sure. Nazi swastikas already populate museums around the world. Would one more, in any case, help us to learn something different or new? This is not to decry the work that is done by museum or educational programmes to educate about the Nazi regime or the Holocaust. Clearly they have done a massive amount of work to make people aware of history. But there is a gap between knowing about the past, and putting that knowledge into practical action.

Display in Moscow’s Central Museum. ID1974/

One point of view I came across on my adventure through various feeds and forums may have held an answer: the suggestion that the swastika should be covered back up for future generations to find. It would certainly be interesting to imagine what future generations would make of it. Would they be more equipped to deal with the find and proceed in a thoughtful manner about what the object represented, and try to learn new lessons? Would they think about what the object means in relation to their own society? Or perhaps they would question why a story about the discovery of another Nazi relic attracted so much attention and social media comment in the first place.

The problem, then, does not seem to be having knowledge about the Nazi past – there is plenty of that. The problem is that there is much further to go and new lessons to be learnt from this dark period in history. In an attempt to tame, “other” or domesticate the history of Nazism, our understanding of the past is simplified. We just rehearse why Nazism was bad and why we are not like “them”, not how the lessons of the past should inform our everyday actions.

A good place to start might be to think about the existing narratives we have of World War II. Or how in our rush to comment on complex or emotive issues with simple binary answers, we do not add anything new. We do not learn from the past, but rather repeat the same old thing we have said before.

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