The flags were torn down while defeated cities still burned, even as citizens crawling from the rubble were just realizing that the governments they represented had ended.
But if essentially the same narrative of defeat played out in Nazi Germany in 1945 and the Confederate States of America in 1865, what happened to the symbols differed greatly.
In Germany, where the swastika elicits Adolf Hitler’s final solution and the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and 5 million others and helping to incite a world war that killed 60 million to 70 million, such symbols are rarely seen – and if they are, only if portrayed against Naziism. The conquering Allies banned their display in October 1945; the new Federal Republic of Germany enshrined that ban in German law in 1949.
After 1945, almost anything that said Nazi-era was destroyed. Unmarked graves became the norm for Nazi officials. Chiseled swastikas were ground off buildings. Monuments and statues were torn down.
The Soviets ripped Hitler’s chancellery to pieces. Until recently, the ground where Hitler’s body was found, above the bunker in which he killed himself, was left as an unmarked parking lot. A military jail in Spandau (a district of Berlin) that was used to house high-ranking Nazis such as Albert Speer and Rudolf Hess was torn down to prevent it from becoming a site of pilgrimage to neo-Nazis. Officials went so far as to pulverize the bricks and throw the remains into the North Sea.
Not so the Confederate battle flag, which was rehabilitated by the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century. It found its way into cemeteries, flag stands and even as part of some official state flags. The flag itself would fly over statehouses in several former Confederate states.
Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee office in Berlin, notes that it’s difficult to compare anything to the mass genocide of the Holocaust. But, she said, the symbols of the Holocaust and of slavery both represent intense hatred.
“They’re symbols of a way of life that is completely unacceptable,” she said. “I think with the fall of the Nazi regime, Germans realized the only way to again become a valid nation was to eliminate the symbols. Banning them was appropriate. Americans made a different choice with the symbols of the Confederacy.”
She said the ban in Germany has been important. It protects the victims and children of victims from a constant reminder. Beyond that, she noted, “the symbols serve as a rallying point for all hate groups.”
Outside of Germany, Nazi symbols today are used by everyone from white supremacists in the United States to Islamic extremists in the Middle East. Still, she believes making it more difficult for hate groups to use the symbols in Germany mattered, at least in that country.
“It’s important not to underestimate the power of symbols,” she said.
“Symbols are important, they’re a shorthand groups use in a single image to convey a world of information,” said Mark Potok, an expert on extremism for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., who notes that some Southern states took to flying the battle flag in the 1960s as a protest against the integration of schools. “The official reaction in recent weeks against the Confederate battle flag has been impressive, though you could argue it was 150 years late.”
It’s notable that when Ku Klux Klan members recently rallied in South Carolina, they carried both the battle flag and the Nazi swastika. The two flags in recent years have been commonly seen together at white supremacist groups and gatherings.
“Those who fly both flags rely on horribly distorted versions of history,” said Potok. “They both say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and that the Holocaust was exaggerated, or didn’t happen.”
Just how many human beings were enslaved in the United States is a much debated topic. Records show that an estimated 450,000 Africans were kidnapped in Africa and brought to what became the United States. But generations of children born to those captives were slaves, too, and they numbered in the millions. By the time the Confederacy fell in 1865, the number of people who’d been held as slaves over the decades would be similar to the 11 million murdered by Nazi Germany, demographers say.
Paul Nolte, a German historian at Freie University in Berlin, said there’s obviously power in the symbols. Nazi symbols are banned, so modern neo-Nazi organizations come up with new slogans and symbols evoking what cannot be used. One example is the use of “88” as a replacement for “Heil Hitler” (H is the eight letter of the alphabet).
Even so, Germany has been known to crack down on such attempts to honor a Nazi past. Recently, a detergent company celebrated a new, larger size by printing “88” on its boxes to note the increased number of wash loads. As soon as the boxes hit store shelves, critical newspaper articles appeared and the boxes elicited an immediate and widespread furor. The company promptly removed packaging from shelves and redesigned the boxes.
While Confederate flag advocates discuss the positives of the antebellum years, German students spend a part of each year studying the horrors of Nazi Germany. All students must visit at least one former concentration camp to be reminded that the stories of the Holocaust were not only real but happened nearby.
This week, Berlin hosts 2,600 Jewish athletes from 32 countries for the Maccabi Games. The games are taking place in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium complex, the site of one of the more lasting global visual memories of Hitler’s Germany. The complex was used to show off German fascism in 1936 and was made infamous through filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s footage of a proud Hitler appearing before a packed stadium, draped in Nazi symbols, to open the Olympic Games.
German media is noting that this summer’s games are “a chance to reclaim the stadium” from an anti-Semitic history.
In Germany, wearing or publicly displaying Nazi symbols can result in up to three years in prison, and the law allows judges to go so far as stripping abusers of their right to vote.
Nolte, the German historian, noted that while the Allied victors in October 1945 made all symbols of Nazi Germany illegal to display, that wasn’t the primary reason they disappeared in the country.
“The defeat in 1945 was the mental shock that the power of those symbols was over,” he said. “The Nazi regime was crushed, and its symbols had to die with it. But there was also a slow transformation of the understanding in what the symbols stood for.
“At first, Nazi symbols represented defeat,” he said. “It took time for them to come to represent the Holocaust, and a deep and abiding German shame.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews