washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Sunday Sections > Sunday Outlook

What's in a Symbol? If Only Harry Knew

By Erica Wagner
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page B01


The other night, as I left the theater, I saw a woman wearing a fur hat. Some people, of course, don't like the sight of fur; I'm not one of them. But I noticed the badge on the front of her hat: a red and gold hammer and sickle. No doubt about it, she looked striking: the glittering, graphically coherent symbol set off by the soft shine of the fur. Yet it made me wonder what she had been thinking when she acquired her post-Communist trophy.

Why, I wondered, is Communist chic acceptable, when -- as Prince Harry's swastika-wearing debacle reminds us -- "Nazi chic" simply doesn't exist? It is, in fact, so taboo that there has recently been serious debate in Europe as to whether to ban the swastika throughout the European Union, a debate that risked making the symbol suddenly subversively chic.

The Post's opinion and commentary section runs every Sunday.

Outlook Section

Symbols are forms of expression but -- even more than words -- they can mean many different things. What was the meaning of that hat? Perhaps: "I am well traveled; I have been to faraway lands and returned with souvenirs." Perhaps: "I have a sense of irony. I am aware that this hammer and sickle was once a symbol of oppression; now the people behind the Iron Curtain are free and Communist finery is being bought and sold by capitalist opportunists."

But if you had been a victim of Soviet oppression, of a regime that murdered 20 million people and more, you might not view the appearance of that hat with such equanimity. It might not be merely a silent symbol; it might split your inner ear like a shriek, or strike you like a blow.

No one, of course, would consider wearing a hat adorned with a swastika on an evening out -- no one, that is, except perhaps the third in line to the throne. The atrocities of the Nazi regime and its program of directed genocide have rendered that symbol almost entirely out of bounds. In Germany and Austria, use of the swastika has been banned outside academic and educational contexts since 1949; recently, copies of Philip Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America," which imagines an alternative America sympathetic to the Nazis during World War II -- were kept out of Germany because the cover features an American postage stamp adorned with a swastika. The publishers produced a separate edition for Germany and Austria (the "Hapsburg edition," it was dubbed), which replaced the swastika with a black X.

It was a royal gaffe -- when Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party clothed as a Nazi officer just days before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- that prompted the call for the swastika to be banned throughout the European Union. "E.U. action is urgent," Franco Fratini, the European commissioner for justice, said, "and has to forbid very clearly the Nazi symbols in the European Union."

But wait. "Nazi symbols"? Certainly not exclusively. The swastika, it is worth remembering, is a venerable symbol, one co-opted less than a century ago by the nauseating ideology of Fascism. Hitler adopted it because of its links to Indian Aryan culture; the Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be a prototypical "master race." The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika -- what they called the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross -- in 1920. In "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler, who well understood the power of the visual over the power of the mere word, reflected in his writing the care put into its redesign: "I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika."

Yet after the om, the swastika is still the second most important symbol in Hindu mythology -- and Hindus understandably protested the proposed ban. The word itself is derived from two Sanskrit words, su (good) and asati (to exist); together they are taken to mean "may good prevail." In Hindu thought, the 20-sided polygon can represent the eternal nature of the Brahman, or supreme spirit of the universe, because it points in all directions. Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, used the symbol, too, until the 1930s. It is found in Native American cultures, particularly among the Navajo and the Hopi. A swastika is laid in the floor of Amiens Cathedral in France.

Would it be right -- or even possible -- therefore, to ban the use of the swastika? One of the dangers of any kind of ban, first of all, is that what is forbidden is always more attractive than what is permitted; a ban won't stop its use on the Internet, as graffiti, in underground presses.

And how would such a ban work? Consider the case of the Hapsburg edition of the Roth novel. So there's an X on the cover; but a reader wouldn't have to get far in the novel to understand that this X was in itself a symbol, a symbol for a swastika. Where exactly does that get us? That swastika on that particular book jacket has a very specific and significant connotation. To turn away from that connotation does little service to the novelist, to his readers -- and to history. One might well argue that a ban would hand a symbolic victory to those who so corrupted the meaning of this ancient emblem.

As with language, so with symbols: Context is all. It was not the swastika itself on Prince Harry's costume that was offensive; it was his thoughtless glamorization of Nazism that was so troubling, and particularly on the part of a young man in a position of such influence. National Socialist ideology was (and remains) powerful and terrible; yet it is the ideology that overshadows the symbol, not the other way around. The hammer and sickle on the theatergoer's hat is a symbol whose power is, for complex historical reasons, somehow more diffuse, although it should by rights be more specific, as it was devised as an emblem for the alliance of workers and peasants.

The same might be said of the Confederate flag, which is found on the Anti-Defamation League's "Hate on Display: A Visual Database of Extremist Symbols, Logos and Tattoos" alongside the swastika -- though no hammer and sickle is to be found there. (www.adl.org/hate_symbols/default.asp) There are, however, many variants of the swastika, used by neo-Nazis to avoid the ban: and so we are back to the Roth X. Look on the site and you will see that the swastika never loses its connotations, even when it takes on a slightly different shape.

In the end, the European Union leaders rejected a ban, in part because it led to a debate over which other symbols to ban -- the issue of the hammer and sickle was raised. Fortunately, a desire to allow freedom of expression won the day. To ban any form of speech, symbolic or otherwise, is dangerous. It is dangerous to forbid "Huckleberry Finn" in the classroom because it contains the word "nigger."

Knowledge, not ignorance, offers protection: It is as important to know why Mark Twain used the verbal language he did as to know why Hitler used the symbolic language that he did. It is doubtful that the swastika will ever again seem benign, at least not for many generations. A ban would not have silenced this symbol -- and might even have made it speak louder than ever.

Erica Wagner is literary editor of the Times in London. Her most recent book is "Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters" (Norton).

© 2005 The Washington Post Company