Why do swastika drawings upset people?

A workshop at SML College about symbolism and the ideology of national socialism run by German intern, Laura Bernard.


One morning at SML College, just before our community meeting, one of the older students began drawing swastikas on a flip-chart. Although it was most likely intended to be a provocative joke, myself and the other adults in the community, immediately agreed that using this symbol in any way is completely unacceptable. Although, we clarified that this was a real no-go, I  still felt the need to pursue a deeper discussion on the subject. It seemed that most of the students didn´t see why drawing a swastika was such a big deal and some of them didn’t even know what it was. The perfect opportunity for a session on political education at SML College was born.


The aim of the workshop I prepared was to give the students a notion of what national socialism means. What are the basic ideas of this ideology? Which consequences would their implementation cause society? Rather than give them a lecture on this rather heavy subject, I prepared a series of games, activities and discussions that would allow them to understand through experience and encourage them to  draw their own conclusions.


For the first game every student got a sticker on their forehead which was one of four colours: red, yellow, blue or green. Whilst they could see everyone else’s sticker, they didn’t know which colour their own sticker was. The task was to build four groups without talking. After a little while four groups were formed – a red one, a yellow, a blue and a green one. Well done, BUT: Why did they build the groups related to the colours? It was not required in the task. They could have built the groups in any way: by age, friends, favourites, etc. This game was supposed to highlight how easily an population divides their self into groups, just because someone set up some random marks.


The next exercise established a hierarchical order between the groups: from now on the reds and the yellows were called “Elites” whilst the blues and greens were “Subhumans”. Unsurprisingly, the “Elites” were superior to the “Subhumans” and to distinguish betweeh the two the “Subhumans” had to wear an armlet. Now they had to go around and collect posters I had spread all over the building before which were showing different slogans like: “Subhumans are not welcome in here”, “Elites resist, don´t buy anything from Subhumans!”, ect… I didn’t invent these slogans. All of them were very common in nazi-Germany, I just replaced Germans with “Elites” and Jews with “Subhumans”. When the students came back with the slogans they had to sit in a circle: “Elites” on chairs and “Subhumans” on the floor. “Subhumans” were ordered to spread the slogans in the centre and read them out while the “Elites” ate the candy they had received from me, the leader, for their great work. And who had to collect the candy papers? Of course the Subhumans.


Finally the children started to protest against this injustice. Some of them didn´t like to be “Elites” any more and others started to disagree with their “Subhuman” title. After a short while everybody was engaged in a serious discussion about equality and human rights. Eventually they came to the conclusion, that every human should be treated equally and with respect and that there shouldn’t be any classification. And of course the former “Subhumans” got candy too.


Now it was my time, to give a little input. I told them about the four main principles of national socialism (Racial ideology, Anti-Semitism, settler colonialism and the leader principle) and let them draw the parallels to our game and the slogans. Now they had to think about how the implementation of these principles would affect society. To give them an example, I told them about nazi-Germany and its awful results. But as the issue of national socialism is not confined to the past, it was important to talk about how these ideas still exist in society today for example with the rise of far-right-wing movements throughout Europe. We  watched a short video (Link underneath) which showed the activities of far-right-wing movements in different countries in Europe. The task was to pay attention to certain symbols, gestures, phrases and the raised issues. In the sharing of thoughts that followed the students were surprised to realise that what we saw was quite similar to the principles we discussed earlier. Only that Muslims and refugees replaced Jews as the main subjects of offences. It was very clear to everybody then, that national socialism is an ongoing problem. At the end we discussed whether it made sense to ban certain symbols, gestures and phrases to thwart these movements or not. We didn’t find a final answer, but agreed that we should respect the feelings of the people who feel offended by a swastika.