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.