There was some debate on my blog last week about symbols I described as Nazi paraphernalia emblazoned on firework petards prepared for this week’s Santa Marija feast in Mosta.
The rockets, wrapped in velvety black, carried a charge of the heraldic German eagle that was brought in the mainstream first as the Parteiadler of the Nazis. Eventually it would become the Reichsadler, the imperial eagle, the symbol of racial supremacy, military conquest and the systematic elimination of ‘inferiors’ and ‘degenerates’ to make way for thin, tall, blonde Germans. As thin as Goering, as tall as Goebbels, as blonde as Hitler, to borrow a phrase.
The manufacturer of the petards disagreed with me that the use of the symbol was offensive.
His defence was primarily aesthetic. The stylised eagle is “beautiful”. Nazis did not design their paraphernalia to look unattractive. As with all the art and architecture they approved of, they wanted their symbols bold, stark and strong, immediately recognisable, based on classical lines but generally appealing and universally understood without any requirement for artistic appreciation.
Admiring Nazi imagery for its aesthetic value independently of the historical context and the motivation of the designers and the political forces that carried those symbols into war and mass murder is mindlessly obtuse. But you could say, if you dared, that the designers of the formal uniforms of the SS could cut a sharp suit. You could say that technically, Leni Riefenstahl propaganda movies are groundbreaking.
A secondary line of defence was that the symbols used were not actually Nazi. The eagle shown on the petards grasped in its talons a garland that, if this had been a proper Reichsadler, would be containing a swastika. Instead it was grasping an Iron Cross, which predates Nazism in the German military tradition.
So, incidentally, does the eagle. The Holy Roman Emperors who loosely ruled central Europe carried the eagle on their escutcheons and coins for seven centuries. Nazis did not invent their symbols from scratch. On the contrary they mined a mythical, rural, artificially authentic, Teutonic past for a creation myth that founded the destiny of their race in heroic legends of antiquity.
Incidentally, the swastika itself was mined from ancient Indian religions, symbolising in the hands of the Nazis an authentic link with the foundations of an Aryan race before the ‘contamination’ with Semites, Slavs and ‘other inferiors’.
If we are incapable of carrying a shred of the incomparable pain that the inheritance of the Holocaust leaves us with, we are incapable of being European
After the fall of the Nazis in Germany, white supremacists shuffled many symbols that were and are immediately recognisable with the swastika; the Iron Cross is one of them. Maltese neo-Nazis took the habit of using a smooth black version of the eight-pointed cross, which in a white disc charged on a red field, is intended to mean nothing more subtle than the expulsion of ‘inferior races’ from Malta and the exclusion of ‘degenerates’ like people with disability, homosexuals and people whose ideological convictions pit them against the notion of ‘white’ (such as they see it) supremacy.
Ultimately, therefore, the fine detail of the variation placed on a symbol does not cancel the offensive significance of the original. In the same way that you cannot expect not to cause offence if you fly a swastika over your door by saying that you’re using it to represent all the flowery and sweet notions it represented for centuries before the Nazis appropriated it, you cannot expect not to cause offence if you charge your petards with a Nazi Reichsadler but replacing the swastika with a cross or any other symbol of any description.
A third line of defence by the manufacturers of the petards is that, according to them, the militaristic spread eagle is used by many other fireworks factories around Malta. I do not know if this is true but since I first published my commentary about the fireworks manufactured in Mosta, I was sent photographs of similarly emblazoned petards manufactured, apparently, by a factory in Qrendi.
This is not reassuring. Continental Europeans intuitively understand the significance of these symbols, and judging at least by those who commented on my blog they remain shocked to find Nazi motifs being used by anyone who claims they do not intend offence.
Because that was the fourth and final line of defence. Horror, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. One can choose not to be outraged by the liberal use of the symbols designed or appropriated by the worst band of criminals in the written history of mankind.
This is not an unlikely line of defence. Consider, for example, how symbols pertaining to a smaller, but in intent just as evil, band of criminals are romanticised and admired. The mafia is represented heroically. You’re still unlikely to find a Gestapo themed restaurant. But a Don Corleone or a Tony Montana nightclub or restaurant are far from unlikely. People hang pictures of Scarface in their dens as if he is some defining example for our time.
For one thing, this disassociation between the symbols and their creators is grossly insensitive to victims. It is supremely ironic that petards proudly carrying charges from Nazi Germany are lit up on August 15, the anniversary of the Santa Marija Convoy that saved the islands from the imminent prospect of invasion and occupation by the Nazis. It would be just as insensitive to the victims for me to say that perhaps had the Nazis occupied Malta, the memory of the pain they would have inflicted on the inhabitants, whom they without a doubt would have considered as inferior and degenerate, would have taught these apparently oblivious fireworks enthusiasts just what they were flirting with.
But the thousands of our great-grandparents and grandparents who suffered starvation or lost their lives together with the islands’ defenders during World War II are, in comparison with the millions of children, women and men targeted for mass extermination, merely incidental victims of war. If we are incapable of carrying a shred of the incomparable pain that the inheritance of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis and the willing executioners that helped them leaves us with, we are incapable of being European.
That is what superficial ambivalence to Nazi symbolism truly demonstrates: our detachment from the core European heritage of living on the continent that sought and almost succeeded in eliminating an entire race. Losing sight of that and focusing instead on the aesthetic quality of the graphic design or the variations on the original theme that are supposed to cleanse the memory of the worst crime in human history, presents to the world a cultural fatuity, callowness and barbarism that would look odd on aliens who saw a Nazi flag for the first time and admired its artistic merits and bold design.
Where did all this debate about petards sporting Nazi eagles come from? At the Mosta fireworks factory, one of the licensed manufacturers is a gentleman who emerged to the public’s attention just last week.
His name is David Muscat and though he doesn’t look it when he’s eulogising Norman Lowell at a gathering of neo-Nazis celebrating our own Adolf Hitler impersonator, he’s a cleric of the Catholic Church. Just last week he thanked Lowell for planting a seed in the hearts of our young people which will grow presumably like the grain of mustard seed in the parable for Christ’s message of love.
I’m sorry but there’s no middle way. If you’re not deeply hurt by this, you’re the one inflicting the pain.