As those who have been reading the Sunday Times over the past couple of weeks may know, St. John’s College, one of Johannesburg’s most prestigious private schools, was recently embarrassed by a mock Nazi demonstration conducted by some of its pupils at a school assembly. What happened was that for “Moustache Day”, one of the pupils thought it would be a clever idea to impersonate a certain German dictator, he of the famous toothbrush moustache, and also combed his hair in said dictator’s trademark style. When his turn came, he mounted the stage and shouted “Heil Hitler!” while giving the stiff-armed Nazi salute. The demonstration was greeted with much laughter from the assembled boys, with many returning the salute and raucously shouting “Heil Hitler” in response.
OK, so it was hardly a Nuremburg rally. I doubt whether any of those participating really wished to identify themselves in any serious way with the Nazi ideology. Nor was the intention to offend others present. Nazi slogans and gestures do sometimes feature in sports fixtures between teams from Jewish schools and their opponents, and here the self-evident intention is to taunt, insult and no doubt intimidate the Jewish players. In this case, though, no obvious malice was intended. Those responsible probably thought they were having a bit of fun, and adolescent schoolboys are not exactly a breed noted for their sensitivity and good taste.
Having said all that, it would be wrong to dismiss the incident too casually. Those who have hastened to play it down – and there have predictably been no shortage of them – would do well to be reminded of what exactly the wretched youths were identifying themselves with. The Nazi state was not a run-of-the-mill dictatorship, and Hitler was no harmless buffoon. Nazism itself was underpinned by a hate-filled master race ideology that condemned “inferior” peoples to enslavement if they were lucky and genocide if they were not. During World War II, Nazi Germany carried out a systematic program of mass murder whereby three-quarters of European Jewry – six million people – were eliminated, together with hundreds of thousands of members of other “undesirable” groups. An estimated three million Soviet prisoners of war died in captivity, mainly of starvation. As the thinking went, Russians were an inferior race, and there was hence no point in wasting good food on them. Millions of East and Central Europeans were forced into slave labour to service the Nazi war effort, while whole communities were wiped out to discourage resistance to the Nazi occupation. In all, it is difficult to adequately grasp the sheer depths of Nazi depravity, and even sixty years later it has left deep scars in the European psyche.
All this being the case, what exactly is it that attracts certain people, however vicariously, to Nazism? I am not referring here to bona fide right-wing extremists who genuinely believe in such ideologies and of whom there is really little one can say. Rather, I am thinking of those who, when it comes down to it, would shrink from actually endorsing the whole Nazi cult, yet nevertheless at some lower level get a kick out of identifying with it.
Militaria collecting and historical military re-enactments are amongst the areas where this kind of thing is become increasingly prevalent. From what I am seeing, and I can cite numerous examples over the years, military memorabilia associated with the Nazi regime very obviously enjoy a greater popularity amongst collectors than those from the armed forces of other World War II participants. So identified has the militaria industry become with this specific range of memorabilia that one sometimes finds shops or stalls at markets brazenly advertising themselves through displaying their wares under large Nazi flags. Such flags – replicas, obviously – are also popular sellers, as are busts of Hitler. Of course, all these things were part of the historical record and can hardly be declared off-limits as collectors’ pieces, but when such material is overtly given pride of place, then something else is clearly going on.
Similarly, while it was legitimate for military re-enactors at a recent Pretoria show to include those wearing Nazi uniforms, why was it that, of all the German military units that could have been portrayed, the SS – the unit primarily associated with the monstrous crimes carried out by the Nazi regime – was chosen? And why, moreover, was it this particular re-enactor who (according to someone who was there) attracted by far the most enthusiastic attention? A couple of years ago, there were complaints about a Krugersdorp paintball team (paintball is a popular war game involving firing wads of paint – great fun, actually) that decided to name itself Waffen SS.
No doubt, part of the attraction for some lies in Nazism’s association with the celebration of raw power unchecked by any tiresome moral constraints. There is more to it, though. It seems impossible to deny that the kind of power being identified with is white power and that what is ultimately being affirmed is a still-lingering notion of white, Nordic racial superiority. After all, why is it that only whites, from the overtly racist ultra-right fringe through to those who find casually identifying with Nazi symbols rather titillating, comprise those who are turned on rather than repelled by the Nazi legacy?
Writing in the Sunday Times of June 17, Ivor Chipkin suggests that the St. John’s incident is “revealing of the way white racism works generally in South Africa today”. When boys at an upmarket Johannesburg school, itself “an artifact of British imperialism”, performs Nazi rituals, they “are behaving as whites, as people for whom the past is behind them, for whom the past is a reservoir of curiosities to be drawn on at will without consequences”.
I would take this a little further and suggest that flirtations with Nazi symbols represent a subtle rebellion against the non-racial, democratic values that (notwithstanding that nowadays, the ruling party is apparently bent on undermining those values at every possible opportunity) theoretically at least still underpin our society. It is essentially indulged in by those who have not reconciled themselves to whites losing their place in the sun as South Africa’s ruling racial caste, and who, by “going Nazi” – whether as a ‘joke’ or in the ostensible context of pursuing an interest in military history – are in reality cocking a snook at the new regime. What people choose to do when they go out into the world is their own business, but in our schools at least, the youth need to be taught exactly what lies behind the Nazi legacy that some of their peers think it is so clever to identify with.