After World War II, the two Germanies had their own approaches for denazification of their governments. The Soviet-dominated east consolidated control under communism. However the west was committed to an open society by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Oppression wasn’t an option.
Instead, the new Federal Republic of Germany tactically targeted specific signs and signals that Nazis would use to organize and to spread their message, banning those while allowing other ideas to thrive. America must learn from this.
The Swastika is an ancient sign. To this day it’s used ceremonially in south and east Asia. Travel to India, for instance, and you’ll see it all over the place. Everywhere Hinduism and Buddhism have spread, the swastika is used as a positive symbol.
However to the Germans it didn’t matter where the symbol came from. All that mattered is that Nazis would use it as a rallying point, so west Germany banned it in their Basic Law, a ban that remains in place today.
Germany has gone beyond simply banning symbols though. They even regulate the graves of Nazis to prevent them from being shrines for Nazis use to further their cause. In this one narrow way, Germans allow their government a wide latitude in order to fight this form of radicalism.
However we Americans are not used to this. We haven’t had to deal with Nazis so much. George Lincoln Rockwell, American Nazi leader in the 50s and 60s, went to extreme lengths to try to get around the wall of silence Americans put around him and his movement. Rockwell (rightly) feared this would prevent his party from every gaining any ground, since if he can’t get his ideas out, he can’t convince anyone of them.
So Rockwell instituted what he called “Phase One”: Making boisterous, cartoonishly exaggerated demonstrations that demanded public and media attention. Goose stepping in full Nazi regalia, in the style lampooned in the movie The Blues Brothers, was a big part of that. By getting people’s attention, Rockwell hoped that he could follow up by getting a hearing of his ideas, and win people to his cause.
Today’s Internet Nazis have adopted a modern version of Phase One to get their ideas to the public. They create and hijack what they call “memes” – images expressing a basic idea or emotion, which then are given relevant or humorous captions – and associate them with racist ideology.
Pepe the Frog has become one of those icons the Internet Nazis use. They rally around it. They have an attachment to it. The “meme” is a simple shared concept, and they build on that to create a community of hate.
One reason they like Pepe for this, is that it’s ridiculous and subversive. It’s a badly drawn cartoon character. It has no obvious or direct connections to Naziism or racism, just by looking at it. But just like the swastika, Pepe is a symbol of hate because the Nazis have chosen to rally around it.
So when the Anti-Defamation League calls out Pepe as a hate symbol, they want you to laugh. They want you to mock the idea. They want you to treat this cartoon as a harmless Internet fad, not to be taken seriously.
The Germans know better. The Nazis want you to let them have their things, so that they can spread their poison with them. We need to learn from today’s Germans, and nip the Nazi symbols and “memes” in the bud.