THE AVANT-GARDE: Reappropriation of Nazi Aesthetics

Following the end of the Second World War, everything related to Nazism was immensely taboo, not least the uniformed aesthetic and well-known symbols of the regime. The swastika had become a symbol of fear, its appearance starkly calling to mind all the horrors of the war and the Third Reich. The distinctive uniform of the SS became a motif for evil; even today, seeing a character in any work of fiction dressed in a similar way is a sure indication that they are a villain of the worst kind.

Then in the mid-1970’s, there was the emergence of the punk subculture, made up largely of a new generation of young people who had not lived through the war. Punk is, fundamentally, anti-establishment and aims to shock and subvert the current ‘norm’. As part of this endeavour to be shocking, it was not uncommon to see punks and punk musicians sporting clothing emblazoned with Nazi symbols and iconography. Bands like The Stooges wore swastikas at some of their performances. Joy Division – a band “named for the squad of sex slaves used to pleasure SS officers in concentration camps” (Beeber, 2007) – wore Hitler Youth-esque uniforms. This led to a new and often fetishist fascination with the Nazi aesthetic, which lingers in our culture even today. Prince Harry famously dressed as an SS officer for a Halloween party; the 2011 Armani collection was oddly reminiscent of Mussolini’s fascist uniforms:

The reasons for this revived interest have been debated at great length. Writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag argued that part of the attraction, particularly for the early punks who presented themselves as sexually subversive, lies in the fact that all aspects of the Nazi regime had inherent erotic undertones:

“Hitler regarded leadership as sexual mastery of the ‘feminine’ masses, as rape. (The expression of the crowds in ‘Triumph of the Will’ in one of ecstasy; the leader makes the crowd come.) Left-wing movements have tended to be unisex, and asexual in their imagery. Right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface.” (Sontag, 1980)

In addition to this, Sontag stated that the recurrence of Nazi aesthetics in fashion could be due to the powerful connotations of fascist uniforms, which “suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognised), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence” (Sontag, 1980).

Setting the reasons for the attraction aside, however, perhaps a more important question is whether or not it is, in fact, right to reappropriate Nazi aesthetics in this way. Can it be appropriate to take the symbols of such a horrific, oppressive regime and apply them to any aspect of modern culture? I would argue that the answer is no.

Many people argue that reclaiming Nazi symbols is an empowering act – that it causes these symbols to lose their impact and almost makes a mockery of them and what they represent. Others point to the fact that the swastika pre-dates the Nazi party and in other cultures is still considered a positive symbol. I do not find this to be a valid argument: the swastika’s original meaning, and its current connotations in other cultures, does not change the fact that in the majority of western countries it is now a symbol of violence, hatred and genocide. The punks of the 1970s did not wear the swastika in an attempt to change its meaning or to make it a more positive symbol; they were utilising what they knew were its terrible associations in order to shock and offend. Punk icon Sid Vicious even allegedly wore a swastika t-shirt while walking around a Jewish community in France; there could have been no purpose behind this except to be offensive.

Online dictionary Grammarist defines ‘reappropriate’ as “to appropriate something pejorative and make it positive”. Clearly, this was not the intention of punks in the 70s, nor is it the intention of any fashion designer who incorporates Nazi style or symbolism into their products – therefore what these people have done or are doing cannot be considered reappropriation, but rather thoughtless use of these symbols in an attempt at creating shock value. Grammarist also goes on to add that “reappropriated terms are usually best avoided by anyone outside the reappropriating groups”. Reappropriation is something that can only be carried out by the group whom the pejorative symbol or slur was originally intended to demean. A relevant example in this case would be the gay community’s reappropriation of the ‘pink triangle’:

This symbol was used as a symbol of oppression in Nazi Germany, much like the Star of David that Jewish people were forced to wear. The downward-pointing pink triangle was stitched onto the clothing of male prisoners of concentration camps who had been sent there because of their homosexuality. It was intended as a symbol of shame and subjugation, but in the 1970s it was reclaimed and adopted as a symbol of pride and self-identity and was used extensively at gay rights protests. Today, it is a universal symbol of the gay rights movement, second in popularity only to the rainbow flag.

I think it is clear that this – taking a symbol originally designed to degrade and turning it into a symbol of pride and empowerment – is entirely different to wearing a swastika in an attempt to look scandalous. I think that the unthinking use of Nazi symbols in modern fashion and music is disrespectful to the many people for whom these symbols still resonate, and I also feel that it is little more than a cheap ploy to create a shocking, ‘edgy’ persona without having any particular beliefs or ideology to back it up.

Works Cited

Beeber, S. L., 2007. Jewcy. [Online]
Available at: http://www.jewcy.com/post/blitzkrieg_stop_the_nazi_aesthetic_of_the_stooges_and_the_punk_music_they_begat#sthash.9yr4od61.dpuf

Sontag, S., 1980. Fascinating Fascism. In: Under the Sign of Saturn. s.l.:s.n., pp. 73-105.

Further Bibliography

Kreuter, N., 2007, viz. [Online]

Available at: http://viz.cwrl.utexas.edu/node/115

Grammarist [Online]

Available at: http://grammarist.com/words/reappropriate/

Punk and the Swastika [Online]

Available at: http://www.punk77.co.uk/groups/punkthe.htm

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