The Nazis, the Swastika, Hitler, and the SS: 5 Fast Facts

Credit: Youtube / History Channel / Video Screen Grab

Buena Park, California — Police are investigating a possible hate crime in Buena Park, California. On Saturday, December 10, 2016, the True Light Christian Church, which ministers to a largely Korean congregation, was vandalized. The vandals used red spray paint to graffiti the outside of the church with hateful pseudo-Nazi symbols and messages.

According to parishioner Peter Lee, the church has been vandalized in the past and has even experienced break-ins. But he feels the vicious racism is even worse. Lee said, “That’s just not a pretty sight to see”.

In the supposedly Nazi graffiti on the walls of the True Light Christian Church, the swastikas are backward and the motto of the Nazi SS is so badly misspelled that law enforcement at first didn’t know what it was. Credit: Peter Lee

However, the images are not truly Nazi in the strictest sense. The red swastikas painted on the walls are backward to the one Adolf Hitler designated as the central symbol of the Nazi flag. And the words that attempt to replicate the motto of the Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS, are badly misspelled. So who were the Nazis, and what was the SS?

Here are 5 Fast Facts about history’s most notorious organization:

1The Fuehrer Adolph Hitler

Adolf Hitler delivering a speech to the German people in 1943. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives

Adolf Hitler was a failed Austrian artist who served honorably in the First World War. After the war he was outraged by Germany’s surrender, and he became a popular speaker in Munich beer halls as he railed against the Treaty of Versailles, which contained terms unfavorable to Germany. He also spoke against capitalism and communism, both of which he said were anti-German conspiracies by foreigners and Jews.

Hitler became leader of the fledgling Nazi Party three years after the war, in 1921. The party gradually grew in size, power, and influence, and by the early 1930s it was the largest elected party in the German Reichstag or Parliament. German President Hindenburg was coerced into appointing Hitler as Chancellor or leader of Parliament in 1933. When President Hindenburg died, Hitler merged the position of Chancellor with that of President, resulting in a new position: “Fuehrer”. This role was essentially that of a dictator, and the government became was that of a single party, the Nazis. Hitler pressed to eliminate Germany’s foreign and Jewish populations, to redress the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles, and to annex to Germany those territories that were home to ethnic German populations.

Meanwhile Germany, which had been forced to disarm after the First World War, had secretly been rearming. In 1939, supposedly in support of ethnic Germans living in that country, Hitler’s army invaded Poland. As a result of the invasion, Britain and French declared war on Germany. In 1941, Hitler’s army marched into the Soviet Union, and by the end of that year, Germany and its Italian ally occupied most of Europe and North Africa. However, his army could not overcome Soviets opposition. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by another Hitler ally, Japan, gave the U.S. an excuse to enter the war. The German armed forces soon found themselves in a defensive position. By 1945 Germany was decisively losing the war, and Hitler committed suicide rather than be captured.

2The Nazi Party

“Nazi” or “Nazi Party” is short for “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”, the name of Hitler’s political party. Nazism developed in the aftermath of the First World War. At that time many Germans, demoralized by wartime defeat and post-war economic problems, found renewed hope and pride in German nationalism through the Nazi Party. Nazism promoted the idea of ethnic Germans as being a Nordic master race, and it established the ideal of Nordic/German (“Aryan”) racial purity.

Nazism rejected and was hostile to Marxism and Communism; the words “National Socialism” were an attempt to create an alternative to traditional “socialism”. The party’s predecessor was the nationalist and anti-Semitic German Workers’ Party, over which Adolf Hitler assumed control in the early 1920. At that time he renamed it the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which became known as the Nazi Party, for short.

3The Swastika

This left-facing swastika was found in a second-century Roman mosaic in Tunisia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Maciej Szczepanczyk

Hitler was enamored of occultism, so it’s no surprise that he adopted the worldwide spiritual symbol of the swastika as the Nazi emblem. The swastika is an ancient symbol found in diverse places around the world, including the Indian subcontinent, the Americas, and Europe. As a sacred symbol associated with good fortune in the Hinduism and Buddhism, its use in Asia dates back more than ten thousand years.

In the Americas, the swastika is found in among pre- and post-Columbian Native American artifacts in diverse parts of the U.S., as well as in Canada and Central America. In Europe, the swastika has been found in both ancient Roman and Greek ruins. The swastika symbol was used by Germanic, Anglo-Saxon, and Viking tribes between the third and ninth centuries and was an emblem of Norse paganism. This latter meaning was the icon’s appeal to Adolf Hitler, who in 1920 adopted it for the Nazi party’s flag, badge, and armband. The Nazi swastika is right-facing, meaning that its upper arm always points to the right.

4The SS

SS leader Heinrich Himmler — note the distinctive “death head” skull on his cap. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives

“SS” stands for Schutzstaffel, which means “Protection Squadron” in German. The SS was a paramilitary organization for the Nazis. Under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler—one of the most influential Nazis whom many feel was directly responsible for the Holocaust—the SS eventually became one of the most powerful organizations in Nazi Germany. The SS had several main branches. One was a unit of Nazi military combat troops. Another was a kind of police force that enforced racist Nazi laws.

Another was the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police formed by Hermann Goering, second most powerful man in Germany after Adolf Hitler; Goering eventually handed control of the Gestapo to Himmler. Still another branch subjugated concentration camp inmates for use as slave laborers. More than any other agency in Nazi Germany, the SS was most directly to blame for the genocide of 6 million people of Jewish heritage in the Holocaust.

All branches of the SS committed war crimes during the Second World War. After the war, the SS was found to be a criminal organization during war trials at Nuremberg. The highest-ranking SS officer to survive the war was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, for Himmler had committed suicide after being captured by the British. Kaltenbrunner was found guilty at Nuremberg and executed by hanging.

5Nazism Today

The façade of the vandalized church in Buena Park, California. The vile racist graffiti (not visible in this photo) is being investigated as a hate crime. Credit: Google Maps

Today, small but vocal minorities in several countries embrace Nazism. These people are often referred to as Neo-Nazis. Neo-Nazis typically admire and with to revive the racist ideas of Adolf Hitler and the German Nazi party. In addition to espousing racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism, Neo-Nazis engage in Holocaust denial, adopt Nazi symbols and slogans, and indulge in a personality cult of worshipping Hitler.

As was the case in the racist and hate-crime vandalism on December 9 at the True Light Christian Church, however, Neo-Nazi often are largely ignorant about real Nazism, and they often get the details wrong. For example, the True Light Christian Church vandals drew their swastika backward, as left facing. They also grossly misspelled the SS motto “Meine Ehre heisst Treue” (meaning “My honor is called loyalty”), writing “Mein ehre heist Jerue” instead. The investigation into the vile racist vandalism at the Buena Park church is ongoing.

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