Banning Offensive Flags Won’t Get Rid of Hate

One boon of living in a free society like the U.S. or Germany is that we can say (almost) anything we please and wave pieces of cloth depicting (almost) any symbol. The bane is that we’ll forever be debating whether and when to include those two parenthetical “almosts.” 

Consider flags that extol neo-Nazism or other strands of White Supremacy and racism. The U.S., thanks to the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, has no legal ban against such symbols. On the face of it, that would seem to be the most self-confidently liberal stance. 

By contrast, Germany and Austria, the homelands of Hitlerism, are among several countries that prohibit swastikas, unless they’re used in a clearly artistic or pedagogical context. Their lawmakers decided that the danger of awakening old demons is just too great, and the offense to victims of the Nazis or their descendants too imponderable.

But aside from sweeping national laws (the German one, for example) or their absence (in the U.S.), how exactly should the various institutions in a liberal society treat the display of hateful symbols? 

America’s Pentagon last year decided that the Confederate flag — associated with White Supremacy among other things — is no longer appropriate on real estate belonging to the U.S. military. And that was before the outrage of Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters ransacked the U.S. Capitol, some of them brandishing the rebel flag.

Singling out Dixie would have opened Pandora’s Box, however. Should the symbols of the Proud Boys and other right-wing groups also be prohibited? How about banners of the conspiracy theory QAnon? 

So the Pentagon instead enumerated what flags are allowed: Old Glory, obviously, but also the flags of U.S. states, groups representing prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, banners of specific military units and, in some circumstances, flags of allied countries. By default, all other flags are banned.

This maximalist approach has too many drawbacks to become the model. To be consistent the Pentagon also has to prohibit gay-rights rainbow flags, for example — it didn’t even make an exception this month for the LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations. Thus, the U.S. military is technically agnostic between a swastika and a rainbow. That’s not a solution that will be accepted by society at large.

But any attempt by policymakers to be more discriminating leads to other problems. Take a look at the extremist scene in Germany, for example. One way neo-Nazis and other right-wing conspiracy theorists have been getting around the ban on swastikas is to appropriate other historical symbols and assign new meanings to them.

The most popular of late is a design dating to Imperial Germany. Conveniently, these flags come in quite a few iterations, so you can tweak and swap as needed. Here are just three examples.

Banning Offensive Flags Won’t Get Rid of Hate

For years, these flags have been popular with the so-called Reichsbuerger. They’re a loose assortment of conspiracy theorists who are convinced that the Federal Republic of Germany doesn’t legally exist, being a sham concocted by the Allied Powers of World War II, and that the Reich — either the Kaiser’s or the Fuehrer’s — lives on in spirit. 

More recently, other right-wing and neo-Nazi groups have also adopted the Imperial flags. Many were waving them last year during an attempt to storm the Reichstag building in Berlin that houses parliament. In retrospect, that looked like a dress rehearsal for the attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

This week, the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 federal states agreed to introduce new rules that would let the police crack down on protesters carrying these flags. But would that actually help the cops suppress public expressions of hate? I doubt it.

Germany’s white supremacists are already moving on to other symbols, such as the Wirmer flag pictured below. Designed by Josef Wirmer, who participated in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, it has since been reinterpreted by neo-Nazis into its near-opposite meaning — it’s now a symbol of resistance against the Federal Republic. Because the design looks Scandinavian, the flag also symbolizes a Nordic race identity.

Banning Offensive Flags Won’t Get Rid of Hate

And that’s the general pattern: People with good and bad intentions alike will assign meanings to symbols, flags, secret handshakes and shibboleths as they please. Trying to keep this protean iconography clean and decent would be like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. 

We’d have to ban so much, we might forfeit liberty in the process. Once the precedent is established, it would hold for all future governments. If you don’t yet find that scary, just look at Belarus, where the dictator Alexander Lukashenko sends his thugs after anybody who dares to wear the white-red-white symbolizing the freedom movement.

Lawmakers in the West are better off allowing all symbols for private use, but cracking down hard as soon as they’re employed for anything threatening or criminal. On the streets outside the Reichstag or the Capitol, for example, it’s fine for protesters to bring flags, even offensive ones. But as soon as people breach a single barrier, they must be arrested and prosecuted, for incitement or whatever else.

The much bigger problem, of course, is how to respond to hatred and prejudice. Banning flags isn’t the answer. Our only hope is that humanity’s better nature will prevail. Every day and everywhere, we must counter evil sentiments with nobler ones — whether we have a flag or not.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.