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Originally published on October 18th, 2008.
By Mindy Menjou
Rock music has quite the legacy of political and social activism. From Vietnam War protest songs to a pledge by the Artists United Against Apartheid not to play Sun City to the Tibetan Freedom Concerts to Live 8, many of rock’s favorite causes have involved the identification and indictment of instances of injustice and oppression.
Not all of rock’s political statements, however, have been so straightforward. Take the punks’ dalliance with the swastika. The original punks weren’t anti-Semites or neo-Nazis, so what did they mean by associating with fascist and specifically Nazi imagery, incorporating these themes into both their look and their lyrics? What was the point of their adopting the symbols of an outmoded political philosophy belonging to an enemy vanquished by their parents’ generation?
Rock music has always sided with and romanticized the underdog. It has also always been about rebellion against the dominant paradigm, with anti-Nazi sentiment certainly representing such a thing. And there was, of course, an “I hate my parents” spirit – a hallmark of virtually every youth subculture — to the whole thing. In this way, punk identification with Nazism as a romantic and rebellious statement would seem to make sense.
This explanation, however, is too simple, too neat. Using the Sex Pistols’ “Belsen Was A Gas” as a starting point, we can explore the various nuances of the punks’ message and ultimately discover that it was deliberately ambiguous, engineered to highlight the fact that, while it may be a human tendency to think in terms of simple binaries (the good guys versus the evildoers), the world in which we live is far more complicated than that.
The Sex Pistols were not the first punk band, nor were they the first punk band to ever wear swastikas. Nevertheless, they are the archetypal punk band and their flirtation with Nazism was particularly bold (especially when compared with the more subtle World War II references found in such songs as The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”).
In 1976, bassist Sid Vicious penned the song “Belsen Was A Gas.” Bergen-Belsen was a concentration camp; the title, therefore, represents an extremely tasteless play on words. The song, with vocals by lead singer Johnny Rotten, is rather schizophrenic, bouncing between the sick and juvenile pun of the title and a vague expression of sympathy for the victims, ending in a distinctly nihilistic fashion. Analysis of the song (which, on first listening, seems almost so ridiculous as not to deserve any such thing) does not offer any concrete answers to the question as to why punks would have decided to go so far beyond the boundaries of good taste. What it does do is add to the ambiguity surrounding the punks’ message by suggesting several different motivations that the punks could have had for utilizing Nazi imagery.
The song begins with the lines “Belsen was a gas / I heard the other day / In the open graves / Where the Jews all lay.” Essentially, Vicious is making a rather crude (and unfunny) joke, suggesting that good times were to be had at Belsen. It seems unlikely that these opening lines were intended to do anything other than shock, offend, and anger. However, the next few lines, while still somewhat insensitive, seem softer in tone: “Life is fun and / Wish you were here / Was what they wrote on postcards / To who they held dear.” These lyrics seem almost tender when compared with the opening lines, suggesting a small measure of sympathy for the Jews. These words have the effect of humanizing the victims by acknowledging that they were real people with friends and relatives and by suggesting that they might have sent to their loved ones comforting letters replete with the lie that Belsen wasn’t so bad after all, that it was something like a holiday destination. Whether this effect is an accidental one or an intended one is unclear. Vicious may simply have been trying to continue with the theme of Belsen having been fun for the whole family while still making sure that everything rhymed.
Vicious wrote two sets of lyrics to follow these comparatively heartfelt words. The next verse in his original lyrics goes “Belsen was divine / If you survived the train / Then when you get inside / It’s Auf Wiedersehen.” Here, he has gone right back to making light of the situation. The lyrics that Rotten actually sings, while arguably still in bad taste, are more serious in tone: “Sergeant Majors on the march / Wash their bodies in the starch / See them all die one by one / Guess it’s dead, guess it’s glad.” It is in these words that Vicious comes closest to a direct condemnation of the crimes and criminals of the Holocaust and of those who “[saw] them all die one by one” and stood by and did nothing. The first two verses are then repeated, but this time they are punctuated with lamenting cries of “Oh, dear!” as if to express sorrow and horror.
Finally, the song spirals out of control as Rotten breaks into an ugly, jeering laugh before spitting out admonishments to the listener to “Be a man — kill someone / Be a man — kill yourself.” These anarchic lines suggest a desire for the annihilation of the human race: a hatred for humanity as well as self-loathing. The final lines serve to complicate our understanding of the song as well as our understanding of the punks’ invocation of Nazi themes in general because, while the opening lines of the song seem to mock the Jews, these lines suggest something entirely different: the idea that the Nazis made a mockery of humanity.
Because the cultivation of an antisocial and provocative image was and is such an important part of punk music, there exists the temptation to “resort, then, to the most obvious of explanations” (Hebdige 116) and attribute “Belsen Was A Gas” and the punks’ embracement of Nazi themes, in general, to a desire to shock.
Certainly, that was part of it. Swastika chic, which predates punk, began as an aggressive antifashion fashion statement. Interestingly, Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ original manager, actually helped to spearhead this trend fairly early on when he collaborated with designer Vivienne Westwood on some S&M-inspired garments emblazoned with swastikas that were sold in Sex, his London clothing store. The idea was to juxtapose symbols of sex and violence, both already imbued with connotations of control, thereby perverting love and eroticizing death and making “respectable” people uncomfortable. McLaren was not trying to “attract a clientele of serious pornography consumers or neo-Nazis” (Henry 72). Rather, he was hoping to capitalize on the love many teenagers have of slaughtering society’s sacred cows — a love of which the punks, who got off on being controversial and contrary, had no shortage.
As one punk fan put it, she wore a swastika, not because she identified or agreed with fascism, but because “Punks just like to be hated” (qtd. in Hebdige 116). According to David Johansen of The New York Dolls (an NYC proto-punk/glam rock outfit known for its cross-dressing antics), a band’s use of the swastika didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the ideology of its members:
In grammar school you get a looseleaf book and the first thing you draw in it is a swastika and a skull and crossbones. You carve a swastika in the desk. You don’t know what fascism is, it’s not anti-Jewish at all. Kids don’t care anything about that shit. When you want to make a statement about how BAD you are, that’s how you do it (qtd. in Savage 63-64).
However, while at first the swastika was adopted by the punks because of their affinity for all things “ugly or offensive to the general public” (Henry 80) — especially to their parents — and a desire to be bad, it would prove to be about more than simply being shocking for the sake of being shocking. The punks’ appropriation of the swastika was more about “unhing[ing] established hierarchies of meaning and value” (Ward). It was about calling into question the meanings with which society has imbued this symbol in order to purge it of meaning or at the very least to force people to think about why it might be considered shocking in the first place.
In other words, the punks’ co-optation of the swastika was about challenging the things that their society purported to know — its values, traditions, and truths — and, then, exposing them as delusory myths. Siouxsie Sioux, a punk fan turned frontwoman of her own band, Siouxsie and the Banshees, explains it in terms that are a bit more crude, alluding to the bratty nature of what the punks were doing while also lending insight into why the punks chose to break this particular taboo:
It was always very much an anti-mums and anti-dads thing. We hated older people — not across the board but particularly in suburbia — always harping on about Hitler, ‘We showed him,’ and that smug pride. It was a way of saying, ‘Well I think Hitler was very good actually’: a way of watching someone go completely red-faced (qtd. Savage 241).
Siouxsie’s statement reveals that the punk kids were very much aware of the offensive nature of what they were doing. That was the whole point. If they were insensitive, the punks certainly were not ignorant; they were not unaware of Hitler’s atrocities. They were, however, sick of having their parents’ victory over him shoved down their throats especially since, to them, it did not seem that their parents had much of anything to show for it.
The swastika as a punk symbol had a great deal more significance for British youth than it did for American ones. The United States enjoyed a postwar economic boom and rapidly rose to prominence as a superpower following World War II. The United Kingdom, however, became further and further removed from its past as a major world power; it could no longer be said that the sun never set on the British Empire.
The fact that the empire was in decline was painfully apparent to the punk kids who came largely from poor, working-class families and whose futures seemed bleak or even nonexistent. Unable to get work for the most part, they felt alienated and abandoned by society. They were perpetually shiftless and bored and often turned to petty crime for pocket money and kicks. To them, Britain did not seem very “Great” at all. Nevertheless, their parents still clung to “the threadbare fantasy of Victory” (Savage 241). Thus, the punks mocked their parents’ constant invocation of a past victory and their willingness to rest on their laurels, seemingly oblivious to the reality of what Britain had become.
The punks sought to challenge their society’s collective memory of World War II and the Holocaust. The idea was, according to John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), to “debunk all this crap from the past, wipe history clean and have a fresh approach” (qtd. in Savage 242). For many people, World War II simply represents a triumph of good over evil. It is often forgotten that in the years leading up to World War II, Germany and the other Axis powers were by no means alone in their taste for fascism.
Both the United States and Great Britain were home to various fascist groups, including Hitler sympathizers and branches of the Nazi party. Obviously, the fascist movements in the United States and Great Britain never gained enough momentum to have been able to indulge in the excesses of Hitler’s Third Reich, but they did exist. Additionally, the Allied powers knew about Jewish repression and the concentration camps as early as the mid-thirties, yet they stood by and did nothing as an entire people were persecuted and brought to the brink of extermination, acting only when it became apparent that Hitler’s plans included them as well. Furthermore, neither the United States’ nor the United Kingdom’s own historical legacies are free of barbarism or genocide.
In light of this, the punks took issue with their parents’ self-righteousness and their version of victor’s history, which the punks interpreted as an attempt by their parents’ generation to distance itself from any and all responsibility for the Holocaust and to alleviate its own guilt over past atrocities such as those associated with colonialism/imperialism (slavery, the Opium Wars, the conquest of the Americas and genocide against the Native Americans, sometimes called the American Holocaust, etc.). It was their parents’ delusions that the punks were mocking and indeed attacking in songs like “Belsen Was A Gas.” The swastika, as the punks used it, can thus be thought of as an accusatory reminder to society of “the atrocities it permits” (Henry 80) as if to say that it is not innocent, that it allowed the Holocaust to happen, that it did too little too late, and that it insists on a pat on the back for simply doing the right thing.
Linked to this idea of neither the U.S.A. nor the U.K. being able to claim the moral high ground is the idea that both simply traded one form of fascism for another: a consumer culture of conformity. In fact, in “God Save The Queen,” the Sex Pistols call the monarchy “the fascist regime.” From the punk kids’ perspective, their society — from its crass commercialism to its school uniforms and the cookie-cutter education it offered — was all about crushing individuality.
The sentiment is perhaps best summed up by a few lines from hardcore punk band the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” (a song that denounces the skinhead punks who actually took all of the swastika stuff seriously): “The real Nazis run your school. They’re coaches, businessmen and cops. In the real Fourth Reich, you’ll be the first to go.” The punks were painfully aware that they were hated because they refused to do as they were told and pretended to be happy with the inauthentic existence offered to them by society. They were society’s new undesirables, but they were also products of society. Their wearing swastikas was roughly equivalent to calling all authority figures (and those who blindly follow them) fascist pigs.
The swastika is a loaded symbol. It represents many different things, but the chief meaning with which it is invested is a monolithic abstraction: pure evil. It is easy enough to align oneself with anti-Nazi sentiments. It is obvious to most people (not all people, unfortunately) that what the Nazis did was wrong. However, the punks, through their usage of the swastika, posed some really interesting questions to society: Does being anti-Nazi make one a good person by default? Is an anti-Nazi society automatically a healthy one? Does standing up for what’s right one time give a nation a free pass to do whatever it likes from that point on?
The punks would have answered each of these questions in the negative. Being against something that is so obviously wrong does not necessarily make a person, a society, or a nation right on all other issues. For the punks, their embracing of the swastika did not represent an “inversion of values” (Ward). They were not giving their stamp of approval to Nazism. Instead, to the punks, the swastika stood for the “negation of all values” (Ward) and “its primary value and appeal derived precisely from its lack of meaning” (Hebdige 128). From their point of view, because of the almost cartoonish evil the swastika had come to represent — an almost uncontested evil virtually anyone could and would condemn — it did not seem to represent anything real anymore.
The punks’ real failure lies in the fact that they provided no viable alternative to the society that they hated and thought meaningless. All they had to offer was more meaninglessness: destruction and anarchy.
Ultimately, the punks were unsuccessful in their attempts to make society reach “the very place where meaning itself evaporates” (Hebdige 128). Their message was very much misunderstood, with one rather tragic consequence.
Teenage alienation and the longing for belonging and the punk movement’s flirtation with Nazi imagery proved to be a dangerous combination. Various fascist and white power groups (most notably the British National Party and the British National Front) took advantage of the situation and used music as a tool for recruitment, turning segments of the punk scene into breeding grounds for budding skinheads, a trend which continues to this day. Even some of the original punks have since admitted the futility of what they were trying to do. John Lydon has gone on record as saying that wearing swastikas and making songs like “Belsen Was A Gas” were “foolish” things to do (Savage 242). Not only did they choose the wrong taboo to break — one society was not then and is still not now ready to see broken (for the swastika remains as potent a symbol of evil as ever) — but they made their message so ambiguous as to be almost inscrutable, obscuring their own meaning about the ambiguity of meaning.
Dead Kennedys. “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Plastic Surgery Disasters. 1982.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the meaning of style. New York: Routledge, 1979.
Henry, Tricia. Break All Rules! Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1989.
Martin, Linda and Kerry Segrave. Anti-Rock: The Opposition to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1988.
Savage, Jon. England’s dreaming: anarchy, Sex Pistols, punk rock, and beyond. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Sex Pistols. “Belsen Was A Gas.” The Great Rock & Roll Swindle. 1979.
Ward, James. “‘This is Germany! It’s 1933!’ Appropriations and constructions of ‘fascism’ in New York punk/hardcore in the 1980s.” Journal of Popular Culture 30 (1996): 155-184.