Why is the UK one of the only Western countries with no ban on Nazi symbols?

Why is the UK one of the only Western countries with no ban on Nazi symbols?

In a crackdown on a rise in the far right movement, Australia this week introduced rules to ban the display and sale of Nazi symbols.

Already illegal in certain areas, including Victoria and Queensland, the ruling makes public displays of the swastika or SS symbols punishable by up to a year in prison. The ban, however, does not apply to the Nazi salute.

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While similar bans are in place in much of Europe and other nations such as Venezuela and Vietnam, UK legislation does not stop anyone from displaying the Swastika, or any other form of Nazi insignia. There is also no ban in the US, which – perhaps incongruously from a country that allows school districts to ban children’s books relating to race and the LGBTQ community – cites freedom of speech as a reason for allowing such symbols.

How the German press reported on Prince Harry's 2005 fancy dress costume of a Nazi general's uniform.How the German press reported on Prince Harry's 2005 fancy dress costume of a Nazi general's uniform.
How the German press reported on Prince Harry's 2005 fancy dress costume of a Nazi general's uniform.

Indeed, in Britain, if one wanted to (not looking at you, Prince Harry), one could, in theory, turn up at a fancy dress party decked out in the 1940s desert uniform of General Erwin Rommel’s German Afrika Korps, complete with a Nazi flag on the sleeve.

Of course, the symbol itself is not entirely synonymous with hate. Coming from the Sanskrit "svastika", the word actually means "good to be” – and the design is used by Hindus as an icon of wellbeing and good fortune. However, its unpleasant connotations came after it was adopted by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party in the 1930s.

Two years ago, a petition was raised with Westminster to introduce laws – akin to those of the German Strafgesetzbuch section 86a – to ban the use of such symbols in the UK. However, it did not generate enough signatures to be raised in Parliament.

The German laws ban the "use of symbols of unconstitutional organisations" outside the contexts of "art or science, research or teaching". Although the specific symbols are not listed, the legislation has been used against Islamic extremist and Russian militarist symbols, as well as Nazi insignia. In Germany, other links to Nazi culture, such as the "Heil Hitler" greeting and the "Sieg Heil" greeting, have also been the subject of a conviction under this law, since it was introduced during the Cold War.

However, the UK’s lack of specific laws against symbols does not mean that swastikas are allowed to be used for nefarious purposes. Hate crime laws would prohibit their display in many instances.

Indeed, earlier this week, a teenager was charged with “racially aggravated criminal damage” to a Windrush mural in Port Talbot after daubing it with Nazi symbols. This demonstrates that using such a symbol can be a criminal offence in the UK, but only if it is deemed to be used in a racially aggravated way. Merely displaying the symbol – such as on a fancy dress costume – would presumably not be enough.

Yet, this issue is not something that should be ignored by governments. Support for right wing extremism has undoubtedly grown in recent years, notably across Europe. Governments which have not yet implemented a ban should perhaps follow in Australia’s footsteps to do so.



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