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Schilthorn, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland. Photo credit: Leila Azevedo
Bern

Switzerland decides not to ban swastikas

Switzerland had the oldest policy of military neutrality in the world; it never participated in a foreign war after the Treaty of Paris in 1815. But it has abandoned its policy to allow the swastika while freezing around $15.6 billion in Russian assets.

Published: March 27, 2022, 11:14 am

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    The swastika will be allowed to be shown publicly in Switzerland. Nazi symbols have been a hotly debated issue since the conflict in Ukraine. The Swiss Federal Council justified its decision by saying that “freedom of expression” weighed more heavily, even if a majority of the population perceived the symbol as abominable.

    The country also joined the rest of Europe in imposing sanctions on Russia. “We are in an extraordinary situation where extraordinary measures could be decided,” President and Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis told a news conference in Bern at the beginning of the month.

    The swastika, as the most important symbol of National Socialism is also called, is a criminal offense to show in public contexts in many countries, including Switzerland’s neighbors Germany, France and Austria. Some wanted the same ban to apply in Switzerland, and no less than three different motions had been tabled by Swiss lawmakers, all of which sought to criminalize symbols that could be considered “Nazi”, “racist” or “extremist”. In early February, the Swiss Federal Council, the corresponding government, decided not to approve the motions.

    It is the news site 20min.ch that on February 9 reported that the Federal Council had given a cold shoulder to the three proposals to criminalize symbols from the Third Reich. In the face of the hostilities in Ukraine involving neo-Nazi fighters, the Swiss decided to ditch their 207-year-old neutrality.

    The Federal Council justified its decision by saying that even if a majority of the population could perceive the swastika as offensive, freedom of expression outweighed that.

    The Federal Council also said that even offensive opinions should have a place in society, even if it arouses the disapproval of many. In Germany, the penal code strictly prohibits Nazi symbols. Sharing images such as swastikas, wearing an SS uniform and making statements in support of Hitler, both on- and offline, are considered crimes.

    In fact, German hate-speech laws related to anti-Semitism and immigration were tightened last year.

    According to the newspaper, the decision also referred to a ruling of the Swiss Supreme Court, which had previously ruled on the same issue. Even if the court had come to the conclusion that, for example, swastikas or Hitler greetings that are shown in public naturally offend, the impact on public order is not such that it justified criminalization.

    The Swiss Federal Council instead advocated preventive work against extremism, which is believed to give better results than punishing people for showing certain symbols in public.

    In the US, the Anti-Defamation League, the leading pro-Israel lobbying group in America, meanwhile voiced strong support for Ukraine’s neo-Nazi groups on the grounds that they “don’t attack Jews or Jewish institutions”.

    David Fishman, professor of Jewish History at The Jewish Theological Seminary, defended Ukraine’s neo-Nazis. “There are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, just as there are in the US, and in Russia for that matter. But they are a very marginal group with no political influence and who don’t attack Jews or Jewish institutions in Ukraine,” Fishman explained.

    “Yes, some members of these ultra-nationalist groups have used Nazi insignia, made Hitler salutes, and used anti-Semitic rhetoric, but they are politically insignificant and in no way representative of Ukraine. The political parties which the ultra-nationalists support received just over 2 percent of the vote in the 2019 elections. Ukraine is a flawed democracy, but unquestionably a democracy, and in no way a Nazi regime.”

    In Israel, these events have caused some unease. Several parliament members harshly criticized Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky for drawing comparisons between the Holocaust and Russia’s operation in Ukraine, while ignoring the Ukrainian complicity in the Nazi-led genocide of Jews.

     

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