My grandfather returned from World War II with an undiagnosed case of PTSD and an assortment of swastikas. These war trophies – a flag, a lapel pin, a yellow arm band with a Nazi eagle – had previously belonged to German soldiers. Grandpapa never talked about them or the war.
When I saw the photo this week of Orange County kids playing a drinking game that involved a swastika made of cups, I couldn’t help but think of my grandfather’s swastikas, and the shadow they cast over my family.
My grandfather was a reluctant soldier. He served only because he was drafted, and he hated everything about the Army from Day 1. The ribbons he was awarded were the bare minimum given to someone who survived the war. Still, he left his wife and infant daughter, my mother, behind to do his part in bringing down the Third Reich.
After the war, he never really came home.
My mother always said the Nazis had succeeded in killing a hopeful, tender and loving person, even though Grandpapa returned with his body untouched. He came back with demons from the horrors of battle in Europe, and they festered and grew for the next 60 years. He was hateful and sadistic to my grandmother, and he robbed my mother of a happy childhood. He was cruel to both of them until almost the end. It was hard to reconcile the man he became with the achingly sweet letters to my grandmother before the war.
I wonder if American neo-Nazis were heartened by the photos from that swastika drinking game.
My wife’s family also served. Her grandfather fought in Europe, was awarded a Purple Heart, spent a year in a German prisoner of war camp, and returned as a wounded warrior. He didn’t talk much about the war either.
That is what the Nazi Reich cost my family. It took our young men and changed them. Millions of other families here and across Europe paid far higher prices, but stopping the Nazi push for world domination was that important.
I’m willing to assume that the Orange County young people just made a terrible, unthinking mistake, but we can’t forget there are those who still embrace fascist ideals. In the United States we saw them turn out for a “Unite the White” rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, an event that ended with the killing of a young counter-protester. I wonder if American neo-Nazis were heartened by the photos from that swastika drinking game. The Orange County young people and all others who participate in such “jokes” have to consider that possibility.
After the tragic events in Charlottesville, I sat with my wife and son, who is about the age of the Orange County drinkers. We examined the swastikas my grandfather claimed as his spoils of war. We paged through the Nazi party membership book he brought home, with dues stamps, a speech by Adolf Hitler, and special stamps to commemorate and verify attendance for the book’s owner at rallies.
The items reek of evil.
I talked with my son about why we keep them, about how tangible items can bring history alive. They were seized by my grandfather at the Nazis’ downfall, and they are a lasting legacy to my grandfather and his comrades who stopped the spread of a terrible plague.
We keep them to remind us of the Nazis’ bid for world power, and to remember the sacrifices required to defeat them. We keep them to remind us that while the Nazi party started small, initially dismissed as an irrelevant fringe, it was eventually embraced by average citizens who wore swastika pins and carefully maintained their party membership books.
My grandfather, for all his faults, sacrificed himself to defeat them.
This won’t be the last time in their lives that those Orange County kids see a swastika. But let’s hope they never again see one in quite the same way.
James Seddon retired from the Navy after 21 years and currently works in information technology at a university.