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Now that the offending sneaker has been withdrawn from the market, the controversy has blown over. But it raises a larger question about the Third Reich’s legacy for contemporary German life: Where should a liberal democracy draw the line between forbidden and acceptable symbols?
Few would deny that banning overt Nazi symbols is necessary for preventing the rehabilitation of a dangerous and discredited ideology. But there are more than a few gray areas. Should the ban extend — as it has for decades in Germany — to the use of certain letter combinations (SS, SA, NS, et cetera) on German license plates? And apart from the matter of outright bans, should Germans continue to engage in the kind of self-censorship that has been practiced in cities like Hamburg, which decided in 1973 to call its convention center a “Congress Centrum” (instead of the more logical German word, Kongresszentrum), because the latter abbreviation would have been “KZ” (a notorious shorthand term for “concentration camp”).
In the most charitable view, such moves may be seen as progressive gestures reflecting Germany’s commitment to a democratic, anti-Nazi worldview. But they have the corollary effect of impeding a sense of normalcy in German life.
Comments to this effect were voiced by many online critics of Tchibo’s decision to stop selling its sneakers. Among the many objections, some web users angrily noted that stigmatizing the number 18 would easily lead to countless reductio ad absurdum dilemmas. Should the number be removed from athletic jerseys? Should it be removed from street addresses? Calendars? Math books? Should other burdened numbers, such as 33 and 39, also be banned due to their own associations with the Nazis’ rise to power and the outbreak of World War II?
All of these objections reflect a growing sense of impatience with what many German critics have described as the paranoid absurdities of political correctness vis-à-vis the country’s Nazi past. They further illustrate a frustration with the country’s inability to finally emerge from under the shadow of Nazism and attain a relative sense of normality.
To a degree, one can sympathize with such comments and the yearnings that underlie them. Yet there is a price to be paid for normality, which reminds us of the benefits of stigmas.
A telling example was provided several years ago by none other than Tchibo itself. In promoting a new line of coffee drinks in 2009, the company employed the slogan “Jedem den Seinen” (“To each his own”) in its nationwide ad campaign. In doing so, however, the company neglected to realize that a nearly identical slogan, “Jedem das Seine,” had been used by the Nazis at the Buchenwald concentration camp, where it was affixed to the Lager’s iron entrance gates as a deceptive “welcome” message. Following a predictable outcry by various groups, such as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, about the company’s historical insensitivity and amnesia, Tchibo withdrew the ad.
The controversy revealed, however, that even in a nation committed to remembrance, forgetting remains a threat. The failure of Tchibo and its ad agency to recognize the phrase’s Nazi-era usage shows that some Germans have already arrived at a state of normalcy with regard to the Nazi past.