On the School of Public Health tiles

Dear IU Community,

Since 1917, several walls and floors in the entranceways to the Public Health classroom building (formerly HPER) and the Intramural Center have incorporated decorative tiles with symbols intended to signify health and well-being. Repeated among those tiles are over 300 that include swastikas. IU has hired skillful craftspeople to remove the swastika tiles and alter them by closing the swastika designs into four squares, and then returning them to their place in the overall design. While most of the swastika tiles will be refurbished and restored to the wall with an altered design, several of the original swastika tiles will be permanently removed and retained in their original form for preservation in the archives. [1] I write to explain that decision, understanding that reasonable people may disagree with it, and to invite us to consider the issues collectively. I apologize in advance for the length of this message, but trust completely in our collective willingness to engage with argument and critical thought, even when we inevitably have disagreements.

The swastika has a rich, long, and fraught history.[2] The symbol was and is still used by Hinduism, and can be seen commonly in India. It featured in the ancient world in Buddhism and Jainism as well, and in Scandinavia in Odinism, to symbolize Thor’s hammer. It was used on coins in Mesopotamia, and by the Mayans and several of the Southwestern Native American tribes, most notably the Navajo in the Americas. Most of its use was religious; some was traditional; some decorative. Around the time these tiles were installed, the swastika’s use in a decorative manner had become a something of a fad in the United States as a symbol of good luck.[3] It was used on everything from Coca-Cola bottles to Carlsberg beer, and by organizations as diverse as the Boy Scouts and the Girls Clubs of America.[4] While none of us know for sure from the documents that remain in our archives, our best guess is that in 1917 in Indiana, the symbol was likely included in the HPER floor and wall design not as an invocation of any of its religious traditions, but as part of this decorative revival that reflects the Arts and Crafts design period of the time.

You are well aware of the swastika’s more recent history.[5] It was adopted as early as 1912, and possibly earlier, by far-right groups in Germany as a symbol of racial purity and vehement anti-Semitism.[6] That symbolism made it particularly attractive to Adolph Hitler, who adopted it in 1920 as the primary and striking emblem of the Nazi party. When Hitler came to power, the red flag with the tilted swastika at its center became the vivid symbol of the Third Reich, chosen “to represent [the party’s] goal of racial purification in Europe.” [7] As the symbol of the Third Reich, the swastika became unalterably connected in Europe and the United States with the Holocaust and the genocide of the Jewish people, and the systematic murder of other groups of people such as LGBT, Roma, and the disabled, throughout the areas that the Nazis controlled. And, of course, it was the flag flown by the Nazi troops against whom the United States and the Allies in the Second World War fought at great human cost and ultimately prevailed. Since the Second World War, Germany has outlawed the use of the swastika for all political purposes.

However, it has been continuously used since WW II by white-supremacist and anti-Semitic groups to signify their agreement with the racist principles of the Nazi regime and the murderous actions that the Nazis took to implement those principles.[8] Its appearance—whether on a synagogue in Carmel last year[9] or at a high school graduation celebration in Maryland,[10] or any of the other uses of the swastika to vandalize community centers, mosques, churches, homes, or other places that are so easily found online—is always widely condemned when it happens because we have as a culture reached a common consensus around the meaning of this symbol as among the most, and many would say “the most potent symbol of racial hatred.”[11]

Given this cultural consensus, and against the background of the evolution of the swastika’s meaning during its long history, the university has for years placed a plaque in the entranceway to the building to give a shortened version of the history and to assure those who see the swastikas that they preceded the Nazi appropriation of the symbol. Nevertheless, there are approximately 300 swastikas in several entranceways and in one of the swimming pools, and it is far from inevitable that the building’s users will encounter the plaque. Even if they do encounter the plaque, many people remain deeply disturbed and concerned about the continuing incorporation of the symbol so intertwined for the past 75 or more years with Nazi racial principles into a classroom and recreation building. These people, many of whom carry experience with the outcomes of Nazi racial ideology and its continuing manifestation, argue that keeping the swastikas, no matter how neutrally decorative they were when they were first put in 100 years ago, is not neutral against this history; it is a choice. They argue that the continuing use of the swastikas sends an unwelcome message of lack of inclusivity in a public building, one that is not neutral in its impact.

The fact of this hurtful impact on some members of our faculty, staff, and students, and members of the public who use the building over the years is not imaginary; it is deeply felt by the individuals who express this view. Of course, not every expressed offense should be credited or acknowledged in the same way. A healthy democratic society is tolerant of a lot of offense, and an institution of higher education should encourage interrogating feelings of offense. This for many is the end of any discussion of this topic; people who feel this way should simply “get over it.” Nevertheless, given the profound and visceral meaning the swastika has acquired in the United States and Europe during the last 75 years, and the fact that going into this building is not optional for large numbers of people, these expressions of hurt do not seem to me trivial. Were a swastika to appear on other parts of the campus, as they did on the synagogue in Carmel or the high school in Maryland, or as they have periodically on our own campus, we would do what any other public or private institution in our country immediately does: we would expunge them, because we know what it means when they appears in this way.

We need to think collectively about what values a public institution of higher education should weigh against that impact in choosing to maintain, or not, these symbols in a public classroom and recreation building. While there may be more, I think two are worth discussing.

The strongest is that, as a public institution of higher education, we are committed to education. One can argue that the history associated with the swastika needs to be taught, and of course it does—and we do. We teach about Eastern religions’ use of the symbol; Native American iconography; popular decorative arts; the 19th century excavations of Heinrich Schliemann;[12] and of course, Nazi ideology, the Holocaust, the history of World War II, and modern hate groups. That this history needs to be taught, not suppressed, does not answer the question whether it needs to be, or can effectively be, taught in the lobby of a building devoted to the field of public health by means of a plaque.

Nor does the mere fact that we made a decorative decision in a building 100 years ago, in and of itself, set that decision in stone for eternity; much less does it require that we take a difficult and complicated subject and attempt to address it in this abbreviated and less-than-satisfying manner. Context matters. We do not approach other complicated historical situations in this way as teachers, and I do not think the argument compelling that, weighed against the impact of the symbols, a didactic plaque in the lobby of the School of Public Health building suffices.

As the stewards of this public building, our next question should be with the tangible tiles themselves. Do they have important intrinsic or artistic value? In another situation on our campus involving an important piece of fragile art that includes a powerful symbol of hate, we likewise made a decision that a simple didactic plaque was inadequate. In that case, our choices were both more limited (by the certain destruction of the art if it were moved and the unquestionable significance of the artistic expression), and broader (because we could limit the use of the classroom in which the art appeared to classes that could use its proximity to teach carefully about it and the history it relates). While the staunchest of historic preservationists may disagree, even after investigation, we have no clear indication that the tiles themselves are particularly intrinsically important. Nonetheless, we are preserving a number of them intact and unaltered in the Indiana University archives for further study and for posterity.

Public spaces and architecture speak to many things, including our values. Like our values, and the meaning of symbols, public spaces change and evolve. Any such change will provoke thought and discussion. The School of Public Health building is a classroom and recreation facility, and it should be welcoming to all who seek, or need, to use its spaces, in accordance with our institutional commitment to inclusivity. I welcome the discussion that this change provokes.

Lauren Robel
Executive Vice President and Provost

[1] Indiana University’s files do not include the firm that created the original tiles. Several people have identified different firms from that period as the potential source of the tiles, but the evidence is inconclusive.

[2] See the Encyclopedia Britannica’s online entry on the swastika: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/history-of-the-swastika (last viewed July 11, 2019)

[3] Campion, Mukti Jain, “How the World Loved the Swastika Until Hitler Stole It,”https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29644591 (23 October 2014) (reviewing Steven Heller, The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption (2014)). (Last viewed July 11, 2019).

[4] See Campion, supra.

[5] See infra, 1, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum, History of the Swastika: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/history-of-the-swastika

[6] See, e.g., Phelps, Reginald H., “’Before Hitler Came’: Thule Society and Germanen Orden, The Journal of Modern History, 35(3), 245-261 at 250 (1963); Boissoneault, Lorraine, “The Man Who Brought the Swastika to Germany, and How The Nazis Stole It,” Smithsonian.com (April 6, 2017) (detailing the history of the symbol’s connection to a mythic Aryan race) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/man-who-brought-swastika-germany-and-how-nazis-stole-it-180962812/ (last viewed July 11, 2019).

[7] Encylopedia Britannica, supra n. 1.

[8] See, e.g., United States Holocaust Museum, “Origins of Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist Terms and Symbols,” https://www.ushmm.org/confront-antisemitism/origins-of-neo-nazi-and-white-supremacist-terms-and-symbols (last viewed July 11, 2019)

[9] https://www.indystar.com/story/news/crime/2019/05/21/carmel-synagogue-vandalism-indiana-man-nolan-brewer-sentenced-federal-prison/3758040002/

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/local/teen-graffiti-hate-crime-divides-maryland-high-school/?utm_term=.2ed5306be509

[11] Sarah Boxer, “A Symbol of Hatred Pleads Not Guilty,” New York Times (July 9, 2000) (https://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/29/arts/think-tank-a-symbol-of-hatred-pleads-not-guilty.html ) (last visited July 11, 2019)

[12] See supra, the Smithsonian.com article for Heinrich Schliemann’s role.