Simon Lee’s Restoring the swastika

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This article by Simon Lee appeared in Trinidad’s Guardian. It is from last March, but just came across it as I was doing an end-of-the-year look at how Caribbean writers were covered in the news.

Last Saturday some of Europe celebrated the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis and the end of the Second World War, in the European theatre.

It would take three more months and a two atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to conclusively terminate what has been read by some as the defence of democracy against the forces of darkness.

With the Cold War also behind us and Communism now a largely outmoded dinosaur, some ostriches amongst us might be forgiven for assuming that Fascism, Totalitarianism and quite a few other perverse ideologies are mere relics of history.

Far from it, as even the most cursory of glances at almost any spot on the globe will confirm that extremism, violence, persecution, torture, are all prospering.

However, there is consolation in the fact that the swastika, originally a Hindu symbol of good fortune and the God Vishnu, was restored to its former hermeneutic value after the Nazi desecration.

Little reference was made either in T&T or the wider Caribbean to Saturday’s Eurocentric anniversary.

There are very few surviving war veterans and when former RAF squadron leader Ulric Cross died in 2013, an era ended with him.

Yet the Second World War inevitably did affect the entire region. German submarines attacking Allied convoys were a continuous presence, and far more dangerous than predatory sharks.

There are apocryphal tales of German U boat crews landing in Port-of-Spain for a night onshore of what sailors get up to wherever they make landfall.

Whether there’s any substance to these jackboot-tall stories or not, the fact of a sizeable American military presence here in Trinidad is uncontestable. In some ways the arrival of the Yankees was the beginning of modern Trinidad.

We already had a taste for Hollywood movies and jazz but it was exposure to the mighty dollar and the kind of lifestyle it could buy that changed the lives of thousands of Trinis.

Labourers and craftsmen working on the military bases; women like Jean and Dinah servicing the soldiers on the frontline of the Gaza Strip and a further corps of calypsonians, entertainers and black market profiteers all benefitted.

The war also affected both the entire national community (in terms of food and imports) and smaller sections like the small Jewish community and individuals of German extraction, who found themselves interned for the duration.

While Nazi presence may or may not have been limited in Trinidad to the red light district or the realm of ol’ talk, the Nazi Vichy regime was a malignant reality in Martinique and other French Caribbean territories—a period captured for posterity in Rafael Confiant’s novel Le Negre et L’Amiral, set in early 1940s Martinique.

Dominica, positioned between Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north, was the jump off point for those from the French islands making their way to join the Free French forces in Europe. Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s novel The Orchid House, set in postwar Dominica, recalls the period in the shape of a protagonist addicted to morphine after being wounded during the war. And then there’s the unlikely case of the Jewish settlement in the small beachfront town of Sosua, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.

One would have thought that the caudillo and dictator Rafael Trujillo, would have been a Nazi, rather than an Allies sympathizer.

Nevertheless, in 1938 Trujillo responded to a global effort at relocating European Jews, with the offer of settling between 50,000-100,000.

Like Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti during the 1950s and 1960s, Trujillo was adept at siphoning off resources from America.

His offer of Jewish resettlement probably had far more to do with placating world opinion after his 1937 massacre of some 30,000 Haitians, returning to the good graces of his powerful northern neighbour and “whitening the race”, than it did with any humanitarian motives.

Descendants of the 500 Jews who actually made it to Sosua, still contribute the DR’s dairy industry, as initially they were given generous land for grants for agricultural development.

So while there were no celebrations in the Caribbean to mark the restoration of the swastika which would have matched the four popping and bubblicious days held in Reims, the capital of France’s champagne region, some memories and relics of those dark days still survive.

The road to Maracas Bay, blasted by American sappers is one such reminder, as are old bunkers now reclaimed by the bush in Deep South. The Yankees may have gone, leaving hot dogs, jamettes and unwanted offspring behind but now we face threats just as insidious as those we thought defeated back in 1945.

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