When The 1960s “Swastika Epidemic” Came to Canada

A rash of antisemitic incidents in January 1960, can teach us a lot about our current, polarized political climate.

Daniel Panneton
Canadian Anti-Hate Network


Source: The Sault Star, January 8, 1960, The Windsor Star, January 6, 1960


In recent months, Canadians have witnessed a series of antisemitic incidents, particularly at the Toronto District School Board. In February alone, there were multiple reports of students directing Nazi salutes at Jewish teachers, while some chanted “Heil Hitler,” and graffitied several swastikas. 

Many are wondering where these antisemitic outbursts are coming from, presuming the expressions of hate are a recent phenomenon, perhaps of foreign import. However, antisemitic acts have a long history in Canada, many of which are similar to contemporary examples. Notably, Canada was among the nations to experience the global “Swastika Epidemic” of late 1959 and early 1960.

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Early on Christmas morning 1959 in Cologne, West Germany, a student found swastikas and the words “Deutsche fordem: Juden Rause” (Germans demand: Jews out) painted around the entrance to the Roonstrasse Synagogue. The same day, another witness found that a monument to the victims of Nazism had been defaced with black paint. News of the vandalism spread and soon there were hundreds of copycat incidents occurring across Germany – even after the original perpetrators were arrested. 

The West German government passed a law against anti-minority hate crimes, while significant public demonstrations against antisemitism and fascism took place around the country.

The trend soon went international. On December 30, a synagogue in Notting Hill, London was vandalized with three swastikas and the phrase “Juden rause,” German for “Jews out.” By January 10 there had been roughly five hundred antisemitic incidents in thirty-four countries, including Belgium, Austria, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Italy.

 This international wave of antisemitic and pro-Nazi incidents became known as the “Swastika Epidemic,” resulting in around 2,500 recorded attacks across 45 countries by the end of 1960.

 

Source: The Sault Star, January 8, 1960

 

Several theories about who was to blame flew about. Some thought that Nazi fugitives or neo-Nazi sympathizers were behind the vandalism, while most dismissed the incidents as the actions of “crackpots” or local youth getting up to no good. Others were under the impression that a shadowy Communist cabal was trying to incite antisemitic behaviour to undermine the West German government – itself an antisemitic conspiracy theory.

While there is little evidence the KGB was behind the global outburst of hate, according to political scientist Thomas Rid, author of Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, they may have been behind the initial incident in Cologne.

 

The Canadian Epidemic

  

In January 1960, incidents occurred around the country, in major cities like Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto, and in smaller cities like Galt, Sudbury, and Victoria. From January 5 to 11, at least 13 incidents took place, including the words “Juden Raus” being found carved into a relief at the Royal Ontario Museum and various homes, businesses, and synagogues being smeared with swastikas. 

January saw the highest number of incidents, however, swastika-related vandalism continued in Canada throughout the year. 

The incidents in 1959 and 1960 were notable not just for being the first major outburst of antisemitic and pro-Nazi activity since the Second World War, but also for the widespread condemnation from elected officials, community organizations, and private citizens.

 

Source: The Owen Sound Sun Times, January 6, 1960 

 

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker referred to the incidents as “deplorable,” and hoped that they would not be seen as a national trend, and the only Jewish Member of Parliament, Leon Crestohl warned that the antisemitism on display could be turned against other groups. 

The Toronto Labour Council condemned the graffiti as “irresponsible desecrators of freedom,” while the Toronto Star wrote that “the foul campaign of the past fortnight is likely to end soon. But it must not be forgotten – for too many innocents have died cruelly under the shadow of the swastika.” In Vancouver, Dr. D.W. Hoeter, editor of the German-language newspaper Der Nordwester, organized a vigilance committee to counter the wave of antisemitism. 

They put up hundreds of posters around Vancouver that read “WARNING to neo-Nazis, Mosleyites, Ku Klux Klan, all racists…it’s not up to the Jews to answer these atavistic outrages…it is up to every man to defend the practice of freedom…so that we will not be turned in hate upon one another.”

The outbreak of vandalism occurred while landmark human rights legislation was being passed, a period now known as the “Rights Revolution,” and it triggered debates over whether existing laws went far enough.

Organizations like the British Columbia Provincial Committee of the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians called for government action to halt the outbreak, but Attorney General Roberts said that he believed the Criminal Code was sufficient to penalize the vandals. It was against this backdrop that the Canadian Bill of Rights was passed on 10 August 1960. 

Just two years later, in June 1962 the Ontario Human Rights Commission created the Human Rights Code.

 

Source: The Windsor Star, January 9, 1960

 

Although the first incident occurred in Germany and the Swastika epidemic was international, it should not be seen entirely as an import to Canada, where there is a long history of vandalism and intimidation tactics being used against the Jewish community. The early 1930s saw the Ontario Swastika Club’s activities precede the infamous Christie Pits Riot, while in 1938 a funeral crepe with a Swastika badge was nailed to the front door of outspoken antifascist Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath in Toronto. The conditions for an outburst of antisemitic feeling were already present, their expression encouraged by a fresh global trend.

In 1960, amidst the controversy, the Jewish Western Bulletin reminded readers that “the anti-Semitic groups which definitely do exist in Canada have national and international associations.” A number of fascist groups emerged in the ensuing decade; Ron Gostick, who during the Swastika controversy wrote to the Globe & Mail to blame it all on “the international communist conspiracy,” was organizing groups that would evolve into the infamous Canadian League of Rights, which was a major distributor of antisemitic and Holocaust-denying material. The Canadian Nazi Party was founded in 1965 and quickly established international ties, affiliating with the World Union of National Socialists and corresponding with the American Nazi Party. 

In 1967 the crypto-fascist Edmund Burke Society was founded, which would become notorious for attacking anti-war demonstrations and for its ties to several domestic fascist groups.

 

Source: The Kingston Whig-Standard, January 15, 1960. Originally published in The Guardian, 1958.

 

As several commentators emphasized during the Swastika epidemic, opposing fascism and antisemitism is not the job of the Jewish community, nor are the ramifications of such hate limited to them. It is not a coincidence that the antisemitic incidents occurring recently are also taking place amidst a rising tide of anti-democratic and conspiratorial feelings. Hate crimes against a number of communities have exploded since the start of the pandemic; in 2020 hate crimes rose by 37%, while reporting by individual police boards found that the upwards trend continued through 2021. Canadian right-wing extremism increased online during the pandemic, and more are thinking conspiratorially. The outburst of antisemitic incidents in Canada must be understood against this backdrop of surging hatred and violence that many communities are facing.

Beyond domestic hate crimes, Canadian incidents also cannot be separated from their transnational contexts. Far-right political organizing is on the rise around the world, gaining troubling electoral success in several countries, while antisemitism, already growing before the pandemic, has likewise accelerated. 

The Swastika epidemic triggered widespread outcry against hate, played a role in both the ongoing creation of human rights and anti-hate legislation at national and provincial levels, and the emerging concept of Holocaust memory. 

Pushing back against hate requires a holistic approach, one component of which must be expert-led, best-practice informed, and data-driven education that equips Canadians with the knowledge and skills needed to identify and respond to individual incidents. Learning about the history of the Holocaust is central to this, so that students understand the deadly actions that accompanied the tenacious symbol they might encounter on their school’s wall. 

Canadians need education about the nature of the threats they and their neighbours face, about identifying where actionable threats are, and about how they can be effectively opposed.

Daniel Panneton is a public historian and online hate researcher based in Toronto.

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