When Is It Fair To Call Someone A 'Nazi'?

It's the question that has divided media and critics all week, with no clear-cut or easy answer.

When is it fair to call someone a Nazi?

Is wearing a badge or shirt or hat with a swastika enough? That'd seemingly incriminate Prince Harry and countless stupid uni students dressing up at bad taste parties. What about a number of swastikas and logos, like decorations in your house? How about something more permanent, like a tattoo?

What about turning up at a far-right rally and waving around an SS helmet, or performing a one-armed 'Heil Hitler' salute? Does the term Nazi have to mean you understand and venerate the political and historical significance of the term and ideology, no matter how you dress? Where does 'neo-Nazi' fit in?

A man holds a helmet with the SS logo on the front while attending a "political meeting" in St Kilda. (Image: Twitter)

These are the questions grappled with by Australia's media this week, after an extremist rally in Melbourne, where a small number of people were seen and photographed giving salutes.

Others were seen goose-stepping in a similar fashion to soldiers, and one man was seen brandishing a helmet with the logo of the SS -- the Schutzstaffel, a Nazi paramilitary group.

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Some news outlets resisted calling these people 'Nazis', couching their language by only vaguely describing their actions.

"A protester makes his views known", read one newspaper caption on a photograph of a man giving a one-armed salute.

"A protester salutes", read another photo caption.

But many are asking -- if it looks like a Nazi, salutes like a Nazi, goose-steps like a Nazi, talks like a Nazi.... can we call it a Nazi? Should we?

It's more complicated than that, experts say.

"I think 'Nazi' is an appropriate enough term for someone attending a far-right rally giving a Nazi salute or brandishing Nazi and SS regalia," Dr Evan Smith, a research fellow in history at Flinders University, told 10 daily.

"If they do not want to be identified as a Nazi, all they need to do is not behave like or display the symbols of Nazism," added Dr Andre Brett, a historian at the University of Wollongong.

Anger was stoked online in recent days as senior journalism identities argued against attaching the label 'Nazi' to the isolated cases at the St Kilda rally.

Alan Sunderland, editorial director for the ABC, tweeted:

Personally, I wouldn’t call them Nazis. That implies a formality and consistency of belief that is not warranted by the facts. I’d call them people making nazi salutes. Accuracy matters.

"In calling them Nazis we’re giving them the credibility they don’t deserve,” journalist Caroline Overington said on the ABC's The Drum program.

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Author and former journalist Mike Carlton echoed similar thoughts, arguing against such a label in a tweet of his own, claiming "They’re not Nazis. They’re not 'activists.' Still less are they  'patriots'."

Each of these statements stoked debate, harshly polarising opinions. Others have argued that the men pictured were giving the salutes as a joke or to be deliberately provocative, not because they necessarily supported Nazi ideology.

"We’re not saying the entire group was Nazis. The protest was a racist protest, but it can be racist without falling into Nazism," said Dr Andre Oboler, a law lecturer at La Trobe University and CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute.

A selection of history professors and extremism experts gave a variety of opinions when asked by 10 daily for their feedback on these topics.

A protester holds a 'fascist-free zone' poster at the St Kilda rally (AAP Image/David Crosling)

"We cannot read minds. We do not usually ask if people at political rallies have a full appreciation of the espoused ideology and its history or have signed on the dotted line for membership," Brett said in relation to the sentiment raised by Sunderland.

"If you are holding a sign at the head of an environmental rally, odds are you're an environmentalist; if you're at an ALP or Liberal function in the appropriate colours, you probably support the party."

So if somebody attends a far-right rally, displays Nazi symbols, and engages in Nazi salutes, it is hard to classify them otherwise."

Dr Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, disagreed.

"Those who gave the Heil Hitler salute, the most common and overt white-supremacist hand sign in the world, and displayed SS helmets in St Kilda are not Nazis, and Australia is not the Germany of the 1930s," he told 10 daily.

"It’s impossible to know whether they were deeply familiar with the origins and history of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews and millions of others were murdered and persecuted, or the danger and offence this vile imagery represents."

"Nevertheless, their hateful actions were antithetical to Australian values, are a stain on our community, and should be vigorously condemned."

Abramovich said people who back Nazi philosophy "must be taken very seriously."

"Anti-Semitism runs deep in the core of these ideas," he said.

The term 'neo-Nazi' is often invoked by those who believe 'Nazism' only truly existed in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and was a movement associated only with that time -- while people who support the ideology in modern times are not Nazis, but 'neo-Nazis'.

"I think this is a semantic distraction that would also imply it is impossible to be a Marxist or Trotskyist," Brett claimed.

Dr Jordana Silverstein is a historian, also at the University of Melbourne. She is a Jewish woman and attended Saturday's rally. She saw with her own eyes the men who threw up one-armed salutes.

"There’s a weird hesitancy to take them at their word. They're being clear they affiliate themselves with the history and ideology around Nazism," she told 10 daily.

"I understand why people don't want to listen to them, so they can pretend they don't exist, but there's a certain historical illiteracy around that in this country. The incidents are so clear and deliberate, we need to call this out."

"I have no problem calling them Nazis or neo-Nazis."

Stock image (Getty Images)

Dr Oboler, in his capacity leading the Online Hate Prevention Institute, follows extremists closely. He is also a delegate to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. He prefers the term Nazi and claimed that ignoring the protesters -- as some have called for -- would actually help these groups, not hurt them.

"In an old-school media world, not putting them in the media, that could work. In today's social media world, they are getting attention whether media boycotts them or not," Oboler said.

"They use photos and video online. There's no silencing them. If they're going to be out there anyway, we may as well as identify them for what they are."

"They've been described as 'idiots' rather than Nazis. They can be both. But an idiot with an ideological agenda, getting people to join them, that's no longer just an idiot. That's dangerous."

The argument that people giving Nazi salutes should not be called Nazis, he said, was "strange".

"The danger in that is we risk not learning from the past and giving them time and space to grow," Oboler said.

"Those who think there is no danger in that are perhaps in denial, feeling that it couldn't ever happen here."