VA Will Let Headstones With Swastikas Stand in Veterans' Cemeteries Despite Push From Congresswoman, Civil Rights Groups

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has decided against removing swastikas from the gravestones of Nazi military officers who died as U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) during World War II. The VA office made its decision after anti-extremist organizations and at least one U.S. representative asked it to remove the symbols.

The initial request to the VA to remove the swastika-marked gravestones came from Mikey Weinstein, a Jewish former service member who founded the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), a nonprofit dedicated to maintaining religious freedom in the armed forces. The MRFF made the request after a retired U.S. military colonel saw the gravestones while visiting the grave of his grandfather, who fought Nazis during World War II.

"This is the hallowed ground of people who gave their life for this country," the retired colonel said, preferring to stay anonymous to avoid being targeted by hate groups who use the swastika as their symbol. "To be buried next to people they fought displaying that symbol of hate is disgusting."

The MRFF then drew attention to the issue by assembling a group of supportive organizations including the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an anti-extremist organization; the American Jewish Committee, a Jewish advocacy group; and Democratic Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz. They all called upon the VA to remove the swastikas from the headstones of veteran cemeteries in Texas and Utah.

However, the VA said it will preserve the headstones as part of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act which directs federal agencies to protect historic resources, even ones recognizing divisive historical figures or events, according to a statement from National Cemetery Administration spokesman Les' Melnyk.

Veterans Cemetery
American flags adorn each grave in Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Memorial Day May 27, 2002 in Arlington, VA. Stefan Zaklin/Getty

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes says three gravestones contain swastikas and the phrase "He died far from his home for the Führer, people and fatherland," a reference to Germany under the WWII dictatorship of then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

"It is deeply troubling and terribly offensive that swastika-adorned headstones that include messages honoring Hitler continue to stand in this nation's veterans administration national cemeteries," Wasserman-Schultz wrote in a statement.

"Allowing these gravestones to remain with the swastikas and messages in place – symbols of hatred, racism, intolerance, and genocide – is offensive to veterans who risked, and often lost, their lives defending this country and our way of life," Wasserman-Schultz continued.

Of the nation's 142 veteran cemeteries, only 13 contain POWs from other countries, according to the VA's National Cemetery Administration website. It's unclear how many total gravestones have swastikas.

Eric K. Ward, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote in an article published last Thursday that the VA's refusal to replace these headstones coincides with a rise in documented anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.

In 2019, over 2,000 anti-Semitic incidents were reported, a 12 percent increase from 2018, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a group fighting anti-Semitic activity. Simultaneously, the SPLC documented a 55 percent increase in the number of white nationalist groups since 2017, including neo-Nazi groups that use the swastika as their emblem.

According to the Military Times, military and VA officials have opposed past attempts to display other symbols on federal property, on veteran headstones and during funeral ceremonies. This prohibition has included a ban on pentagrams used by Wicca followers.