The press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
We live in the shrillest ever of times, don’t you think? Each word that drips out of mouth or onto paper is parsed, discussed, teased and eventually found to have some very racist, sexist, fascist connotation. Oh I’m not excusing anything that is really racist, sexist, fascist. I am just saying shrill is the tone au courant.
And so it was with great wonder that I read a piece last week in The San Diego Union Tribune by staff writer Michael Smolens discussing the 1950s-1960s surf thrill with Nazi schtick, comparing it to today’s white nationalist pop. I was expecting rage at our checkered past but instead found nuance.
Let’s read together!
In the late 1950s, a small band of La Jolla surfers dressed up as Nazis and, carrying a Nazi flag, marched down the beach.
Around the same time, swastikas were painted on the infamous Windansea pump house and at Malibu — perhaps Southern California’s most prominent surf meccas of the era.
And there’s a well-circulated, historic photo of a guy in a stylin’ crouch on a multi-stringer surfboard streaking across the face of a wave in fine trim — while wearing a plastic Nazi helmet.
Some elements of surfing’s tight-knit community, long proud of its rebellious nature, certainly veered off into strange territory back in those days.
Oddly, it didn’t seem like that big of a deal at the time, often described, at least in retrospect, as largely “innocuous.” If so, that was then.
With widespread condemnation of recent white supremacist and neo-Nazi rallies and the removal of Confederate monuments everywhere, the notion of people dressing like Nazis for kicks would be no joking matter these days.
So what were these surfers thinking 60 years ago? It wasn’t seen as sympathy for what Nazis did and what they stood for. Rather, it was more a manifestation of their anti-establishment streak.
Greg Noll, the legendary big wave surfer of that era, said it was just another way to flip off society.
“We just did things like that to be outrageous. You paint a swastika on your car, and it would piss people off. So what do you do? You paint on two swastikas,” he said, according to the Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw, surfing’s meticulous historian.
The surfers’ antics were dismissed as a juvenile annoyance by many. The mainstream media denounced such behavior, but that only emboldened some, cementing their image as reprobates.
Interestingly, the initial link between surfing and swastikas was not only innocuous, but actually well-meaning.
In the 1930s, Pacific System Homes in Los Angeles sold the first commercially produced surfboards after the son of the owner went to Hawaii, went surfing and quickly joined the legions of the jazzed. He apparently convinced his father there was a market for surfboards in Southern California.
It was called the Swastika model, a laminated balsa and redwood board that had a small swastika on the tail. At the time, the symbol in certain cultures meant harmony and good luck.
With the rise of Nazi Germany, which turned the swastika into a symbol of something far different, Pacific System changed the name of its product to the Waikiki Surf-Board.
The piece goes on to discuss the use of Nazi symbolism by other subcultures and how broader culture reacted at the time and how it would react today with such measure. It was like a tall glass of cool vodka to the soul.
But what do you think? Do you think surfers should be more apologetic about appropriating Nazi imagery? Do you think surfing’s favorite safe-space, Venice-adjacent’s own The Inertia, believes surfers should pay reparations to the offended of the time?