FBI File: The Swastika Epidemic of 1959-1960
It’s largely forgotten now, but for a few months as the 1950s became the 1960s, there was a tsunami of painted swastikas and similar hateful incidents around the world. Referred to as “the swastika epidemic” by the press at the time and now by historians, it started with a synagogue defacement late on Christmas Eve 1959 and whipped around the world like wildfire, with around 500 incidents in the first twenty days. By the end of 1960, there had been 2,500 such incidents, most of them concentrated in the early months of 1960.
Nadine Epstein, editor of Moment magazine, gives a good overview:
“On Christmas morning in 1959, two men painted swastikas on a recently rededicated synagogue in Colon, Germany. News of the desecration was widely publicized and sparked a wave of overt anti-Jewish incidents, including death threats and destruction of property throughout Germany, England, Holland and Austria; then it swiftly jumped the Atlantic, infecting Canada and Brazil. The United States was not immune: On January 3, a large swastika was painted on Temple Emanu-el in New York City. The outbreak also spread to South Africa and Hong Kong. Within a month reports of such episodes had come from approximately 34 countries and almost every major capital city, with incidents reported in the hundreds.”
FBI was keeping tabs on the situation, with an eye toward figuring out if it was an organized campaign. FBI field offices in many foreign countries (called “legats”) were checking in with HQ, and the Bureau reached out to CIA for assistance. The file shows that by early May the number of incidents had lessened enough that the legat in Bonn, Germany recommended winding down the investigation.
The file on the swastika epidemic was originally released to University of Washington history professor Susan Glenn, who later wrote a paper on the topic, but it has never appeared online until now. FBI’s cover letter indicates that there is more material beyond these 113 pages, and I’ve requested that it be processed. I’ll update this page when and if I receive more.