The swastika is an ancient Indian Hindu syymbol
The swastika is an ancient Indian Hindu syymbol Reuters

A Russian opera singer has been forced to withdraw from the Bayreuth music festival in Germany because of the swastika and other Nazi symbols he wears as tattoos on his body.

While Yevgeny Nikitin denies that he is a neo-Nazi, public displays of the most prominent symbol of the Third Reich are illegal in Germany and Austria. He explained that he got the tattoos during his youth he while playing in a heavy metal band.

I was not aware of the extent of the irritation and offense these signs and symbols would cause, particularly in Bayreuth given the context of the festival's history,” Nikitin said in a statement.

“I had them done in my youth. It was a big mistake and I wish I'd never done it.”

He added in an email to the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag: “It was not clear to me that the symbols that I have tattooed on my chest could have any connotations or even by used by Nazis and neo-Nazis.

“The symbols have absolutely no political significance for me, but a spiritual one. I was never a member of a political party and am still not today.”

Nitikin explained to German media that the swastika was simply part of the underground pop culture in Russia during his youth.

German officials are likely especially sensitive over this issue due to the fact that the Bayreuth festival celebrates the works of 19th century composer Richard Wagner, who was a virulent anti-Semite and an idol of Adolf Hitler. His English daughter-in-law, Winifred Wagner, was also a close friend of Hitler.

Moreover, while the swastika is illegal in Germany, it has been adopted by the far-right and skinheads in Nitikin’s native Russia.

For example, the nationalistic Russian National Unity party uses a stylized swastika in its demonstrations and literature. However, the public display of the swastika in Russia pre-dates Nazism -- indeed, in the 19th century, the swastika was regarded as a symbol of the Russian empire and was found in coins and other items.

Even in the Central Asian Republic of Tajikistan (formerly part of the Soviet Union), the swastika has made a comeback in recent years.

Tajiks have embraced the swastika as a manifestation of what they call their “Aryan” nation and culture.

“Throughout history, interpretations of this symbol have changed,” said Tajik official Abduhakim Sharipov.

“We all know that fascism used this symbol for its purposes. This symbol therefore carries negative connotations for many…[but] we should not limit ourselves to only one interpretation.”