Over the past week, there has been renewed discussion in media reports on the swastika, the ancient symbol that was once used across the world, but which came to be associated in the 20th century with the murderous Nazi ideology of hate and antisemitism, particularly in the Western imagination.
On August 11, New South Wales became the second state in Australia (after Victoria in June), to criminalise the display of the swastika, while allowing its use for educational and religious purposes for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Earlier on August 6, Dutch police launched an investigation into the appearance of a swastika flag on a bridge in the village of Stroe, and on August 3, a superintendent of a school district in Virginia, US, had to apologise for designing and distributing a t-shirt with a logo that resembled a swastika.
What’s wrong with the swastika symbol?
Despite its association for centuries with the symbolism and practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions, many people in Europe and America see the swastika only as the defining symbol of the antisemitic, racist, fascist Third Reich (1933-1945) of Adolf Hitler.
After the defeat of Nazism and the end of World War II, the swastika was banned in Germany and subsequently in other European countries such as France, Austria, and Lithuania. Neo-Nazi groups around the world, however, continued to use the symbol and flag to rally support, and to identify themselves.
How did the swastika become Hitler’s sign?
During its rise to power, the Nazi Party in Germany wanted to adopt a new flag, one that would represent not only their movement, but would be recognisable as a poster and be striking enough to “be the first cause of awakening interest” in the Nazi movement, Hitler wrote in his autobiography, Mein Kampf. The swastika or hakenkreuz (hooked cross in German) rotated clockwise at 45 degrees, was seen as a befitting symbol.
In 1920, Hitler formally adopted the swastika as the symbol of his National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party). Hitler wrote that he decided upon the final iteration of the Nazi Party’s flag, a black swastika encompassed by a white disc, which was placed on a red background. These colours— red, black and white — were specifically drawn from the flag of the German Empire, which after its collapse in 1918 was succeeded by the Weimar Republic. For Hitler, the symbol not only harked back to an idealised imperial past, but laid out the ideology of National Socialism and its hope for the future.
He wrote, “The red expressed the social thought underlying the movement. White the national thought. And the swastika signified the mission allotted to us — the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind…”
In the Nazi worldview, the German people were the direct descendants of the Aryan “master race” and, therefore, belonged to a racial stock that was superior to all other peoples. For the Nazis, maintaining the racial purity of the German people was paramount, and all communities that were in their worldview inferior, were to be eliminated.
The Nazis identified the Jewish people as the foremost enemy, whom they sought to persecute and ultimately exterminate. While antisemitism itself had existed in Europe for many centuries before the rise of the Nazis, it reached an unprecedented peak under the Third Reich. Jews were systematically targeted by the state under Nazi rule — Jewish businesses were boycotted, synagogues were attacked, they were denied employment in civil services and other professions, their political rights were curtailed, they were not allowed to marry non-Jews, and they were stripped of citizenship and civil rights.
During the Holocaust (1941-1945), the Nazi German state murdered approximately 6 million European Jews. Another 5 million people that they deemed to be inferior or a threat were killed as well — these included the Romani people, Slavic peoples (Poles and Russians), black Germans, homosexuals, disabled Germans, communists, socialists, prisoners of war, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. All these terrible crimes against humanity were carried out under the swastika flag.
But isn’t the swastika a Hindu religious symbol?
The earliest known swastika, on an ivory mammoth tusk located in present-day Ukraine, has been dated to 10,000 BC. The ancient symbol has been found in Mesopotamia, the Americas, Algeria, and the Far East.
The swastika has a civilisational presence in India. The word swastika has a Sanskrit root, which means good fortune or well-being, and it has been an auspicious symbol for Hindus over many millennia. It has religious-philosophical connotations that differ depending on representation, based on the direction (clockwise or anticlockwise) in which the swastika is facing.
The swastika is commonly seen in India today — a ubiquitous symbol adorning temples, homes, vehicles, and on walls above entrances and doors — and it carries a purely auspicious and welcoming meaning. Unlike the black hakenkreuz of the Nazis, the swastika used by Indians is usually red or yellow in colour, is not tilted to the right, and has dots at each corner, which are believed to represent the four Vedas.
After its discovery in the West, the symbol gained in popularity and was frequently used as a design motif that signified good fortune and well-being, wrote Steven Heller in his book, ‘The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?’ In the late 19th and early 20th century, countless businesses used the swastika on their products, from Carlsberg on the bottom of their beer bottles, to tobacco and biscuit brands.
Heller noted that during World War I, the 45th Infantry Division adopted an orange swastika as a shoulder patch. The Finnish Air Force started to use the symbol in 1918, well before the rise of Hitler, and it was only in 2020 that media reports said that it had “quietly dropped” the logo.
The Nazi appropriation of the swastika is sometimes traced to the German archaelogist Heinrich Schliemann, who in 1871 excavated more than 1,800 variations of swastika-like symbols on pottery fragments at the site of ancient Troy in Turkey. Similar designs had been found on pottery in Germany, which led Schliemann to conclude that the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors”, the cultural historian Malcolm Quinn wrote in his 1994 book ‘The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol’.
From the late 19th century, Quinn wrote, scholars in Europe began to argue that the swastika was a sign of the Aryan race, which had remained pure and resisted the influence of other races and language groups. Such ideas would be a lapped up by the Nazis, who would go on to inscribe their fascist and racist imprint upon the ancient symbol.
In fact, Quinn recalled that the great German Orientalist and philologist Max Müller had cautioned Schliemann in 1880 against using the word swastika to describe the symbols that he had found: “I do not like the use of the word Svastika outside India. It is a word of Indian origin, and has its history and definite meaning in India… The mischief arising from the promiscuous use of technical terms is very great,” Müller wrote to Schliemann.
Why is the use of the swastika by right-wing groups worrisome?
The swastika evokes notions of violence and racism in the West, and the ideology of Hitler and the Nazis continues to inspire fringe groups in many countries around the world. As the horrors of World War II have faded in the memory of people and nations, the post-War Western liberal democratic consensus that it engendered in the decades of the 20th century has frayed. With many of the promises of this post-War political consensus not bearing fruit, many groups have felt cheated and disillusioned.
Right-wing populist parties feeding off this discontent have been steadily gaining traction in the mainstream politics of Europe. Right-wing strongman regimes have come to power in several countries, and parties propagating ultranationalist, racist, anti-immigrant views have increased their popularity. In June, Marine Le Pen, the French far right leader known for her anti-Islam and anti-immigration stance, won a historic 89 seats in the 2022 French legislative elections. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister since 2010, and Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s President since 2019, have been accused of fascist leanings.
In America, the swastika symbol has appeared in white supremacist gatherings, and in February, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau condemned the use of swastikas during the trucker protests against the country’s Covid-19 restrictions.