A Contradictory Symbol: How the Nazi’s appropriated an ancient symbol.

The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol, and Its Migrations; With Observations on the Migration of Certain Industries in Prehistoric Times.
Source: Greek Vase with spiral swastika in Wilson, Thomas. The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896.

In the West, the swastika is strongly connected to the atrocities committed under the Third Reich. It has, understandably, become one of the most offensive symbols in the Western world. Yet the Nazi swastika also represents another, less noted issue. Misappropriation. Since the Second World War, the pre-Nazi swastika, which dates back thousands of years as a cross-cultural symbol of prosperity, has been somewhat forgotten. This post aims to uncover some of that lost history and demonstrate the long-term consequences of appropriation.

The swastika was appropriated onto the Nazi flag in 1920 and has since become synonymous with white supremacy and antisemitism. However, the meaning imposed onto the swastika by the Nazi party could not be more contradictory to the character it retained for thousands of years before. In stark opposition to the connotations of oppression and terror known in the contemporary West, the word Swastika originates from the Sanskrit, स्वस्तिक (svástika) denoting an “object of well-being”.[1] The svástika has been an apotropaic (the ability to avert evil influences) symbol in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism for over a millennium to the modern-day.

In contrast to the exclusionary properties of the Nazi swastika, Thomas Wilson’s 1894 work ‘The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations’ reveals the pre-Nazi symbol was ubiquitous; and has a global history in multiple cultures and periods. The earliest known swastika, inscribed onto a mammoth tusk figurine, comes from the Palaeolithic settlement of Mezin, Ukraine and dates back some 15,000 years.[2] Similar designs exist on a stone slab from the ancient Maya City of Mayapan and the 12th-century rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.[3]

The symbol resurged in Europe in the late-19th century following Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Hissarlik which is now presumed to be the site of Troy.[4] Schliemann found approximately 1800 icons akin to the swastika across seven different archaeological layers.[5] In his published account of the excavation, Schliemann connected the symbol to the “suastika [sic]” he found in scholarship on the Indian Antiquity.[6]

In what Malcolm Quinn describes as the “warning which came too late”, philologist Max Muller wrote to Schliemann and warned him to avoid imposing the word ‘swastika’ on found icons:

“[Svastika] is a word of Indian origin, and has its history and definite meaning in India. I know the temptation is great to transfer names, with which are familiar, to similar objects which come before us […] The mischief arising from the promiscuous use of technical terms is very great” [7]

Muller captures a central point which persists in the contemporary debate on cultural appropriation. When elements of a culture are adopted out of context, the links between the item and its tradition or heritage are severed. The swastika offers a case study for the severest consequences of appropriation because its positive and multicultural history will remain forever tainted by Nazi atrocities.

The swastika grew in popularity as Schliemann’s discoveries became more well-known. It was commonly used to represent good fortune and appeared on a myriad of items including the Carlsberg logo, Boy Scout thank you coins and lucky fobs made by Coco-Cola.[8]

Simultaneously, the connections Schliemann made between the symbol and Proto-Indo-European migration, unfortunately, gave the swastika a significant appeal to advocates of Aryanism. Racialists such as Emile Burnouf built on Schliemann’s work in an attempt to legitimise the idea that Northern Europeans descended from an ancient, master race.[9] From the early 20th century, nationalist and anti-Semitic groups such as the Reichshammerbund and the Thule Society exploited the swastika as an emblem of their supposed racial superiority. The Thule Society went on to sponsor the Nazi party which created the xenophobic symbol known today.

Quinn, who has written a comprehensive work on the construction of the Nazi swastika, notes that the post-war response to the swastika ultimately reinforced its links to the Nazi party. Swastikas were removed from Germany as part of the de-Nazification process and were hence characterised as an inherently fascist object that could not itself be de-Nazified.[10] Of course, the symbol is still employed today by white supremacist and anti-Semitic individuals and organisations. Therefore, opposition to and rejection of the symbol remains a useful tool against racist sentiments that risk the repetition of history.

However, context is important. As noted earlier, the symbol still holds significance for several religions whose use of the swastika predates its absorption into Aryanism. In Buddhism, the swastika is commonly employed as an aniconic symbol of the Buddha and is homogenous with the wheel. It represents movement around a fixed axis and symbolises the endless, unchanging cycle of rebirth noted in Buddhism’s Saṃsāra doctrine.[11] In Jainism, the four arms of the swastika represent the four forms a soul may embody until liberation: Heavenly, Hellish, Human or Flora/Fauna. Similarly, the four arms are used to represent a variety of symbolic meanings in Hinduism. These include the four Vedas (the core Hindu scriptures) and the four purposes of life among other interpretations.

The significance of the swastika to these faiths, as well as some Chinese religions, has allowed the symbol to remain a positive force in numerous East and Southeast Asian countries. However, cross-cultural misunderstandings among diaspora, tourists and transnational organisations are an inevitability in the increasingly global community. One such example comes from Diwali last year in which a swastika contained in rangoli* outside a Hindu household in Adelaide was destroyed by a mailman who misinterpreted it for anti-Semitic declaration.[12] The potential for greater cross-cultural awareness to overcome these incidents has been realised in some ways. For example, in advance of the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, Japan adjusted its tourist maps to accommodate the expected influx of international visitors.[13] The swastika, which is used in Japanese cartography to denote a Buddhist temple, was replaced with a pagoda symbol.[14]

The history of the swastika demonstrates the irreversible consequences of misappropriation. The Nazi’s use of the symbol erased the significant context in which the swastika represented the conquest of good over evil. However, as the swastika now exists simultaneously as a symbol of hate and as one of well-being, context and cultural awareness remains an ever-important component and should be acknowledged to determine an appropriate reaction. Moreover, this is a lesson that we can employ to determine the suitability of religious and cultural items in commercial objects: if we cannot understand the context of the item, and hence its rich heritage and tradition, it has been reduced to a decoration.


Footnotes.

* Art form in which decorative patterns are made on the floor using coloured materials such as rice, flour, sand or flower petals.

[1] Stanley A. Freed and Ruth S. Freed. “Swastika: A new symbolic interpretation.” Rice University Studies 66, no. 1 (1980), 87

[2]Mukti Jain Campion “How the World Loved the Swastika- Until Hitler Stole It” BBC.co.uk. BBC News. October 23 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29644591 [date accessed July 26 2020]

[3] Thomas Wilson. The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), 903; D. R. Buxton “Ethiopian Rock-Hewn Churches.” Antiquity 20, no. 78 (1946), 63

[4] Thomas Wilson. The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), 826

[5] Thomas Wilson. The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896), 826; Lorraine Boissoneault. “The Man Who Brought the Swastika to Germany, and How the Nazis Stole It.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, April 6, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/man-who-brought-swastika-germany-and-how-nazis-stole-it-180962812/. [date accessed: July 27th 2020]

[6] Heinrich Schliemann. Troy and its remains: a narrative of researches and discoveries made on the site of Ilium, and in the Trojan Plain. (London: J. Murray, 1875), 101

[7] Letter from Max Muller to Heinrich Schliemann quoted in Malcolm Quinn. The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. (London: Routledge, 2005), 1

[8] Steven Heller. The swastika: symbol beyond redemption? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

[9] Lindsey L. Turnbull “The Evolution of the Swastika: From Symbol of Peace to Tool of Hate.” Masters dissertation. University of Central Florida, 2010), 28

[10] Malcolm Quinn. The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. (London: Routledge, 2005), 3

[11] Adrian Snodgrass. The Symbolism of the Stupa. (New York: Cornell University Press, 2018), 82

[12] Mitch Mott. “Deliveryman Destroys ‘Swastika’ in Case of Mistaken Identity” Adelaidenow.com The Advertiser. October 29 2019. https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/deliveryman-destroys-swastika-in-case-of-mistaken-identity/news-story/82b8c01400c89a362e526fd8c1d502a9 [date accessed: July 27 2020]

[13] Justin McCurry. “Japan to Drop the Swastika from its Tourist Maps” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian. January 20 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/20/japan-to-drop-the-swastika-from-its-tourist-maps [date accessed: July 26 2020]

[14] Justin McCurry. “Japan to Drop the Swastika from its Tourist Maps” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian. January 20 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/20/japan-to-drop-the-swastika-from-its-tourist-maps [date accessed: July 26 2020]

Sources. (Recommended Reading in Bold)

Boissoneault, Lorraine. “The Man Who Brought the Swastika to Germany, and How the Nazis Stole It.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, April 6, 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/man-who-brought-swastika-germany-and-how-nazis-stole-it-180962812/. [date accessed: July 25 2020]

Buxton, D. R. “Ethiopian Rock-Hewn Churches.” Antiquity 20, no. 78 (1946), 60–69.

Campion, Mukti Jain. “How the World Loved the Swastika- Until Hitler Stole It” BBC.co.uk. BBC News. October 23 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29644591 [date accessed July 26 2020]

Freed, Stanley A. and Ruth S. Freed. “Swastika: A new symbolic interpretation.” Rice University Studies 66, no. 1 (1980), 87-105

Heller, Steven. The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.

McCurry, Justin. “Japan to Drop the Swastika from its Tourist Maps” TheGuardian.com. The Guardian. January 20 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/20/japan-to-drop-the-swastika-from-its-tourist-maps [date accessed: July 26 2020]

Mott, Mitch. “Deliveryman Destroys ‘Swastika’ in Case of Mistaken Identity” Adelaidenow.com The Advertiser. October 29 2019. https://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/deliveryman-destroys-swastika-in-case-of-mistaken-identity/news-story/82b8c01400c89a362e526fd8c1d502a9 [date accessed: July 27 2020]

Quinn, Malcolm. The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. London: Routledge, 2005.

Schliemann, Heinrich. Troy and its remains: a narrative of researches and discoveries made on the site of Ilium, and in the Trojan Plain. London: J. Murray, 1875.

Snodgrass, Adrian. The Symbolism of the Stupa. New York: Cornell University Press, 2018.

Turnbull, Lindsey L. “The Evolution of the Swastika: From Symbol of Peace to Tool of Hate.” Masters dissertation. University of Central Florida, 2010.

Wilson, Thomas. The Swastika, the Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896.

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