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The Swastika: A Symbol of Great Good and Ultimate Evil

Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found in his articles.

The Nazi Swastika - a one time symbol of good debased beyond redemption?

The Nazi Swastika - a one time symbol of good debased beyond redemption?

It is a symbol of hope. It is a symbol of good luck. It is a symbol of strength. It is a symbol of protection and eternal life. It is a symbol of great faith today for at least one billion Buddhists and Hindus across the Eastern world.

What is this wondrous symbol? It is perhaps the most vilified and most controversial symbol in history, the emblem of hatred and genocide, and the greatest scar on human decency in recent times. The very name and the image of the symbol still evoke feelings of distress or anger among many in the Western world. It is the swastika.

This article looks at the 5000-year history of the swastika, its meaning, and the reverence in which it has been held by cultures the world over. And we will also look at how the symbol was adopted by the Nazi Party and its subsequent descent into evil, and we consider the hopes for its possible salvation and redemption in the years ahead.

What is the future for the swastika?

N.B: Please note, all my articles are best read on desktops and laptops.

What Is a Swastika?

First, we should define a swastika. The swastika is best described as a cross in which the arms have been bent at right angles - a 'hooked cross'. As a geometric shape, it is an irregular icosagon (a polygon with 20 sides of differing length) [1][2][3].

'Swastika' is derived from the Sanskrit word 'svastika', and it has been a familiar term in the English speaking world since the late 19th century when in popular usage it supplanted the Greek 'gammadion' for the name of this type of cross. (The word 'Gammadion' derives from the Greek uppercase letter gamma Γ - when four of these are combined emanating from a central point, the well-known shape is created). The break down of the word 'swastika' has several explanations which slightly conflict, but the general consensus is that 'sv''su' or 'sw' is an affirmation of good luck or well being, whilst 'asti' means 'to be', and 'ka' is a causative word which effectively turns the whole phrase into an object or noun. Thus 'sw' + 'asti' + 'ka' means 'something which causes goodness or good luck to be'. In other words, a swastika always should have been a symbol of auspicious well-being and good values. [1][2][4][5]

The design can vary. The cross may be different colours, and it may have additional adornments such as a circle around the cross, or spots within the cross. The arms may be wavy, and they may be bent to the right or to the left. Or the whole symbol may be turned through 45° so that the arms are slanted . Why does it take so many forms? The reason can only be that the swastika is a symbol which has been employed by many different cultures across the world, and each has put its own stamp on the basic design. Just one of those cultures was the Nazi Party in early 20th century Germany.

Swastikas have a very different symbolism on this 2600 year old Greek vase depicting the Goddess Artemis

Swastikas have a very different symbolism on this 2600 year old Greek vase depicting the Goddess Artemis

Just a few of the many designs of swastika-like crosses from various cultures. From left to right, these 6 crosses have been found in Lapland, on Islamic architecture, in Japan and Tibet, and in the culture of the Hopi and Aztec tribes of America

Just a few of the many designs of swastika-like crosses from various cultures. From left to right, these 6 crosses have been found in Lapland, on Islamic architecture, in Japan and Tibet, and in the culture of the Hopi and Aztec tribes of America

Right and Left Swastikas

Swastikas may be seen with the upper arm bent to the right (卐) or to the left (卍). If the upper arm is bent to the right, it may be considered as having the arms bent in a clockwise direction. If the upper arm is bent to the left, then the arms are counterclockwise (these are sometimes interpreted differently, depending upon how one visualises the implied rotation of the cross, but this is the convention we employ here) [1][2].

The term 'sauwastika' has sometimes been used to distinguish the left pointing swastika from the right. [2][4][5][6]

Both forms have been used historically, sometimes interchangeably, but in other cultures, right and left pointing symbols may have quite different meanings. Three major religions embrace the swastika design today. Buddhists most often use the left pointing symbol, whilst typically the right handed swastika is more common within Hinduism and Jainism. Some, but by no means all, Hindus consider the left pointing symbol as the antithesis of the right - a symbol of misfortune to set against the right sided symbol of good luck.[2][4][5]

The Distinction Between the Nazi-Style Swastika and the Traditional Symbol

A general belief is that the Nazi form of the swastika always has the upper arm bent towards the right, in a clockwise direction. Whilst this was the standard way in which it was displayed, some Nazi flags were see-through so the reversed image was visible on the other side. Of course, many non-Nazi swastikas also bend to the right. [1][2]

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Some will say that the distinguishing characteristic of a Nazi Swastika is that the arms are turned through 45° giving a more dynamic slant to the symbol, whereas the swastikas of traditional religions are presented with the base arm lying flat. There is some truth in this as a broad generalisation, but any look at old Nazi newsreels will show flat based swastikas as well as the more typical slanted ones. [6][7]

Unfortunately there is no absolute clear-cut distinction between the 'bad' and the 'good' swastikas other than the distinctively negative combination of a black cross on a white circle and a red background used exclusively by the Nazis in their flag and illustrated in the first photo on this page.

A left pointing swastika which can be seen on a temple in South Korea - this swastika symbol is revered by hundreds of millions of Buddhists throughout the world

A left pointing swastika which can be seen on a temple in South Korea - this swastika symbol is revered by hundreds of millions of Buddhists throughout the world

The Meaning of the Swastika and How It Came to Be

To understand how this curious design came to evoke the potent symbolism which exists today, it is necessary first to consider the history of the swastika. And it is an extraordinarily long and diverse history. In fact, as we shall shortly see, this is one of the oldest of all designs created by man - certainly older than the celebrated Egyptian ankh and the Christian cross - and it has played a prominent cultural role on all continents. But why? Why has this symbol occupied a special place in so many civilisations? Nothing is known for certain, but there are various hypotheses. [4][8]

The Ancient Meaning of the Cross, and the 'Hooked Cross' or Swastika

A widespread belief is that in many pre-Christian cultures, the cross symbol in all its forms may have represented the Sun. But the existence of four arms to the cross may well be significant, possibly representing the four seasons, or the 'four forces of nature' - sun, wind, water and earth. In Norse mythology some have taken the cross symbol as representing Thor's hammer, whilst in Panama, the hooked, swastika cross is a symbol of the Kuna tribe, the arms symbolising the tentacles of an octopus which in ancient mythology created the world. In the Christian religion, the meaning of the cross as a symbol of Christ's crucifixion is well known, but even in this religion, swastika designs also occur, perhaps adopted from 'pagan' customs as merely a pre-existing hooked version of a cross, but possibly also used at the time of Roman Christian persecution as a disguised crucifix. A great many other symbolisms have existed across the world, including fertility, strength and eternity, but a more prosaic explanation specifically for the swastika shape is that it merely represents a combination of ancient Brahmi characters for 'su' and 'asti' - 'good luck'. [1][8][9]

The obvious difference between the swastika and other crosses is of course that the swastika is bent or hooked. This gives the impression of rotation, and it is reasonable to assume that this is relevant. Some have suggested that in the symbolism of many ancient cultures, the bent arms represent the rotation of the sun through the sky. In ancient Indo-Iranian mythology, the heavens were said to be depicted as revolving on spokes around a central point, pulled by a chariot of four horses - a legend which would be adequately stylised in the shape of a swastika. And in American Navajo Indian culture, the 'whirling log' myth tells of an outcast who left his village on a river voyage in a hollowed out log. Whirled around by violent currents, but helped by the Gods, he found great knowledge and wisdom with which he returned to his tribe. A swastika symbol symbolises the whirling log. [1][10]

Theory of Independent Origins

It has been theorised that the simplicity of any cross symbol has made it a natural design for any civilisation to develop, in the same way that circles and pyramid shapes also occur throughout the world's ancient cultures. Each civilisation may therefore have independently adopted the swastika symbol. Certainly the presence of the design in cultures separated by deserts and mountains and even by oceans, supports this idea. Equally, the great variations in design and the varied meanings attributed to the designs by different cultures also adds weight to the theory that many were independently developed. [2][10]

Theory of a Common Origin

But although there is great diversity of swastikas across the world, undoubtedly some have a common origin. The symbol is notably absent from two of the most ancient civilisations - the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Old Kingdom of Egypt - a fact which suggests that these cultures may have preceeded a common origin in Asia and Europe. What that common origin may be is debatable, but one remarkable theory has it that the close approach of a comet with long trailing tails bent by the rotation of the comet nucleus, led to the symbol being adopted across this part of the world. Such a swastika-shaped comet was depicted in a Chinese manuscript of the 2nd century BCE (Before the Common Era or BC). More obviously, migration of cultures could well have spread the symbol. Many (including the Nazis) have theorised a direct association between the symbol in the Middle East and India and in Europe. Finally, swastikas in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism undoubtedly have a common origin, although each have since developed their own interpretations and symbolisms. [1][2][10]

A right pointing swastika seen here with other decorative religious imagery - this swastika symbol is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus throughout the world

A right pointing swastika seen here with other decorative religious imagery - this swastika symbol is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus throughout the world

A Persian gold necklace decorated with swastikas, dated to c1000 BCE

A Persian gold necklace decorated with swastikas, dated to c1000 BCE

The two faces of a 6th century BCE Corinthian coin from Greece

The two faces of a 6th century BCE Corinthian coin from Greece

The History of the Swastika: Prehistoric Representations

It is believed the most ancient known 'swastika' may be one carved on a piece of Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) mammoth ivory found in the Ukraine and dating back 12,000 years, though some have doubted whether this is a true swastika, or merely a stylised stork in flight. Very similar symbols in which the four arms are replaced by animal figures, such as birds' heads, are also known in later Central Asian and Germanic art. [1][11]

Both clockwise and anticlockwise swastika designs have been found in the cultures of Neolithic (New Stone Age) Southeast Europe, specifically on ceramic pottery designs in a cave in Bulgaria, dated to 6000 BCE. Clearly defined ancient swastikas have also been found in the Indus Valley of Pakistan and Northern India, dating to more than 2000 years BCE. In Neolithic Armenia, swastikas occur as rock carvings, and similar designs on pottery of the same age are also known from Neolithic China. In all these cultures the swastika symbol does not appear to occupy any marked position or significance, but appears as just one form of a series of similar symbols of varying complexity. [1][11]

Iron Age swastika designs have been found in Celtic, Baltic, Germanic, Etruscan and Slavic cultures. Further east, Pre-Christian swastikas have been found throughout the Middle East and far east and even in the ruins of ancient Jewish synagogues. [1]

And the great cultures of Greece and Rome also featured this symbol. Swastikas were a Greek architectural design, used on articles of clothing, and on coins and brooches. The Greek Goddess Athena was depicted wearing robes adorned with swastikas, and it has been suggested that Greek priestesses tattooed the symbol on their bodies. In ancient Rome, isolated swastikas occur in architectural decoration. Some have been found on the floors of the ruined city of Pompeii [1][2]

Detail of a swastika on Minoan pottery. The Minoan civilisation on Crete is one of the most ancient of all European cultures and this symbol dates to about 2,000 BC

Detail of a swastika on Minoan pottery. The Minoan civilisation on Crete is one of the most ancient of all European cultures and this symbol dates to about 2,000 BC

The History of the Swastika Before the 19th Century

We have looked at the period 'Before the Common Era' (BCE or BC), but since then, and even following the rise of Christianity and the later Islamic faith, the diversity of representations of the swastika continued worldwide. By the Middle Ages this was a well known symbol, under various different names.

In Europe, swastikas abounded in many cultures. In Great Britain, they have been uncovered in all sorts of places, notably in burial sites from the first few centuries AD. The Ogham Stone in Ireland - believed to have been a Druid altar stone, is inscribed with swastikas believed to date to the 5th century AD. A Celtic shield from this period has been found in the River Thames with 27 swastikas on it, and there is one on the hilt of a sword which was found in a 6th century Kentish grave. And the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in England includes several representations of the swastika on gold cups and shields dating from the 7th century AD. In a later era the design was printed on the garments of Bishop William Edington, the 14th century Bishop of Winchester Cathedral. [1]

In Northern Europe, an early 9th century Viking sword found at Saebo in Norway has a runic inscription which includes a swastika design, probably as a symbol of the god Thor. The swastika is also widely seen throughout Eastern Europe. In St Sophia Church in Kiev, Ukraine, a 12th century mosaic includes prominent swastika designs. Further south in Bulgaria, the symbol can be found on a church in Nesebar dating to the 13th or 14th century, and is a motif on many Slavic buildings. [1][2][12]

In Southern Europe, swastikas have been found in the catacombs of Rome. Later Romanesque and Gothic art rarely depicts single swastikas, but they are often used in interlocked sequence. The Cathedral of Cordoba, built in the 10th century AD, has many stylised swastikas on its facade. A tomb in the Basilica of St Ambrose in Rome includes a swastika, and in the 'Seven Sacraments' - a famous 15th century painting by Rogier van der Weyden - a swastika is just one of several versions of Christian cross depicted on a priest's ceremonial robes. [1][2][8][13]

In the Middle East, the swastika was present in Egypt during the Coptic Christian period. A similar symbol also exists in Islam, for example in the Muslim "Friday" mosque of Isfahan, Iran, and the Taynal Mosque in Tripoli, Lebanon. And ironically, it has also been found in the ancient Jewish synagogue at Ein Gedi, built during the time of the Roman occupation. And in Armenia medieval churches, as well as many artifacts such as pottery, coins and manuscripts, also feature the swastika. [1][2][8]

In Asia during the Tang Dynasty of China, c700 AD, Empress Wu Zetian decreed that the swastika should be used as an alternative symbol for the sun. And both left and right facing swastika symbols (卍 and 卐) have existed as characters in the written language since the 10th Century Liao Dynasty, and have been interpreted as meaning 'eternity' or to represent 'all of creation'. The symbol was also introduced to Japan and has been used as a 'mon' - similar to a family crest. [1][2]

In Africa, the swastika shape occurs sporadically across the continent including on a 12th/13th century Ethiopian church, and on 15th century Ghanan goldweights. In the Americas, swastika-like symbols existed in the cultures of the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. And in North America, similar designs occur in tribal art, notably in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys, in the Southeast, and in the culture of the Navajo, Hopi and Dakota tribes, albeit with different symbolisms for each tribe. [1][2][8]

So in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, a multitude of hooked cross designs had existed from prehistoric times to the Middle Ages. Most of course, owed their existence to ancient beliefs now long since lost, and consequently in most parts of the world, the swastika now began a gradual decline in importance which lasted for many centuries. But in one part of the world, it was a very different story. In the cultures of the Indian subcontinent and south eastern Asia, the swastika had been - and has remained - a vibrant and important symbol throughout history, right through World War Two, and right up until the present day, and the key to this is the significance of the symbol to the religions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. These will be discussed later, but first we must look at what happened to the symbol in Europe after the aforementioned decline in its popularity. Because in Europe there was another revival of interest, albeit brief, in the swastika design in the late 19th century - a revival which would eventually and most unfortunately bring it to the attention of extreme nationalists and fascists in Germany.

Two yachts sailing in Sydney Harbour Australia, c1926. One carries a conventional cross as a decorative motif, but look at the one on the left

Two yachts sailing in Sydney Harbour Australia, c1926. One carries a conventional cross as a decorative motif, but look at the one on the left

The Swastika in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

We have seen how from the Stone Age to the Middle Ages, the swastika was an important religious symbol across the world. But by the early 19th century, these old significances had very largely declined at least in western culture.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in ancient cultures and belief systems, and in the swastika. One of the key causes of this was the archaeological work of Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the swastika in the ruins of ancient Troy and associated it with the similar symbols found on ancient artifacts in Europe. He speculated that such a widely used symbol must have had significant religious connotations for all our ancestors. This, together with its continued reverence in several Asian religions as a good luck symbol, led to its re-acceptance by Western culture by the turn of the 20th century. But where once it had graced Neolithic monuments, Iron Age implements and Medieval churches, now the swastika would be adopted by all kinds of ordinary people with a new, and remarkably, rather friendly and light-hearted symbolism associated with good luck and auspiciousness. [1][2][12][14]

It's hard to imagine today in the light of its subseqent notoriety, just how the swastika was regarded at this time, and the wide variety of causes it served.

In Ireland the 'Swastika Laundry' opened in Dublin in 1912. An Icelandic Steamship Company, 'Eimskip' used a swastika in its logo from 1914. In World War One, Latvia used two separate designs with different symbolisms which they called the 'thunder cross' (right facing) and the 'fire cross' (left facing); the maroon fire cross version was adopted for its airforce. And Finland also used the swastika as an airforce symbol in WW1. Russia printed banknotes in 1917 which featured a right-facing, angled swastika (a form of the symbol which may have influenced Nazi designs shortly afterwards). And even churches began to use the symbol once more. A ceiling painted in 1910 in a church in Grenoble has many swastikas. [1][2][3]

In Britain the boy scout movement used the symbol on a Medal of Merit issued in 1922. And the great author Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian Hindu culture, put the motif of a swastika on his books. One of Kipling's Just So Stories, "The Crab That Played With The Sea", had a full-page illustration which depicted a stone bearing a 'magic mark' - the magic mark was a swastika. [2][3]

It wasn't only in Europe that the swastika experienced a revival. The importance of the symbol to Native Americans made it a popular 'ethnic' symbol in the United States, with the design appearing on souvenir rugs, baskets and pottery sold to tourists. And many buildings constructed around this time incorporated the swastika in their facades or as internal decorations. In Canada 'Swastika' is the name of a small town, founded in 1908 in northern Ontario. Gold was discovered nearby and the Swastika Mining Company was formed in 1909. Several ice hockey teams adopted the swastika as a name and symbol for good luck between the turn of the century and the 1920s. [2][3][9][10]

And in Oceania, many buildings featured the symbol. There are swastika designs in Christchurch Cathedral in New Zealand. Brisbane City Hall has stylised swastikas in a floor design laid between 1920 and 1930, and so does the Customs Building in Sydney. The Dymock's building in Sydney also has swastikas, including slanted 45 designs, on one of its floor patterns. [13]

Indeed, all over the world swastikas began appearing in decorative motifs or as symbols of good luck. But at the same time as the swastika was once more gaining favour amongst reasonable people in Europe and America, it was also attracting the attention of unreasonable people - in another country, institutions and organisations also adopted the swastika, with very different connotations.

 In February 1925 the Kuna tribe in Panama rebelled against an oppressive government to establish a degree of autonomy. They chose this flag for themselves in 1930

In February 1925 the Kuna tribe in Panama rebelled against an oppressive government to establish a degree of autonomy. They chose this flag for themselves in 1930

Adoption of the Swastika by the Nazi Party in Germany

Germany in the late 19th century was in a state of flux. This had been a loose confederation of sovereign states, and it was only in 1871 that these states finally united under one banner to form a Germanic Empire. But a new nation requires a shared national identity and a cultural history to unify the people - a new pride in themselves as a nation in their own right was required. [4]

We have already referred to the work of Heinrich Schliemann in Troy. The artifacts he found there adorned with swastika-like symbols seemed to have parallels with artifacts from German history. A theory emerged at this time that a light skinned Indo-Iranian race and culture existed long in the past, and that this race was ancestral to the people, not only of Troy but also those of northern and western Europe. The race were called the 'Aryans', and the commonality of the swastika symbol helped to provide good circumstantial evidence for the theory that Aryans had spread across Europe bringing with them their culture and this symbol - and of course the Aryans' racial characteristics. [6][14][15]

Although the theory was sincere, it was interpreted in unfortunate ways in Germany. The idea of fair skinned Aryan ancestors establishing an advanced social culture in Europe led to the notion of racial superiority, epitomised most strongly by the fair skinned Nordic and Germanic peoples - in the opinion of some, they were the purest descendents of the Aryan race, and seen as the superior antithesis of the darker skinned people of Africa, the non-Aryan Asians and most pointedly, the Semites or Jews. Such a notion would give pride to the new nation of Germany, and symbolism - whether it be songs, or whether it be flags and emblems - could be important in cementing that sense of pride. The swastika - seen as purely Aryan - became such an emblem. [1][2][6][15]

Just as happened elsewhere in Europe, the swastika in Germany began to appear as a familiar emblem associated with many organisations, both cultural and political, including the Gymnasts' League, as well as several youth movements. But more significantly, the concept of the swastika as a symbol of Aryan racial superiority, had also taken hold among extreme nationalists by the end of the 19th century. And this nationalism, coupled with white supremacism, was now becoming a potent force in Germany. Several years later, the German poet Guido von List called for the swastika to be a unifying symbol for all Aryan, anti-Semitic organisations. [1][4][6][7]

After the humiliating defeat of World War One, the cause of nationalism and proud Aryanism only grew stronger, and several far right groups in Germany adopted the swastika to associate themselves with racial purity. In their eyes, superiority and dominance by German Aryans was desirable, and even predestined. Out of one of these groups was formed the National Socialist Party - also known as the Nazi Party - and on 7th August 1920, the Nazis adopted the swastika, or 'Hakenkreuz' (hooked cross), at the Salzburg Congress. [1][2][3][4]

And then a flag was designed, reputedly by the new leader of the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler himself. In 'Mein Kampf', Hitler described the symbolism of the new flag:

'In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.'

Extremism won the day, and eventually the Nazi Party formed the government of Germany. In 1935, the distinctive form of the black swastika, white circle and crimson surround, became not merely the party flag, but the national flag. [2][6][7]

The old theory of Aryan origins was later largely discredited. Indeed it has been suggested that the original Sanskrit term 'arya' which means 'noble' or 'distinguished', never actually referred to a biological race of people, but rather to a sophisticated social and linguistic culture. Unfortunately, the concept of white supremacy and pure Aryan blood had already taken hold in the minds of fascists. And the enthusiasm with which the swastika symbol was displayed on drapes hung from buildings, on posters and medallions and on Nazi arm bands, and above all on the Nazi flag, meant that the symbol became associated throughout the free Western world with what was rapidly becoming the most despised and ruthless nation in memory, and a nation responsible for extreme racism and genocide. [14][15]

And so it was that after many thousands of years, the Nazis totally turned the image of the swastika in Western iconography from one of good to one of evil. The hooked cross became a symbol to strike terror into the hearts of all who opposed Nazism or who were unfortunate enough to be caught up in its tyranny. [2][14]

Nazi swastika banners in the backgraound add to the Hitler propaganda image

Nazi swastika banners in the backgraound add to the Hitler propaganda image

The Consequences of the Nazi Adoption of the Swastika

The rise of the Nazi party in Germany had obvious repercussions for the swastika in other Western cultures, as right-minded people had to decide how to react. And different approaches were taken by different individuals and organisations. Some who became embarrassed by the new association with Nazis decided to dissociate themselves entirely from the symbol.

Rudyard Kipling took the swastika design off his books, and the 'magic mark' was erased from some editions of his 'Just-so' story. Protests in the 1930s led to the Boy Scouts removing the symbol from their Medal of Merit. Both Latvia and Finland continued to use the swastika for their airforces until after the start of World War Two, but then abandoned it, though it still exists on some Finnish medals. [1][2][3]

There have been other problematic uses of the swastika. The ceremonial clothing of the President of Finland to be worn on formal occasions, includes a Grand Cross of the White Rose with Collar. But the original design of the collar from 1918, carried 9 swastikas. For the visit of the French President Charles De Gaulle in 1963, these were finally replaced by fir crosses to avoid diplomatic embarrassment. [1]