For many people today, the swastika provokes instant repulsion. Across much of the world it is the ultimate banner for genocide and intolerance, a symbol that became irreparably tarnished the moment it was co-opted by Hitler.
But however strong these associations, it is important to acknowledge that the swastika represented something entirely different for thousands of years before its appropriation by the Nazi party, and that there are many who still consider it a sacred symbol.
Origins and spiritual significance
The history of the swastika is remarkably far-ranging. Versions of the design have been found in prehistoric mammoth ivory carvings, Neolithic Chinese pottery, Bronze Age stone decorations, Egyptian textiles from the Coptic Period and amid the ruins of the Ancient Greek city of Troy.
Its most enduring and spiritually significant use, however, can be seen in India, where the swastika remains an important symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
The etymology of the word “swastika” can be traced to three Sanskrit roots: “su” (good), “asti” (exists, there is, to be) and “ka” (make). That the collective meaning of these roots is effectively “making of goodness” or “marker of goodness” shows just how far the Nazis dragged the swastika away from its Hindu association with well-being, prosperity and dharmic auspiciousness.
The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. Hindus mark swastikas on thresholds, doors and the opening pages of account books – anywhere where its power to ward off misfortune might come in handy.
In Buddhism, the symbol has similarly positive connotations and, though its meaning varies among different branches of the Buddhist faith, its value is typically linked to auspiciousness, good fortune and long life. In Tibet, it represents eternity while Buddhist monks in India regard the swastika as “The Seal on Buddha’s Heart”.
Because of its very simplicity, early societies were as prone to use the swastika as any other elementary geometric shape, such as a lemniscate or spiral.
However, it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.
Before it was adopted by the Nazis, the swastika had already been widely appropriated in the West. In fact, it had become something of a fad. Seized upon as an exotic motif that broadly denoted good luck, the swastika even found its way into commercial design work for Coca Cola and Carlsberg, while the Girls’ Club of America went as far as calling its magazine “Swastika”.
The swastika’s regrettable association with Nazism stems from the emergence of a brand of German nationalism after World War One that strived to piece together a “superior” racial identity. This identity was based on the notion of a shared Greco-Germanic heredity that could be traced back to an Aryan master race.
When the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the remains of the lost city of Troy in 1871, his famous excavation uncovered around 1,800 instances of the swastika, a motif that could also be found amid the archaeological remains of Germanic tribes.
German author Ernst Ludwig Kraust later brought the swastika into the political arena of German völkisch nationalism in 1891, also relating it to both Hellenic and Vedic subject matter.
As the distorted concept of Aryanism – previously a linguistic term concerned with connections between German, Romance and Sanskrit languages – began to form the basis of a confused new ethnic identity, the swastika became the symbol of supposed Aryan superiority.
It is widely agreed that Hitler chose the swastika himself as the symbol for the Nazi movement, but it is not known for sure who influenced him in that decision. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote about how his version was based on a design — a swastika set against a black, white and red background — by Dr. Friedrich Krohn, a dentist from Starnberg, who belonged to völkish groups such as the Germanen Order.
By the summer of 1920 this design was commonly in use as the official symbol of the Nazional-socialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, Hitler’s Nazi party.
The invention of this bogus identity was central to Hitler’s ideological project. Propelled by this ethnically divisive ideology, the Nazis whipped up a poisonous nationalistic atmosphere in Germany, thus also repurposing the swastika as a symbol of racial hatred. It’s hard to imagine a more cynical – and misrepresentative – act of branding.
This article was co-authored by Graham Land.