I recently came across an article on Huffpost about the swastika, the ancient religious symbol co-opted by the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, more commonly known as the Nazis, and whether or not the symbol which has deep significance for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains (the populations of which are growing in the USA) could ever be rehabilitated or is forever associated with evil, hatred and genocide.
This is something that has long interested me as a devotee of heraldry. I have often said, long before I knew about the religious significance of the swastika, that the Nazis chose a particularly striking symbol but that it was ruined for all time. In the summer of 1989 I was working in a parish in Baltimore that had been built in the 1920s before the Nazis came to dominate Germany and Europe. The floor tiles were plain but were interspersed with colored tiles depicting the cross in various forms. One such form was a swastika, or hooked cross (hakenkreuz) as the Germans called it. At first I was appalled seeing it there until I was told that it used to be seen simply as a form of the cross long before it became associated with the Nazis. From that point on I became interested in how this ancient symbol had been ruined forever and wondered if it might ever lose that connection with evil.
After all, the other big symbol associated with Fascism was also an ancient one: the fasces. This symbol, dating from the time of the Roman Empire, was the symbol used by Mussolini and his blackshirts in Italy after their rise to power. For centuries it had already existed as a symbol of justice and of legislative power. The fasces were used in the ancient Roman Senate in the time of the Republic and also, later, carried before the Emperor. Yet, during and after World War II no one seemed to feel the need to destroy this ancient symbol. Indeed depictions of the fasces appear on the wall behind the dais in the United States House of Representatives to this very day.
And the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC does not depict Honest Abe seated between two books, as is often erroneously thought. Rather, he is seated on a chair the arms of which are composed of fasces!
So, why did the fasces get a pass and not the hakenkreuz? Why was one symbol so closely associated with the totalitarianism and oppression of Fascism allowed simply to continue in its original use while another with equally ancient origins and religious significance for several different religions become vilified as a universally deplored symbol signifying hatred especially when one considers that it was only used as a Nazi symbol for about 20 years? It helps to look at what Adolf Hitler did with a pre-existing symbol and how that affected its transformation.
Hitler didn’t invent the swastika, we know that. In fact, as I have already mentioned swastika is the word used for this symbol coming from the Sanskrit word for “well-being” and used by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains who consider it an auspicious sign. It was also seen as a sign of well-being and prosperity by Mesopotamian, Mayan and other early indigenous cultures. However, as a form of the Christian cross with hooked ends it was referred to by Europeans as the hooked cross (hakenkreuz). The Nazis never used the word “swastika” for their party symbol. But why would they, a neo-pagan cult which rejected the basic tenets of Christianity, adopt a form of the cross as a symbol? One theory is rooted in, of all things, Adolf Hitler’s Roman Catholic upbringing.
Born in Austria, a country that remained staunchly Catholic even after the Reformation, the young Hitler was educated at Lambach Abbey School run by Benedictine monks. Day after day the boy was surrounded by decorative motifs placed on doors and gateways throughout the abbey by one of its former (and deceased) abbots, Theodor Hagn. The device Hagn had used to decorate the abbey (below) contained his initials, T-H and the abbreviation A-L for Abbey Lambach surrounding an ancient form of the cross: a hooked cross. It was thought by many that this symbol stayed in the mind of the impressionable boy and he recalled it years later when choosing a symbol for the party in which he was rapidly rising to the top as its leader.
There is good reason to doubt this as the origin of the Nazi party symbol since party members had already been using the hakenkreuz as a symbol even before Adolf Hitler became a member. In addition, it is worth mentioning the ridiculous and false claims that the Nazis had that somehow they, as a “master race” were descended from the ancient Aryans for whom the swastika was a symbol used in their ancient culture. However, one thing is certain. Regardless of where Hitler got the symbol he is the one who decided on its particular depiction as the Nazi Party emblem. It was Hitler, the talentless frustrated artist who took the normally squared off swastika and tilted it on an angle. He then also insisted it be depicted in black on a white circle and the whole surrounded in red. Thus, did Hitler take an ancient form of the Christian cross (as well as an even more ancient symbol of well-being and auspiciousness to other religions of the world) and turn it into the forever recognizable armband and flag of the Nazis still associated with them long after their well-deserved demise.
So, since the hakenkreuz had a particular depiction (tilted, black on white surrounded by red) and the swastika has a similar but distinct depiction, as it also has a distinct meaning, and since the world was content to allow the fasces to continue in use as understood to have a distinct original meaning why has the swastika become so reviled?
The simple answer is, I think, because it has, that’s why. Because it became associated with man’s inhumanity to man. It became associated with the senseless slaughter of millions motivated by nothing other than blind, irrational hatred. It became associated with the people who perpetrated one of the greatest, if not the greatest, crime against humanity ever recorded. It became associated with the terrifying hatred of others as less valuable and less than valuable as human beings to be seen, instead, as a lower form of life to be exterminated.
In addition, unlike the fasces which, in a sense, reverted to their formerly respected and respectable symbolism and adopted by no one else as a symbol of attempting a continuance of the misguided oppression of the Fascists the hakenkreuz, or swastika, continues to be used by groups who represent nothing other than hatred and racism. The Nazi party as a party may no longer exist but there remain pockets of those who still espouse its ideas and its twisted philosophies. They think of themselves as the natural heirs to the Third Reich and imagine that they, too, are somehow descended of the “master race” of Arayans. Their delusion is all the more frightening because it persists so long after its originators were vanquished.
Nevertheless, despite the clear association with hatred of the hakenkreuz, itself most unfortunate because it is a bastardization of the cross of Christ which, for faithful Christians, is the symbol of their faith and a sign of life and salvation and mercy and reconciliation, the swastika, a different though unfortunately similar symbol, remains one of auspice and well-being to millions of people around the world. I think it is precisely because of their migration to the Western world that this has become more of an issue. In places like India the swastika is as commonly seen as the cross is in Europe or America.
The article I mentioned in Huffpost mentions how most people who adhere to one of the religions that make use of the swastika don’t feel an urgent need to assert its rehabilitation. That’s not because they don’t think it’s a good idea. Rather, it just isn’t seen as an important fight right now. They are able to see and understand the horrible connotation that symbol has in the eyes of many. As one man interviewed in the article states, “(it isn’t) up to the Hindus or necessarily in their interest to change what the swastika means to the Jews. They should be allowed to be repulsed by it just like Hindus should be allowed to be bolstered by its auspiciousness.”
Perhaps, several hundred years from now people will be able to look at a swastika and primarily see the symbol of well-being that it is for Hindus and acknowledge as footnote that, for a time, it had been appropriated as a symbol by a bunch of thugs who tried to take over the world and that bad connotation hung on for a century or two. That would be progress, I think. As to whether or not the hakenkreuz (I’ll never incorrectly use the term “swastika” for the Nazi symbol again) will ever be rehabilitated in Western society I think that the answer is certainly not in my lifetime and, i suspect, not for quite some time after that as well. As long as Holocaust survivors still live and the immediate families of both Holocaust victims and survivors, whose lives were torn apart and irrevocably changed by that horrible event, still live how can it be? In addition, as long as hate-filled anti-Semites still appropriate the symbol as theirs how can it? The Nazis may have used it for only about 20 years but countless numbers of bigots continue to infuse the symbol with their racial, religious and cultural hatred. The Nazis may have, in my poor opinion, “ruined” the swastika by using the hakenkreuz for a time but others continue to ruin it, and to misuse it as symbol that strikes fear into the hearts of all good people even now.
Can the swastika ever be allowed to be used in the West without being associated with the Nazis? Can the hakenkreuz ever be rehabilitated as merely one form of the cross? Perhaps. But, not now…nor anytime soon.