Can the swastika be redeemed?
Before the Nazi Party adopted the swastika and turned it into the most potent icon of racial hatred, it traveled the world as a good luck symbol. It was known in France, Germany, Britain, Scandinavia, China, Japan, India and the United States.
Buddha’s footprints were said to be swastikas. Navajo blankets were woven with swastikas. Synagogues in North Africa, Palestine and Hartford, Conn., were built with swastika mosaics.
Now there is a small movement afoot to help “the swastika get on with its benign life,” to separate it from “the sins of the Nazis.” Is that possible? Should it be possible?
The swastika gets its name from the Sanskrit word svastika, meaning well-being and good fortune. The earliest known swastikas date from 2500 or 3000 B.C. in India and Central Asia. A 1933 study suggests the swastika migrated from India across Persia and Asia Minor to Greece, then to Italy and Germany, probably in the first millennium B.C.
The fateful link was made by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. From 1871 to 1875, he excavated the site of Homer’s Troy on the shores of the Dardanelles. When he found artifacts with swastikas, he quickly associated them with the swastikas he had seen near the Oder River in Germany. As Steven Heller, art director of The New York Times Book Review, wrote in “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption,” “Schliemann presumed that the swastika was a religious symbol of his German ancestors which linked ancient Teutons, Homeric Greeks and Vedic India.”
Pretty soon swastikas were everywhere, rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant. Carlsberg beer etched swastikas onto its bottles. During World War I, the American 45th Infantry division wore an orange swastika as a shoulder patch. The Girls’ Club published a magazine called The Swastika. And until 1940, the Boy Scouts gave out a swastika badge.
How did the Nazis get hold of it? According to Heller, the Germanen order, an anti-Semitic group that wore helmets with Wotan horns and plotted “against Jewish elements in German life,” used a curved swastika on a cross as its insignia. By 1914, the Wandervogel, a German youth movement, made it a nationalist emblem. The Nazi party claimed it around 1920.
The swastika came down as quickly as it ascended. In 1946, it was constitutionally banned from any public display in Germany. In the United States, there has never been a law prohibiting the display of swastikas, but the aversion is still there.
The question now is, should the swastika be reclaimed from the Nazis?
The most concerted effort to redeem the swastika comes from Friends of the Swastika, a group formed in 1985 and based in the United States. The group, whose Web site promises that it “has no connections to any racist propaganda” and no intention of denying the Holocaust, is led by an artist named ManWoman who claims to have 200 swastikas tattooed on his body. In order to “detoxify” and “resanctify” the swastika, the group sells T-shirts, stamps, postcards and “other cool stuff” with swastikas. Their watchword is, “To hell with Hitler!”
Does it matter whether swastikas are used in ignorance or in hatred or to rehabilitate a symbol? Heller says: “Nazi icons were strong enough to seduce a nation and still contain a graphic power that can be unleashed today.” The swastika defenders counter with the question: “How can a symbol be guilty for the acts of a madman?”