How many of the people today know the story behind the swastika?
The roots of the Nazi symbol.
Nowadays the swastika (Hakenkreuz, hook cross in German) is inseparably associated with Nazism in Western culture, although the symbol has very different associations in Asia. Today’s article looks at how the symbol was adopted by Hitler for his movement.
The swastika was an ancient religious symbol in Eurasia and is still used as such in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and other religions. Its name comes from Sanskrit, in which swastik means auspicious or conductive to good luck. Different versions of the basic swastika shape can be found in ancient symbolism all around the world. It was used in the Kingdom of Kush in Africa, by Native American tribes and by the Germanic, Celtic, Slavic and Greco-Roman cultures in Europe, among others. It’s even found in early Christian symbolism.
The Nazi association with the symbol, however, arose not from ancient Germanic swastikas but Mediterranean ones. In the 19th century, German businessman and archaeology pioneer Heinrich Schliemann became attached to the idea that the city of Troy, featured in Homer’s Iliad, was not merely a mythological place as was formerly believed, but a real city. Consequently, he started seeking it based on clues in the epic poem.
Much to everybody’s surprise, Schliemann actually found Troy in Turkey and did some serious damage to it when he started excavations with crowbars and battering rams. One of his many fascinating finds was a collection of 1,800 items decorated with swastikas. The items were considered proof of a cultural and, as it was thought at the time, racial connection between the ancient Greeks, the Aryan people of Asia and other cultures where the symbol was also found.
It should be added that the appellation to an “Aryan people” was incorrect. The word does come from Sanskrit and was used as a self-designation by Indo-European people in ancient times but it meant a religious, cultural and linguistic kinship, not an ethnic one. The imagined relationship between “Aryans” and Europeans was further strengthened by comparative linguistics, a discipline that also arose in the 19th century. Philologists found that many languages shared similarities of grammar and lexicon, which could be used to determine the “relationship” between them. The concept of an ancient and lost Indo-Germanic language, which was the ancestor of all languages in the geographic area between India and Germany, had much traction at the time was, in fact, fundamentally true. There were, of course, exceptions and the modern name has been changed to Indo-European to include languages spoken to the west of Germany. Linguistic discoveries of the time played into the notion of a fundamental relationship between distant cultures.
Schliemann’s discovery sparked a resurgence for the swastika symbol. In the early 20th century it was used by Coca-Cola, Carlsberg beer, the U.S. military, the Boy Scouts, the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, the British National War Savings Committee in World War I and uncountable other organizations, all adopting it for its generic lucky charm quality and popularity.
The idea of a relationship between the ancient Aryans and the Germanic people, who also used ancient swastikas, was embraced by the völkisch movement of the early 20th century: a German movement mixing populism with romanticism, folklore, natural life and nationalism. The movement, in turn, became one of the ideological inspirations for Hitler. In the Nazi framework of thinking, the ancient Aryans were a master race, serving both as an example to imitate and a warning about how miscegenation can cause the downfall of the German race, who were the purest inheritors of Aryan blood.
The Nazi flag, along with the swastika in it, was personally designed by Hitler. He used red, white and black as a reference to the old Imperial German flag and also claimed that the red stood for the social idea of the movement, white for the nationalistic idea and the black swastika for the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man. The flag of the Nazi party became the flag of Third Reich in 1935, though with an often-overlooked change: the party flag always had the circle and the swastika in the center but the Nazi national flag had it slightly off-center to the left.
Another little-known detail about the Nazi swastika is that it didn’t always rotate in the same direction. Usually it was clockwise but some flags, most notably ones used by merchant ships, had a different design. On these flags, the swastika was mirrored on one side so the direction of rotation depended on which side you were looking at. This might have been a cost-saving measure to allow for printed single-ply flags instead of sewn double-ply ones.