few years ago, voters in Nepal went to the polls. They expressed
their choice by stamping a swastika next to the name of the candidate
of their preference. Farmers in Tibet frequently place a swastika
on their home doors, so that no evil can enter the place. A similar
custom is followed by Irish farmers, where the swastika placed
in their doors is called a Brigit's cross. Cuna Indians in Panama
design their blouses with colorful swastikas. Navajo medicine
men use colored sand to draw swastikas on the floor while performing
their curative rites. As a form of benediction Indian boys paint
a swastika on their shaved heads. The swastika is, without a doubt,
an ever present symbol. A modern author called it the "Symbol
of the Century."
have seen swastikas in museums all around the world, from Zürich
to New York and from Moscow to London and Mexico City. My photo
on the left, standing on a frieze of sinistroverse meandroid swastikas,
was taken at the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
a trip to Japan in 1975, my friend Shigehisa Yoshino invited me
to visit the Senso-ji Buddhist temple in Tokyo's Asakusa district.
Its huge lanterns, made famous to Westerners through the prints
of Hiroshige, show several swastikas.
But you don't need to go as far as Japan to see swastikas. Many
pieces in the collections at the Metropolitan Museum in New York
show them. A close look at the Capitol building in Washington
D.C. will reveal several friezes formed out of swastikas. It is
difficult, in fact, to find an old book on art, mythology, or
archaeology, without seen swastikas profusely represented.
Scholarly research on the swastika in modern times, however, seems
to be limited to two peak periods: the first around the beginning
of the twentieth century; the second during the period of the
emergency of Nazism in Germany.
Though Hitler himself gives his version of why the swastika was
adopted as a symbol of the Nazi movement, there are several other
explanations as well. The Swastika and the Nazis is an
attempt to show the different theories without taking sides on
which of them may the correct one. As it happens with many historical
events most likely there is not a single explanation, and the
correct answer is a combination of some of these theories.
The analysis of symbols is currently one of the noteworthy interests
in anthropology. Yet, one of the most important symbols of mankind
is largely ignored. One explanation for that may be that the Nazi
connotations brought up by he swastika are so strong that most
researchers and scholars feel this infamous symbol either does
not deserve to be studied at all or that any effort in that direction
will only serve to arouse suspicions of Nazi sympathy on the part
of its author. As an example of this I can point to the fact that,
even though the swastika is an important symbol in Japan, the
Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983 edition) shows no entry under
the subject of the swastika.
It seems as, after the Nazis appropriated the swastika and put
it to their evil use, they contaminated this symbol forever. They
have had the swastika hostage for more than 50 years. The swastika,
most people believe, symbolizes Nazism and evil.
But the swastika had a long life before Hitler and the Nazis.
It has been for centuries a symbol of peace, laughter, joy and
good luck. It is one of the oldest symbols of mankind. Its Nazi
links are only a minor speck in its very long existence. It is
a symbol that deserves a better treatment from history.
Also, leaving the swastika in Nazi hands is the worst disservice
we can do to the Indians of North, Central and South America.
Moreover, it is a disservice to the peoples of Tibet, India and
China. It is a disservice to the Basque, to the French, to the
Greek, to the Swiss, to the Japanese and to the Irish. It is a
disservice to the Ashanti of Africa and to the Tlingit of Alaska;
to the Cuna in Panama and to the Navajo and the Hopi in the United
In his book Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period,
Erwin Goodenough tells a revealing anecdote. Rabbi Silverman told
him of the horror of his congregation at the Emmanuel Synagogue
in Hartford when it was discovered, after Hitler came to power
in Germany, that in 1927 the vestibule of the synagogue had been
paved with a mosaic floor in which the swastika was frequently
represented. The entire mosaic was at once ripped out.
It is easy to understand and sympathize with Rabbi Silverman's
sentiment. But ripping
off swastikas from buildings, purging art and history books from
swastikas, or simply ignoring them, is neither a scientific, nor
a rational way to deal with this subject. As graphic designer
Henry Dreyfuss put it, "the fact that an ignominious fanatic
placed a Swastika on his battle flag is insufficient reason for
ignoring this symbol's historic significance."
The Nazis and neoNazis have no registered copyrights on the use
of the swastika. They stole this symbol from mankind and use it
for their evil purposes. Allowing the Nazis an exclusive privilege
for using this symbol is equivalent to an act of moral cowardice.
The time is ripe to redeem this beautiful and enigmatic symbol,
taking it from under Nazi control. We must bring it back to the
illustrious place it deserves among other similar symbols in the
long history of mankind.
The Swastika and the Nazis
About 45 years ago, I gave
a lecture on Communication Theory and Semiotics at the Lyceum
Society in Havana. Though I mentioned many common symbols, however,
out of prejudice I did not mention a very important one.
After I finished my presentation, one of the people who attended
the lecture asked me about the swastika, and I gave a perfunctory
answer in which I recall I mentioned that it was a very old symbol.
I didn’t know him at the time, but the person who asked
me the question was Marcus Matterin, the Library Director at the
Jewish Community center in Havana. Later we became friends.
But he picqued my curiosity. Next day I went to the library at
the University of Havana where I discovered, to my total surprise,
that in the 19th century already many articles and books had been
written about the swastika. Actually, still the best work about
the subject is The Swastika by Thomas Wilson, a curator
at the U.S. National Museum, who wrote his book in 1894.
Since Matterin asked me that question I have been engaged in what
I call “a search and rescue mission” of this symbol
—which belongs to mankind, not to any particular ideology
or political movement.
most widely accepted explanation of how Adolf Hitler adopted the
swastika as a symbol of the Nazi movement is found in his Mein
Kampf. The connection, he claimed, came through Dr. Friedrich
Krohn, a dentist, and member of the Nazi party. But, like many
things related to Hitler and the Nazis, there are other explanations.
This study is an attempt to bring some light to other not so well
known connections. These connections are not presented in order
or importance, nor are they exhaustive. I plan to keep adding
new connections to the list.
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