Short answer: the transition from auspicious svastika to despised swastika began in the late 19th century, writes historian and author Miles Russell
The story begins following the archaeological investigation of Hisarlik in Turkey by German antiquarian Heinrich Schliemann who believed it to be the site of Troy.
Finding the svastika on a variety of artefacts, Schliemann recognised a similarity with designs found on sixth-century Germanic pottery, theorising that it represented an important and universal prehistoric religious symbol.
Unfortunately, some academics and nationalists in the newly-unified Germany took this further, suggesting the presence of the svastika across Europe and Asia supported the idea of an ancient Aryan master race.
By the early 1920s, the swastika had been adopted as a symbol of the German Reich. So wedded to the poisonous ideology of hate, the Nazi swastika is today reviled in the West, although as an auspicious and sacred symbol in the East, the svastika remains popular within Buddhist and Hindu society.
Long answer: the swastika became a symbol of hatred and fear in the 20th century, but that belies its long history as a sign of fortune and hope. Here, Jonny Wilkes explains how the swastika came to be both reviled and revered
Heinrich Schliemann had grown obsessed with finding Troy, the lost city of Greek mythology, and believed the epics of Homer would show him the way. A wealthy businessman from Germany, in 1868 he set out with his copy of The Iliad to search the Mediterranean. Several years passed, the findings proved disappointing and he came close to giving up before a British amateur archaeologist named Frank Calvert made a suggestion: Schliemann should dig at the mysterious mound of Hisarlik on the Aegean coast of Turkey.
There, during the 1870s, Schliemann unearthed layers of civilisations dating back thousands of years, and declared the oldest to be Troy. The city of legend had been found – although it turned out to be a different layer than the one Schliemann thought – as well as a cache of jewellery, bronze, silver and gold. It was more than he had dared to hope. Yet in the ancient ruins he made another fateful discovery: some 1,800 depictions of a symbol that resembled a cross with bent arms: the swastika.
News of Schliemann’s sensational excavations spread far and wide, quickly followed by the swastika, which became a ubiquitous sign, visible throughout Europe and North America. Swastikas would appear in advertising, adorning buildings as architectural motifs, and worn on badges or medallions. Sports teams, from ice hockey to basketball, even named themselves the Swastikas, so closely was the symbol associated with luck and success.
At the same time, however, the swastika’s long history saw it become a favourite of German nationalists, who subscribed to a warped theory that they had descended from an ancient ‘master race’ known as the Aryans. This belief persisted into the 20th century, growing more pernicious until it appealed to Adolf Hitler, the leader of the burgeoning Nazi Party, . He adopted the swastika as a symbol of the movement in 1920. Then, as the red flags emblazoned with a harsh black swastika on a white circle of the Third Reich were marched over Europe and the world went to war, it came to stand for hatred, fear, racial intolerance and genocide. A manifestation of evil, even.
In a matter of years, the swastika had been corrupted and the symbolism it held to myriad cultures across many millennia reversed. A cross with arms bent at right angles meant many things to many people, but had always been used as a sign of hope and positivity. It could represent good fortune or prosperity; symbolise the Sun or the infinity of creation; or, as it still does in several religions, evoke a sense of the divine and call for auspiciousness. The word swastika itself derives from the Sanskrit svastika, meaning “conducive to well-being”.
What is the history of the swastika?
The oldest-known example of the swastika dates back some 15,000 years. Discovered in Ukraine in 1908, an ivory mammoth tusk carved into the shape of a bird includes an intricate pattern of connected swastikas on its body, which may have been used as a fertility symbol. There is no knowing how the design first came about. It may have simply been an elegant, easy-to-create geometric shape, although its inspiration possibly came from a comet in the night sky.
It was also in Eastern Europe that single swastikas were carved by the Vinca culture during the Neolithic period, some 7,000 years ago, before they became widespread from the Bronze Age. The swastika symbolised the Sun to the Illyrians; became a common sight on Mesopotamian coins; appeared on vases and clothing in Greece; formed mosaic motifs in Rome, and stands in as a stylised cross in Celtic design. There are 27 swastikas on the Iron Age Battersea Shield, found in London in 1857, but the symbol had been in Britain long before that as the so-called Swastika Stone on Ilkley Moor, Yorkshire, from c2,000 BC, shows. This carving resembles the swastika’s shape, although with more curved arms and added spots.
Swastikas could be found in Roman mosaics, as evidenced in this one excavated at Lullingtone Roman Villa in Eynsford, Kent (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The swastika, often known as a gammadion or fylflot, continued to be used throughout Europe, occasionally being subsumed into religious iconography. Early Christian art depicts the hooked cross to represent Christ’s victory over death, while a left-facing version of the swastika showed up in reference to the Norse god Thor’s hammer. Still a popular symbol in medieval times, the swastika can be seen today on surviving church decorations, coats of arms and on textile fragments from the 12th century thought to be from a dress owned by a Slav princess. The monastery school a young Adolf Hitler attended, Lambach Abbey in Austria, had swastikas carved on the stone and woodwork.
Yet the influence of the swastika reached much further than can be explained by the migration of peoples over the centuries. It has appeared in several cultures across northern Africa, including as window decorations in churches in modern-day Ethiopia, while also showing up in the Mayan, Aztec and Kuna civilisations of South and Central America. A number of Native American and First Nation tribes of North America, such as the Navajo, Hopi and Passamaquoddy, also adopted the symbol, which they called ‘whirling logs’.
Swastikas are prevalent and potent symbols in several religions: there’s a small one on the chest of this Buddha in Hong Kong’s Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (Photo by Victor Fraile/Corbis via Getty Images)
Undoubtedly the most enduring relationship with the swastika began in Asia, especially in India, among followers of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism, for whom it has served as a holy symbol for millennia. To Jains, the swastika represents one of the 24 Tirthankara, or saviours, while Buddhists regard the symbol as the footprints of the Buddha. For Hindus, the right-hand svastika – a term that emerged c500 BC – is a sign of surya (the Sun) and auspiciousness, so is used to mark entrances, offerings, ceremonies, festivals and each year’s account books. The left-hand version, the sauvastika, is symbolic of the night and the goddess Kali. The swastika remains as spiritually significant today, in the face of the stigma towards the symbol in the West brought on by the Nazis.
How did the swastika become a Nazi symbol?
Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of Troy in the 1870s set in motion the events that transformed the swastika, a symbol of fortune and hope for thousands of years, into a hated and feared sign of fascism. He concluded it to be a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors” when he unearthed 1,800 examples, but his colleague, Emile-Louis Burnouf, thought differently. Knowing the symbol appeared in India, Burnouf studied a sacred Hindu text called the Rigveda and claimed to have found a connection between the swastika and an enigmatic ancient people, the Aryans.
Supposedly, this ‘master race’ of white-skinned warriors constituted the peak of human civilisation, conquering lands such as India and bringing the swastika with them. The word Aryan itself derived from Sanskrit, like svastika. Pots from the sixth-century had been found in Germany with swastikas on them and scholars noted the similarities between Sanskrit and German as further proof that the Aryans had come from Germany. But the whole notion of this ‘pure’ race, as well as being deeply racist, was based on a misunderstanding. The Sanskrit word for Aryan (ārya) actually meant “honourable, respectable or noble” and referred to a social or linguistic distinction, not a separate ethnic group.
Before the Nazis, the swastika was widely adopted in the West as a symbol of luck and fortune (Photo by Rykoff Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
But the theory of the Aryans’ existence grew in popularity from the mid-19th century. The unification of Germany in 1871, the same year Schliemann started work at Troy, led to a swell of uninhibited nationalism in the country and the idea that Germans descended from Aryans. To them, the discovery at Troy of their symbol, the swastika, proved they had been a dominant race. So while the swastika existed as a benign good-luck charm across Europe and North America, it simultaneously became an icon for German nationalists and anti-Semitic groups.
Why did Hitler choose the swastika?
When Adolf Hitler began his rise to power and looked for a symbol to encapsulate his movement, the Nazi Party and a strong future for Germany, the swastika became the clear choice. Hitler understood the power of an image and knew it would give the Nazi ideals an historic foundation. He could not adequately reconcile his view of Germany’s Christian history with the religion’s historical Jewish connections – essentially, that Christ was himself Jewish – so the idea that Germans descended from a white master race with a tried and tested symbol had great appeal.
Hitler dedicates new Nazi standards – bearing the appropriated swastika in Imperial German colours – at the 1934 Nuremberg Rally (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)
The swastika, or hakenkreuz (hooked cross), became the emblem of the Nazi Party in 1920; Hitler himself took personal credit for designing the flag. It used the red, white and black of the old German imperial flag – a cunning move to link Germany’s past with its future – but attributed new meanings to them. “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man,” wrote Hitler in his 1925 autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf.
The new design became the national flag on 15 September 1935 during the mass annual rally at Nuremberg. On the same day, two race laws were passed prohibiting marriages between Germans and Jews and declaring that only those of German blood could be citizens of the Reich. And so the act of cultural, religious and social theft that was the appropriation of the swastika was complete. It ensured that the Nazi flag would be associated with evil – under which a brutal war raged, atrocities committed and some six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
What is the swastika a symbol of today?
In the aftermath of World War II, publicly displaying the swastika was banned in Germany, where it remains illegal. Yet while reviled in the Western world, it continues to be a potent symbol with far-right and white-supremacist groups. In the US, where its use is permitted, incidents involving swastika flags and graffiti have increased in recent years, most infamously when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
But the swastika also remains a feature of worship for Hindus, Buddhists and Jains. It can be seen seemingly everywhere in parts of the Indian subcontinent – from temple entrances to the front of taxis – and plays an important role in ceremonies and festivals. During Diwali – the Hindu festival of lights – the swastika is drawn with coloured sand, or rangoli, and depicted with lanterns to celebrate the victory of light over darkness and good over evil. In 2007, when German politicians attempted to introduce a swastika ban across the European Union, Hindus vehemently opposed the measure on religious grounds.
Swastikas are drawn in coloured sand during Diwali celebrations (Photo by Shashi Sharma/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Such disparate attitudes towards the swastika raises the question of whether the symbol – which for so long has been a force for good – can be reclaimed from its association with Hitler and the neo-Nazis who still display it. Would reclaiming the symbol mark the final defeat of the Third Reich and the hatred it advocated? Or is that impossible? The 20th-century corruption of the swastika came to represent so much of the horrors of Nazism that it should never be forgotten.
The answer, although not a neat one, may be that there will always be two utterly conflicting interpretations of the swastika, both of which are part of our history, present and future: one representing the worst of humanity and the other symbolising the best.
The forest swastikas: how Nazi propagnada took an arboreal turn
In 1992, an intern at a German landscaping company was tasked with scouring through aerial photographs of a Brandenburg forest for irrigation lines when he spotted something that broke the tedium of his search. In an area filled with green pines stood around 140 larch trees, turned yellow-brown in the autumn, forming the unmistakable shape of a swastika.
This was no natural accident, but a piece of horticultural propaganda. The trees had been planted in the 1930s by Hitler’s supporters during his rise to power. The ‘forest swastika’ remained hidden for decades as the larches only changed colour in the autumn – meaning it would be visible for a narrow window each year – and it could only be seen from low-flying aircraft, which had been banned from the area under Communist rule. Once found, many of the larches were cut down to destroy the image amidst fears of the forest becoming a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.
Far from a one-off, however, others have been discovered, including one in Hesse during the 1970s, found next to four clumps of trees forming the date ‘1933’. More recently, in 2006, a giant swastika 180 metres across was found on a hillside in Kyrgyzstan – perhaps the work of German prisoners of war held by the Soviets.
Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history
This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed