In this article:
- The swastika is now most widely associated with the Nazi party and the genocide it committed. But its history goes back much further than that.
- Researchers have found the swastika carved into artifacts that are at least 12,000 years old.
- In India and some other Asian countries, you’ll still find the Swastika on temples and in people’s homes, not as a symbol of antisemitism but of peace and prosperity.
- While some are trying to reclaim the positive symbolism of the Swastika, others argue that the trauma now linked to it are too horrific to wipe clean.
Today, the swastika is universally known throughout the Western world as a symbol of hate and violence. However, it wasn’t always associated with anti-Semitism or the Nazi party. In fact, before Hitler commandeered this symbol, it was used across many different cultures to represent a wide range of different things from prosperity and good luck to natural phenomena such as wind, lightning, and the Sun.
The swastika was not only a symbol used in faraway Asian or European cultures, it made its way over to the United States as well. It was branded on soda bottles, beer cans, playing cards, fruit boxes, and much more that were circulated around the United States.
However, after the atrocities committed by the Nazi party during World War II, the use of the swastika has all but completely dried up in the Western world. These days, though, there are people that are trying to bring back the swastika and reclaim its more positive meaning.
But you also have a despicable group of people called neo-Nazis that continue to use the swastika in the way that Hitler intended. And, if you take a trip to India or other Asian countries, you’ll probably notice swastikas built into the sides of temples and hung on people’s houses.
So, how did the swastika come to have so many disparate meanings? And why did Adolf Hitler choose to use it as the symbol of the Nazi party?
The Earliest Known Swastikas
Believe it or not, the symbol of the swastika has been in use for over 12,000 years. The oldest-known swastika ever discovered was carved into a bird figurine carved out of mammoth ivory. This figurine was discovered in Mezine, Ukraine and dates all the way back to 10,000 BCE.
Because this bird figurine was discovered near a lot of phallic objects, experts believe that the swastika may have been used as a symbol of fertility by this civilization.
In Devetashka Cave, located near Devetaki, Bulgaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of ceramic pottery that featured mirror-image swastikas. These pots were believed to have been made by the Proto-Thracians around 6,000 BCE.
Some of the oldest swastikas discovered on the Indian subcontinent date all the way back to around 3,000 BCE. Some have speculated that the symbol then traveled from India to Europe, as it has been found around a similar time period in areas such as Scandinavia and the Scottish Highlands. It also seems to have made its way to Africa and China around a similar time.
The Swastika Before Hitler
From its prehistoric origins up until the time of the Nazi regime, the swastika was used all over the world to represent a myriad of things. Most of the time, it was used to represent some sort of natural phenomenon or as a symbol of good luck or piety.
In Buddhist cultures in Asia, the swastika has long been used to represent the pious footprints of the Buddha. The symbol is synonymous with the dharma wheel, a representation of the eternal cycle of samsara. The swastika can often be seen imprinted on the feet, palms, or chest of Buddha statues.
In Hinduism, the clockwise-facing swastika and the counterclockwise-facing swastika have been used for centuries with different meanings. The clockwise-facing swastika is a solar symbol that is meant to represent the movement of the Sun across the sky.
The counterclockwise-facing swastika is meant to represent the night and the goddess Kali, the master of death, time, and change. The symbol has become largely associated with the Hindu holiday Diwali, a celebration of the victory of good over evil.
In Jainism, the swastika is an imperatively important symbol. All Jain temples and books must contain swastikas and ceremonies always involve making swastikas out of grains of rice. The four arms of the swastika are meant to represent the four places that a soul can be reborn after death: heaven, hell, humanity, or as flora or fauna.
In some northern regions of Europe, the swastika is believed to have been associated with the Norse god Thor. In some depictions of the thunder god, he is depicted with a hammer-like object that looks very similar to a swastika.
In parts of Balto-Slavic Europe, the swastika was used as a pagan symbol for the Sun. It was also put on graves and used to represent eternal life. In Russia, the symbol was reportedly used to represent many different things, including geese, the wind, hares, and horses.
The swastika has also been used in Africa by the Akan and Ashanti peoples of modern-day Ghana and in the Americas by the Navajo people.
The Swastika Makes Its Way West
For centuries, the swastika was not a very popular symbol until Heinrich Schliemann came along. Schliemann was fascinated by Homer’s Iliad and was determined to find the city of Troy described in the famous epic.
So, he traveled to Greece in 1868 in hopes of finding the mythical city. With this goal in mind, he traveled all around the Mediterranean in search of the Homeric city. Eventually, he found what he was looking for on the Aegean coast of Turkey. But, he also found something else: the swastika.
At a site called the “Hisarlik mound,” Schliemann discovered pottery and sculptures adorned with at least 1,800 variations of the swastika. After making this discovery, Schliemann continued his travels around the world.
During his journey, he would come to see the swastika everywhere from Tibet to Paraguay. And, once Schliemann returned home to Germany and spread the news about the swastika, the symbol exploded in popularity.
Soon, the swastika could be found everywhere from Coca-Cola products to fruit boxes to Carlsberg beer bottles. The Girls’ Club of America had a magazine named Swastika and would send out swastika-shaped badges to their most loyal readers.
The symbol could also be seen on the uniforms of the United States military forces during World War I. However, all that changed when a man named Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.
Hitler Steals the Swastika
While the ancient Greeks probably used the swastika to denote their supreme god Zeus, German Nazis perverted the symbol into a representation of racial supremacy. Thus, they viewed Schliemann’s discovery of the swastika in the ancient Greek city of Troy as proof that a supreme Aryan race once lived there. So, when Hitler was deciding what the Nazi flag would look like, naturally, the swastika was prominently featured.
When Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he did away with the traditional red-black-gold tricolor flag that had represented Germany for years and replaced it with the red-black-white flag of the Nazi Party.
He decided to add a black swastika to the middle of the flag, writing in Mein Kampf that it was a symbol of the Aryan race, “the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic.”
Of course, the swastika was never intended in any of its previous uses to be anti-Semitic. But, throughout World War II, as the Nazis carried out their reign of terror, the symbol became increasingly associated with the anti-Semitic movement. And so, a symbol once associated with peace and good luck and natural phenomena became a symbol of hate and racism.
Today, the swastika has pretty much disappeared in the Western world with the exception of those twisted individuals who still support the Nazi ideology. There are some who do not agree with the Nazi ideology yet wish to reclaim the original meaning of the swastika.
In fact, there’s even a group of people calling themselves the Learn to Love the Swastika movement. However, in this author’s opinion, the wounds of World War II are too deep to ever wipe clean the antisemitic connotation that this symbol has gained in the West. For the world’s Jewish population, the swastika will always serve as a reminder of the atrocities carried out against their people during the Holocaust.