History Thread: How the Swastika Became a Hate Symbol

In Western culture, the symbol of the swastika – the four-armed, hooked cross – remains an obvious visual shorthand for ideological evil. Nazi Germany’s adoption of the hakenkreuz beneath which they waged the Second World War and the attempted extermination of European Jewry, has rendered it a verboten symbol of racism and hate. Its mere display is still outlawed in Germany and other European countries. And yet, the swastika has a long history as a benign symbol of luck, long life and good harvest, from East Asia to Indigenous America, often invested with religious or folkloric significance. This curious symbol’s adoption by the nationalist, antisemitic Right can be briefly traced to the mid-19th Century.

The swastika first gained wide attention in the German-speaking world in 1871, when archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann visited Asia Minor in a quest to find the city of Troy. On Turkey’s Aegean coast at the so-called Hisarlik Mound, Schliemann found Homer’s ancient city after a destructive excavation involving crowbars, battering rams and other tools. His evidence included ruins embossed with a curious, four-armed symbol. Schliemann initially dubbed the symbol Spinnwertel, or Spindel-whorl, after the common weaving tool. In subsequent expeditions across the world, Schliemann found variations of the symbol.

Heinrich Schliemann

Western archaeologists, explorers and empire builders discovered variants of the Spinnwertel on every continent, from Western Africa to indigenous American groups. But its most common usage came in Asia: a right-facing symbol, representing the sun, was utilized by Hindus in India, while Jains and Buddhists employed similar variants, generally meaning good fortune or harvests. European writers connected these symbol with “sun wheels” of Norse, Teutonic and Eastern European mythology. It appears to have been British writers who appropriated the Sanskrit term swastika (roughly, “to bring good luck”) as a generalized definition of Spinnwertel.

Schliemann’s discovery perhaps ought to have been of academic interest; yet the discovery of its wide usage, not just restricted to ancient Greek ruins or Hindu temples, fascinated observers around the world. Rudyard Kipling, the foremost English writer of British India, grew particularly fond of the swastika and often incorporated it into his work, even featuring it on the covers of his books.1 Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, with its bizarre pan-religious spiritualism, grafted the swastika onto its crest along with a Star of David, the Hindu Aum and the Egyptian Ankh. Advertising campaigns, athletic clubs and even towns began to incorporate it as a striking, easily-recognized image. A British anthropologist even foreshadowed its later use by commenting that the swastika’s connections “carry us back to the later stages of the Aryan race.”

Swastika at Shavei-Zion, Israel, ca. 360 CE

This use of Aryan is troubling because, like the swastika itself, it was stolen from its original origins (referring to the ancient Indo-Aryan cultures of modern India and surrounding nations) and wedded to the European idea of a master race. Schliemann himself drew this connection, musing that the swastika’s ubiquity evinced “a time when Germans, Indians, Pelasgians, Celts, Persians, Slavonians and Iranians still formed one nation and spoke one language.” Modern anthropologists and language scholars scoff at this overbroad definition of “Aryan,” which lent itself to bastardization by the eugenicists of Schliemann’s era. Indeed, European ethnic scholars quickly later perverted it to mean solely white, and specifically Nordic races with only passing reference to its Asian origins.

This connection was drawn most potently by Arthur de Gobineau, a 19th Century French nobleman whose writings helped popularize “scientific racism.” Gobineau spent several years as a diplomat in Persia, which led to a fascination with Near Eastern culture that mated with his Royalist politics and contempt for democracy. In his Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, a favorite to generations of racial theorists, Gobineau popularized the term “Aryan” to describe a mythic race of conquerors that stood abreast the world, spurring the creation of Rome, Greece and other great powers. Gobineau despaired that racial mixing weakened Aryans’ powers, but averred that modern descendants lived on in Germany and other European countries.

Guido von List

The ideas of Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and other theorists crossed with Schliemann’s discoveries to turn the swastika into a “pure Aryan symbol.” Norman Cohn, in his book Warrant for Genocide, credits Guido von List with making the connection explicit. An Austrian occultist whose spiritualist musings turned into raving antisemitism, List adopted the swastika to symbolize “the purity of Germanic blood and the struggle of the Aryans against the Jews.” Von List’s followers entertained berserk ideas of “some day [when] Jews would be castrated and killed under the aegis of that ancient sun symbol.” His mating of Eastern mysticism, Western paganism and white supremacy passed through fellow occultist Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels, and thrived a generation later in the weirder fringes of Nazi ideology, symbolized by the hakenkreuz.2

The symbol also gained prominence in Russia around the same time, where it neatly combined reactionary politics and mystic hatred. Russian military officers stationed in Siberia, Mongolia and Manchuria encountered the swastika among their Buddhist subjects and began incorporating it into military standards, fabrics and jewelry. Russian coins from the late imperial era often incorporated the swastika as a nationalist motif; unsurprisingly, then, it became associated with the Romanovs and their supporters in the Russian government. As the Tsar’s supporters, notably the proto-fascist Black Hundred militias, embarked on a series of pogroms and blood libels before World War I, the swastika and antisemitism became inextricably linked.

The Tsar’s car, adorned with a familiar symbol

Backlash to the Zionist movement, and particularly the Russian Revolution further cemented this association. Tsarina Alexandra, whose swastika ring was “her favorite charm,” signed letters with the swastika and even etched the symbol into the walls of the Romanov prison at Ekaterinburg, where she and her family were executed. Her husband Nicholas admired the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous antisemitic fraud propagated by his own Okhrana,3 often commending it to his courtiers as an explanation for his own woes (was not Leon Trotsky, among other Bolsheviks, a Jew?). Among Alexandra’s possessions at Ekaterinburg was a 1905 book by reactionary mystic Sergei Nilus, which included the Protocols as its final chapter.

Russian edition of the Protocols

The martyred Romanovs’ use of the swastika, combined with their well-known antisemitism, served as “a testament on high to many Whites” in the subsequent civil war, per historian James Palmer. The White Armies opposing the Bolshevik Revolution emblazoned flags and uniforms with the swastika, from Gustaf Mannerheim’s Finnish nationalists 4to rampaging anti-Semites. Notorious among the latter Baron Ungern von Sternberg, the half-mad “Bloody White Baron” who established a White exile state in Mongolia, where the swastika’s antisemitism blended with its traditional use by Mongolians. Ungern’s Russo-Mongolian Army went into action with golden swastikas stitched into their uniforms, while the Baron himself sported a swastika-embossed Ruby. By combining murderous antisemitism and Eastern mysticism, Ungern was later adopted by German nationalists as a heroic proto-Hitler.

With Europe devastated by World War I and the collapse of Europe’s continental empires, writes Norman Cohn, reactionaries “needed a simple explanation for the catastrophe which was overwhelming them and their world. They found it in the union of the Protocols and the swastika.” And so, as White Russian emigres fled to Europe and America, spreading their hatred of Communism and Jews and conflation of same,5 as Germany and Hungary faced their own abortive Communist upheavals, the swastika became de rigeur among European far right movements and volkisch groups. As the hammer and sickle symbolize left-wing revolutionaries, so did the hooked cross represent reaction.

Units in the Kapp Putsch of 1920

By the early ’20s, events in Germany soldified the connection. Freikorps and Stahlhelm units in Bavaria, including future Nazis, went into action against communists with swastikas emblazoned on helmets and tanks. The Ehrhardt Brigade, who carried out the abortive Kapp Putsch of 1920, embossed their equipment with the hakenkreuz. By the time Adolf Hitler adopted it as the Nazi Party’s own symbol, the hooked cross was no longer a benign symbol of good fortune. Nor, in the West at least, would it ever be again.