Devolution of a Symbol: The Swastika Through the Years

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Of all the symbols and marks produced by ancient and modern peoples throughout the centuries, the swastika is the most contradictory. For thousands of years it was a thing of mystery that surfaced as disparate cultural iconography throughout the Near and Far East, Europe, North America, and Africa, and was presumed by some scholars to be an ancient tool (a barometric pressure device perhaps) that over time was transformed into a sacred artifact and then reduced to a graphic form.

The mutation of this and otherwise benign signs and symbols is all too common. Take the runic alphabet. The old Norse word “rune” means letter or text. The earliest runic inscriptions date from around AD 150 and were ostensibly replaced by the Latin alphabet owing to the the religious shift in population from pagan to Christian in approximately AD 700 in central Europe and AD 1100 in Northern Europe.

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As remnants of an ancient German (Nordic) language, runes had a important role in ritual and magic. The mystical connotations are among the reasons why runes were adopted by the Nazis as a principal part of their secret society cum nationalist iconography. Old runes —such as the life rune (the upside down “peace sign”) and the death rune (similar to the “peace sign”)—were retrofitted to serve Nazi ideological needs (implying martyrdom in one case and fecundity in the other). Newer runes, like the Heilszeichen or SS runes, were created as elite Nazi symbols.

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The swastika or hooked cross was called a sun rune. The circular iteration represented the dawn of life, as iterated (right) for the logo of the occultist Thule Society, a racialist, Germanic nationalist, antisemitic secret society that included young Adolf Hitler as a loyal member. A member of Thule originally suggested the swastika as a Nazi symbol. Hitler, while acknowledging this, takes primary credit for himself.

Before assuming political power, the Nazis were terrorists, targeting civilian and government opponents alike . . .

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. . . Once in power, the swastika was decreed the official trademark of the German nation, which insured it was as sacred as a symbol could be. According to Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ dictate of May 19, 1933: “If the symbol is used on an object or in connection with it, it may only be used with the object itself has an inner relation to the symbol [i.e. a badge or medal]…The use of symbols for publicity purposes is in any case forbidden.

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Nazi symbols influenced allied paramilitary and racist organizations in other nations, including the United States. The colors and images were adapted to suit their respective dogma. After the Nazis and their allies were defeated in World War II, the remnants of these terror groups went underground and the symbols followed suit. In the U.S. they remained close to the surface.

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In Germany it is forbidden to display the mark in public. Not so anywhere else. The above bumper sticker was ripped off a scaffold in Yorkville (also once known as Little Germany) in Manhattan a couple of dozen years ago. The message is unmistakable.

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The swastika was altered to avoid being strictly connected to the Nazis, but the inference is undeniable. This swastika-derivative is the brand of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement or AWB formed in 1973 and active during the heyday of Apartheid. Their goal was to create a Boer State.

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The AWB mark, also known as a triskelion, is made of three number sevens representing the sign of Jahweh (God) in contrast to the 666 of the devil. The mark was exported to other supremacist groups worldwide, including this Nacionalni stroj (National Alignment) banner from Serbia.

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This cross (above), with the blood-mark of Christ, is the logo of the Ku Klux Klan, which combines the iconography of white Christendom-against-the-infidel (think The Crusades) within a Nazi-referenced circle.

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The Celtic cross which also resembles a bulls-eye, represents the white supremacist group Storm Front, which exports racist terror throughout the Western world. The cross is not intrinsically racialist, but neither was the swastika.

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This swastika is super imposed (above) on a Russian symbol design, representing The Russian National Unity party that emerged overground after the dissolution of the USSR. Like a reopened wound, the swastika festers wherever it is found.

Many versions of the swastika or parts thereof have emerged and give symbolic weight to ideologies, dogma and extremist views. There is nothing benign any longer whether it is the actual symbol of its devolved and mutated form.


For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at