Should the Nazi Cross Be Called a Swastika?
New legislation proposed to fight hate imagery is currently steaming through the New York State Senate, igniting passionate criticism from surprising sources. Senate Bill S2727 (outlined here) “requires instruction regarding symbols of hate to be incorporated into the curricula for grades six through twelve.”
If passed as written, the bill will mandate that “New York school children be educated regarding the meaning of swastikas and nooses as symbols of hatred and intolerance.” It further states, “As many of our youth are not aware of the hateful connotations behind swastikas and nooses, it is necessary for the legislature to mandate compulsory education in all schools across our great state in regard to the meanings of these two symbols of hate. Requiring students be educated in the significance of these displays of bigotry will go a long way toward fostering a more inclusive and tolerant society for all.”
Ordinarily, these sentiments would be unassailable. The target is “bigotry,” and the goal is an “inclusive and tolerant society for all.” Yet notice I used the word ordinarily. For me, this legislation has rekindled a nagging paradox that I have grappled with since the publication of my books The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption? (Allworth Press, 2000) and The Swastika and Other Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (Allworth Press, 2019): Is Hitler’s putative logo—which is generally called a “swastika,” is banned in postwar Germany and is seen as the quintessential symbol of twentieth century bigotry and genocide—something altogether different? Is it accurate to refer to this ancient spiritual symbol of good fortune, found in all corners of the world, as the Nazi emblem? Is the German mark really a swastika, or is it not? While the noose is obvious racist iconography, the swastika is not so simple.
The first correspondence I received when my first book on the symbol was initially published came from a Native American art student who said I was “a cultural colonialist.” He had hoped I would debunk the misconception that the swastika (a symbol of his cultural heritage) should be forever damned because of the Nazis. At the time, I dismissed the accusation as being overly hardcore. I wasn’t attacking Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains or any of the many faiths or nationalities that historically applied or worshipped the swastika. I was questioning how a virtuous mark could be twisted and distorted (before the advent of copyright protection) into something anathema. Who would argue that the Nazi’s ubiquitous mark was not the most toxic hate symbol of the 20th century?
Well, it turns out there were others who rightly challenged my assumptions as well.
“The swastika is one of the world’s oldest and most universal symbols, dating back to prehistoric times,” writes T.K. Nakagaki in The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace From the Forces of Hate (Stone Bridge Press, 2018). Through lucid scholarship, Dr. Nakagaki, an ordained Buddhist priest, argues that the Nazi cross is neither a swastika nor did it derive from the traditions that had made the swastik a sacred symbol. Rather, Hitler’s cross is actually the hakenkreuz, or “hook-cross,” which, according to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, is “used as the symbol of anti-Semitism or of Nazi Germany.”
This past November I spoke alongside Dr. Nakagaki and other clerics at a Zoom panel titled “The Swastika in American, Jewish & Asian Cultures,” co-sponsored by The Jewish Community Relations Council of NY and South Asian American Voice. I stated then, as I do in my books, that thousands of years of ancient representation had been tragically tainted:
“It is one of those cruel ambiguities. For some it means something good, for others it means something abhorrent. … The symbol, whatever you call it, swastika or hooked-cross, has become adopted and co-opted as a symbol of racial and ethnic prejudice and white superiority. … I am convinced for Americans and Europeans it must be maintained as a taboo sign.”
Dr. Nakagaki and I have debated this issue before. He insists that the design (or intent) of the Nazi cross is not even a true swastika, and never was. In rebuttal I invoked a version of the old bromide, “If it walks and talks like a duck, then it is.” At some point, whether Hitler wrote or spoke the word or not, this symbol of good fortune (also known as a sun wheel) was distressingly recast as the brand mark for the Nazi party and German Reich. The word swastika was affixed to it, and there it remains.
Admittedly, I had not considered how this regrettable characterization offends the billions who embrace this icon of “heavenly peace.” Words and symbols have meaning, as well as emotional resonance. Often, however, these meanings differ according to their context.
My comment suggesting maintaining or “branding” the swastika as negative in the U.S. and Europe touched many raw nerves. A few months after the Zoom panel, the editor(s) of Macro Viewpoints, an online publication, wrote: “Hmmm! So now the Svastik is a symbol of ‘white superiority’? That’s a new one for us!” It is true that many Westerners associate the word swastika with past and present graphic expressions of racist white supremacy. Nonetheless, if those billions who revere t
he swastika insist that the Nazi hakenkreuz is not their symbol, then their belief must be respected.
The swastik(a) or svastik originated in sanskrit as “any lucky or auspicious object, (especially) a kind of mystical cross or mark made on persons and things to denote good luck (it is shaped like a Greek cross with the extremities of the four arms bent round in the same direction; the majority of scholars regard it as a solar symbol.)” Thus, passing a law branding the swastika as hateful and racist poses a slew of ethical, moral and pedagogical problems.
Section 1§801-B.: INSTRUCTION REGARDING SYMBOLS OF HATE. THE REGENTS SHALL ENSURE THAT THE COURSE OF INSTRUCTION FOR GRADES SIX THROUGH TWELVE INCLUDES A COMPONENT ON THE MEANING OF THE SWASTIKA AS THE EMBLEM OF NAZI GERMANY. [Caps per the legislative document.]
So how did the word even enter our lexicon? Where did the word swastika first appear in relation to the Nazis? Dr. Nakagaki asserts that in the first German edition of Hitler’s infamous memoir/manifesto Mein Kampf, “neither the words swastika, svastika, swastica or any other variations are used in the original … or in any other materials written by Hitler in German.” Conversely, “all but one of the English translations that exist use the term swastika as a translation of hakenkreuz.”
The mark was called a swastika in Western books, newspapers and other documents, so it seems that hardly any translators of Hitler’s tome were aware of its ancient religious symbolism. Or were they? I own a number of histories, including those published in Germany, which trace the lengthy evolution of the swastika from benign to nationalist cult symbol. Critics argue that those who associate the term swastika with the Nazis are “helping” eviscerate the mark’s heritage and legacy. In the final analysis, retaining the word swastika in conjunction with Nazis has maligned one of the most powerfully positive and ubiquitous symbols in the world.
Legislation that fosters education is a step in the right direction. My books provide history of the swastika’s spiritual origins and benign commercial applications. Yet I now have profound doubts about calling the Nazi cross a swastika. Although there is little chance of a wholesale redefinition in the near future, I believe that if the New York State legislation does not include a strong proviso that distinguishes the spiritual and eclectic swastika from the Nazi cross, then swastika will be become an “S” word that will unjustly misrepresent believers who have nothing to do with Nazis, white supremacy, nativism and racism. It will result in a flawed law that perpetuates the very hate it wants to eradicate.