Swastika Guilt Redux

(Author’s note: A longer version of this essay first ran as an “Introspectives” in Print magazine in 2001. This slightly revised version was originally published on July 14, 2011.)

When I was eight years old a friend gave me a Nazi flag that his father had brought back from the war as a souvenir. Despite my parents’ warnings not to upset my grandmother, whose family (I much later learned) perished in Auschwitz, I would often streak through the apartment in her presence wearing the flag as a kind of superman cape. At the time, I knew nothing about the holocaust except that Jews were not beloved in Germany, but since religious taunting was common in my Manhattan public school, this fact had little consequence. I was also addicted to watching movies on TV about World War II and, as a wannabe artist, drew more pictures of Nazis than Americans because their uniforms were better. The German steel helmets, with those menacing ear-covering brims, were a thousand times more threatening than the GI “pots” or Tommy “pans.”

As a designer I have long been fascinated by the unmitigated power of the swastika. Yet as a Jew I am embarrassed by my fascination. This paradox is one reason why I wrote the book The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption? Though working on it did not resolve my conflict. Indeed I have become even more obsessed with the symbol — more drawn to yet repulsed by it.

I still own that Nazi flag and have subsequently amassed a collection of over one hundred additional swastika artifacts, from buttons to banners of Nazi, neo-Nazi, and non-Nazi origin. And I feel guilty.

So over a decade ago I decided that I had to find out why this symbol (see video) had such hypnotic force for me (and others) particularly in light of the horrors it represents. I began researching the origins of the swastika as a Nazi symbol, which lead me to seek out even earlier historical roots dating back to antiquity (even prehistory) when it was ostensibly benign.

How Adolf Hitler created an aesthetic that millions of people willingly followed is, for me, a continual source of bewilderment. The swastika was his instrument, though not solely the mark of his political party. It was his personal emblem – his surrogate. Arguably, like any symbol it is only as good or bad as the ideas it represents. But as the icon of Nazism the swastika was transformed from a neutral vessel into monstrous criminality itself. A case can be made, and I try to make it, that the swastika is not the bottle in which an evil genie lived, it is the incarnation of that creature.

Studying the swastika has been a means for me to ameliorate my guilt over being a voyeur. I often wonder how my grandmother would feel about my my book. She had emigrated from Galicia (Poland) in the early teens. Her father had left her and two siblings in New York while he returned to collect the rest of the family. The Great War prevented his own emigration and after it was over he remained in Poland with his ill wife and younger children. The only time my grandmother ever spoke about the Holocaust was when I was thirteen and she showed me a postcard from her father, which was dated 1940. She had received a few years after the War. It was stamped with three official Nazi seals that included the swastika. The postcard had a acrid smell, as though it had been in a moldy sack for all that time.

The short message said everything was fine. But the swastikas said otherwise. In 1946 my grandmother learned of their fate. I always remember that smell when I see a swastika.

The postcard piqued my interest to the extent that I read whatever I found on the Holocaust (and in 1963 there was not a lot on the subject). I could not get the idea out of my mind that my own flesh and blood was subjected to such cruelty. I often pictured myself in their situation, being continually in fear, constantly abused, and ultimately murdered. I developed a healthy hatred for Nazis. Yet I continued to be engrossed (perhaps even awestruck) by their regalia, especially the swastika.

I accumulate and write about swastika material because I believe the form must forever be remembered as a kind of portal to evil. Because if I can be seduced by the swastika as a form, and I know the legacy, then just think how younger generations will be engaged as memory of Nazis fade (and other atrocities supersede it).

My book is a way for me to address two things: How Adolf Hitler came to adopt the symbol for the Nazis and what it meant before it was appropriated. I knew that it had other incarnations within other cultures; I had seen it on old greeting cards and architectural decorations. But even when I stumbled across benign applications I felt as though it was a knife in my face. So I began to read many vintage histories of the swastika. I learned that it had a long heritage and that in the late nineteenth century a swastika cult emerged in Germany within a youth culture similar to the Hippies. I found that it was adopted by German racialist and nationalist cults, which imbued it with anti-Semitic connotations, and this filtered its way into the Nazi liturgy. I also learned that it had roots in various other lands where it was a sacred religious icon for Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Native Americans, Africans, and many others, akin to the Cross, Star, and Crescent. When Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf about the mark’s symbolism, however, he ignored all these earlier representations. In the mythology of Nazism the swastika was immaculately conceived – it was Hitler’s sole invention. Although this was false, Nazi myth triumphed over reality.

Since the original volume was published in March 2000 I have received various letters from well meaning people accusing me of bias. A Native American wrote that the swastika is his people’s symbol and my assertion that it should never be revived in Western Culture is presumptuous and racist. He argues that the whites stole his land and now his icons. Another critic stated that no one remembers the logos of Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan, likewise in 1000 years or less who will remember the symbol of Hitler’s 12-Year Reich. He feels that the ancient meaning of the Swastika will ultimately triumph. Similarly, an Asian American wrote that in his culture, the red swastika is his emblem of good fortune, and described how his local green grocer displays it in his shop. Why, he asks, if the meaning is diametrically opposed to the Nazis should I care whether or not it is used in this cultural context?

My book has been called polemical. I agree. After laying down the circuitous history, I attack neo-Nazi uses of the swastika-like symbols and condemn racist imagery by ignorant graphic designers who incorporate it into their hip graphics. I also argue against those who want to reclaim, through art, the swastika in its benign form. It is too late for such righteous attempts. The atrocities committed under this magnificently designed form must never be forgotten. Because the swastika has such allure, and because memory is so fleeting, it functions as a mnemonic. I have revised and reconfigured the book as The Swastika and Symbols of Hate (Allworth Press) now that extremism, white nationalism and racism is again on the rise to recognize its enduring nature.

People for whom the swastika has spiritual import have a right to this symbol, nonetheless, I would feel even more guilty if I did not take a stand against its use in our cultural context as anything other than an icon of evil.

(Photo of Swastika Laundry provided by Rick Meyerowitz.)

Swastika Playing cards

Swastika Thanksgiving Number

UBO des Nationaliozialismns

22 thoughts on “Swastika Guilt Redux

  1. Pingback: Fasces and Fascism | Joe Rotondi

  2. Pingback: Good Jewish Boy, Also Loves Swastikas « Googling the Holocaust

  3. Rob

    I appreciate the discussion that this article creates, and am glad that someone has had enough thought and courage to begin the conversation.  I will certainly be picking up Mr. Heller’s book in the future, but I have to say, I hope it’s a lot more well-considered than this brief article.  
    First, he states, rightly, that the swastika functions as a mnemonic, and the implication is that it should continue to.  For one thing, this attitude is precisely what allows the “Nazi myth to triumph over reality.”   This is the direct consequence of taking “a stand against its use in our cultural context as anything other than an icon of evil.”  Why give the Nazi interpretation so much power when the truth is so soberingly clear: when we see the swastika, the Holocaust completely supersedes 10,000 years of prior meaning for us.  That’s how powerful the reality is.  
    This brings up the next problem: the hope to stake out a sort of hermeneutic copyright on the swastika in “our” culture.  That pronoun attempts to sidestep a major complication, namely that you’d need a hell of a complex Venn diagram to map out exactly where my culture ends and the local Chinese restaurant owner’s culture begins, and where exactly we can find our common culture, where exactly our cultural symbols can be safely displayed (as evidenced by absurdly heated debates over symbols as benign as Christmas trees and menorahs).  By reserving the swastika as a symbol of Nazi evil and nothing more, the implication is that this tragedy is more significant than another’s faith, another’s tragedy, or any other meaning that someone might have attached to this particular symbol.
    Look at the cross: how many atrocities across history have been committed under it?  We even have the surviving phrase, in hoc signo vinces, in this sign you shall conquer.  But of course the cross is still a symbol of peace and countless other concepts for many people around the world.  There would be justifiable outrage if it were suggested that use of the cross be discontinued because of its unfortunate history.  Perhaps the situation is slightly different, as the Christians did, in fact, conquer a good deal of the western world and continue to dominate it.  But still, are there any serious calls for its use to stop, even by those who were victimized under it?  And have the Crusades, the inquisition, the KKK, faded from our collective memories?
    The Holocaust was an atrocity.  It needs to be remembered, especially in the west, in our culture.  But the fact is, our culture also includes the Native American and the Asian American (whose objections, Mr. Heller  unfortunately doesn’t directly address, quite shockingly, since the existence of such objections is the only reason an article like this is necessary).  And, as the boundaries of our culture gradually fade with globalization, that culture increasingly includes, believe it or not, people who don’t even know that Judaism or Nazism exist.  But globalization is an increased exposure, an education, and intrinsic to that is a growing hermeneutic plurality: as we are exposed to more cultures, we attach more meanings to symbols.
    With all due respect, to argue for the sort of exclusivity Mr Heller wants is both unwise and unrealistic.

  4. Kevin Glasgow

    It seems to me that it took some time after the end of the war before the swastika achieved its current level of infamy. As a kid in the 1960s, i remember seeing the swastika used in books, movies and even sitcoms (Hogan’s Heroes, anyone?) seemingly without any regard to social sensitivity. One of our state colleges even titled its yearbook “The Swastika” (owing to local Native American design tradition) and held on to that title until well into the 1970s (possibly the 1980s) before it was deemed to be inappropriate. Why do you think this sort of “delayed reaction” occurred? Did you observe this in your research?

  5. Steven Heller Post author

    Phu –
    The Nazis infamy is such that we continue to be impacted by their crimes. They stole the swastika from its rightful owners. Now its rightful owners, like you, must justify why its yours. Its a diabolical irony.

  6. Phu Nguyen

    Steven, I was fascinated with the Swastika, too, because I have been wanting to wear something that means a lot to my Buddhist heritage but not wanting the public to vilify me because their ignorance of the symbol’s history and cultural significance. It is ironic that how a symbol has come to represent evil yet the word itself means the opposite: su + asti + a means good + being +(intenisfier) in Sankrit. I plan to make myself a pendant of the symbol just as reminder that I must act according to Buddhist teachings and I will bring good things to my life. Still now and then I wrestle with the possible slight indignation people might throw at me. However, one can only build meaning through more ubiquitous usage. I learned as a gay man that the word “gay” doesn’t have as a strong stigma as it did in the 80s. Nowaday, its more positive usage and image slowly carves away it negative connotation. We should just call the Nazi’s emblem as a Riech Emblem, not a Swastika. We can change that, at least. 

  7. Debora

    I also meant to reply to roy’s statement that “paranoia and overwhelming anger and despair result when tragedy is never forgotten. ”
    While that is true, that is not the only result. Having been part of the 9/11 tragedy and clean-up, the thing most striking to me is the sheer number of good deeds and organizations that have sprung up in reaction to 9/11 and the promise to Never Forget. Some people  will dwell on tragedy and let it twist theirs lives- but the majority of people will use those memories to reaffirm life. i worked with first ersponders for 7 years following 9/11, and I say this reaffirmation over and over again. How you react to tragedy is a choice, and the fact that the swastika really is beyond redemption is not a matter of obsessing with the past, but remembering its lessons.

  8. Debora

    With all due respect to those who feel the meaning behind the swastika will or should fade away, I have to wonder. As artist’designers we spend our professional lives showing the power of imagery. It’s reason art and design exist- to say that  the swastika can or should be reclaimed from its Nazi past is both completely unrealistic and undesirable. As Mr. Heller says, it is a  memnonic device- at this point in time, that is its only redeeming characteristic- to make us remember the deaths of millions who died beneath this banner. Would you take away  the memory of that horrific history just to use a design element? Ou wold demean those  dead, and undercut the power of  art and design.
    Let me also say-I have no reaction to other versions of the swastika- thay are substantially different than the Nazi version, although the Hindu is similar. The nazi swastika makes my skin crawl- the idea of tryig to make it less offensive makes my skin crawl as well.

  9. Roy

    Dear Steven,
    I read your book on the swastika when it was first published. As a designer and child of Hungarian survivors I too find it a rich subject to consider. I assume your research is impeccable. I accept your conclusions are well considered and heartfelt. My concern is with the statement, “…must never be forgotten”, a phrase most recently associated with 9/11.
    I don’t suggest history be forgotten, ignored or denied. However, speaking from experience, paranoia and overwhelming anger and despair result when tragedy is never forgotten.  Never forgotten can easily become eternally hateful. I haven’t forgotten what my parents endured but I don’t need to obsess about it or use it anymore to justify my anger, depression or station in life.
    Banishing a symbol maintains it’s authority and ability to shock. I vote to allow the swastika to be slowly de-activated from it’s Nazi past and regain it’s other meanings. If Target were to use it for a year as their logo, hand-drawn, pink on yellow, it would loose some of it’s kick. No doubt Target would lose some business for a while too. My point is it could be done. We live in an age of irony which complicates things, but eventually I hope the symbol can be neutralized.

  10. Pat Ballard

    This is a wonderful article. Thank you so much for posting it. You address some issues that I have been wrestling with as an older graphic design student. Having grown up in the 1950s and 60s, Nazi imagery is much more than a sexy but fuzzy part of our history to me. As you did, I grew up with the damage WW II did to countless families. It’s little secret that Hitler was a bad artist but had great taste in graphic design.
    I recently, along with a number of other artists, withdrew from an online art community over the use of Nazi symbolism in T-shirt design. The argument by the designer and the site owners was that they were using parody to take some of the mystique away from Nazi imagery. Inspite of protest by many of the artists who belonged to the community the images stayed up. This indeed may have been the original intent of the designer, but the result was very different. A very cursory search of the image titles revealed sickening pictures of teenage boys doing Heil Hitler salutes while wearing the shirts. My personal solution was to write a protest blog and take my work down off the site. In the future, I will check any online communities that I join for material that I consider morally offensive. This for me is not sexually explicit imagery or nudity, but images of violence to helpless victims such as depictions rape and violence to women and children along with the trivialization of the cruelty that Nazi’s did to countless people. 
    Of course, this brings up the whole issue of censorship and most importantly censorship on the internet. This is a whole new world for all of us. The conclusion I have reached is that I can only check and re-check the sites to which I lend my name and design. The desensitization to violence that I find on the internet and among the work of younger graphic design students in my classes is truly scary.

  11. James C. Taylor

    In 1992, the swastika design was unintentionally incorporated into the away uniform of Florence’s soccer team, Fiorentina. The team actually played a handful of Italian league games in this jersey before somebody pointed out the unusual design. The controversial shirt was immediately withdrawn and replaced with an all-white version.

  12. Savannah

    Interesting article. I have travelled extensively in India and was surprised by the architectural use of the swastika as a decorative element. Especially on buildings in Goa, a former Jewish area. 
    That said, in all due respect, I hope you are more concerned about your fascination with the swastika rather than with the line breaks in your blog post mentioned in previous comments.
    There are certain words and symbols that, no matter their mystique or original origin, become so tarnished they simply should no longer be used. Or deemed O.K.
    It is this need to “forget” that is the real issue.
    Like the “N word” (which I can not bring myself to type)- it has no placed in our present culture. While fascinating that the peace symbol of the 60’s has a very different allure, please do not loose sight that there are some words and symbols that are simply unacceptable.
    I hope you never loose sight that the swastika IS, as you said so well, a “portal to evil”. 

  13. Anna Harrison

    The Basque “Lauburu” (the Basque cross, a rounded swastika) is yet another form of swastika. And the Basques are one of the most ancient people of Europe.

  14. Patrick Edelbacher

    Wow, this was a great article.  Thank you for addressing and admiting the guilt of liking the symbol (and I use the word ‘liking’ cautiously).  My family left Germany after loosing members in the war and it has always been hard for me to balance the repulse of the Nazi party and the blood connection I have to it.  To make matters worse, the swastika’s attraction you mention only brings up more confusion and extreme guilt.  On one hand it seems silly to worry about how attractive a symbol is, separate from it’s meaning, and the other begs the question of how anyone can see the icon separate from the atrocities in the first place.  Great article. Thank you. 

  15. Steven Heller Post author

    I discuss Wihlemwerk in the Swastika book and Iron Fists. However, the entire identity was NOT designed by Wihelem Defke. He designed “a” swastika that was clean and simple, that he claims was used by the nazis without payment. There are many sources for the original use, Defke’s claims are among them.
    Here is a video I did on Defke’s work. http://design.sva.edu/site/episodes/show/6

  16. Steven Heller Post author

    For some reason, the paragraph breaks did not show up on the email version of Daily Heller. We are working on how to fix this.

  17. manwoman

    Hi Steve, a fan of yours just sent me this article. As you know I believe the swastika will go back to it’s origins as a sacred symbol. One of my difficulties in reclaiming the swastika is the obvious pain I see in some of my Jewish friends but most get past it quickly once they see that my intentions are spiritual.

  18. Tim Morawetz

    Steven: As usual, another insightful post. For an item of this length, could you consider increasing its readability by using more paragraph breaks? Thanks!