Saturday, February 9, 2013

The swastika ... before Hitler and the Nazis

The front of a postcard mailed from New York
to Connecticut in 1910.
Before Hitler and the Nazis made it their symbol beginning in the 1930s, the swastika was a favorable, positive image among many cultures around the world for thousands of years.

“The first appearance of the swastika was apparently in the Orient, precisely in what country it is impossible to say, but probably in Central and Southeastern Asia among the forerunners or predecessors of the [Hindus of India and Nepal] and Buddhists,” wrote Thomas Wilson, curator of the U.S. National Museum, in his 1896 book titled The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol, and Its Migration; with Observations on the Migration of Certain Industries in Prehistoric Times (free Kindle edition or free Google Books edition).

Swastikas adorn pottery, dating
to about 780 B.C., from Greece.
The word itself comes from the ancient Sanskrit language, still in use in Hindu religious liturgies and Buddhist scholarly works. In Sanskrit, “svastika” derives from the smaller words “su,” conveying something positive, such as goodness or wellness or life (from what I can tell, there’s not really a direct translation in English), and “asti,”meaning “to be.” Adding a “ka” on the end makes it a noun – giving us “svastika” in Sanskrit today. And, of course, that easily becomes “swastika” in English.
Swastikas embedded in the design
of a weight used in Ghana
to determine gold amounts.
After spreading throughout the world, and perhaps developing independently among different cultures as well, the symbol became especially popular as a sign of good luck in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. Some scholars trace that development to archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s 19th century discovery of swastikas in the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. Noting their similarity to swastikas he had seen at archeological sites in Germany, and knowing of the symbol’s prevalence in ancient Indian civilization, Schliemann concluded that all three cultures – advanced ancient civilizations in India and near the Mediterranean Sea (such as Troy) as well as the less-impressive ancient cultures in Germany – must be closely related. Other Europeans took that to heart, too, as did the many Americans with strong ethnic ties to Europe. Soon, the symbol was not uncommon throughout the U.S., and a U.S. Army division even used it as a logo before World War II.
Swastikas on uniforms of the basketball team
from the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School,
Oklahoma, in 1909.
Other evidence that would seem to void that conclusion was overlooked, or perhaps even inexplicably dismissed. For example, the swastika was known to American Indian cultures long before Europeans arrived on American shores. So the European-American pride in the swastika seemed to swell in the early 1900s, and Hitler and his Nazi party took that to the extreme in their warped visions, believing that they represented a master race that was the modern incarnation of that ancient lineage. They co-opted the swastika, making a mockery of that distinctive design’s long history as a symbol of good in the world.

“Regardless of its context, I still cringe every time I see the mark, yet I’m continually drawn to it – perhaps in the same way that others have been drawn to it over the millenia,” writes Steven Heller, a long-time art director at the New York Times, in his 2008 book The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?Food for thought.

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