The swastika has a lengthy history and enduring power, predominantly as a symbol of hate.
It was used at least 5,000 years before Adolf Hitler designed the Nazi flag. The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, which means “good fortune” or “well-being." The motif (a hooked cross) appears to have first been used in Neolithic Eurasia, perhaps representing the movement of the sun through the sky. To this day it is a sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. It is a common sight on temples or houses in India and Indonesia. Swastikas also have an ancient history in Europe, appearing on artifacts from pre-Christian European cultures. For centuries a symbol of good luck and auspiciousness, the swastika even found expression in Byzantine and Christian art.
The symbol experienced a resurgence in the late nineteenth century, following extensive archaeological work such as that of the famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy in modern Turkey. He connected it with similar shapes found on pottery in Germany and speculated that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.”
However, the work of Schliemann soon was taken up by movements that wanted to evoke racial purity, “Aryan identity” and German nationalist pride.
This belief that the “German race” descended from the Aryan race is likely one of the main reasons the Nazi party formally adopted the swastika or Hakenkreuz (Ger., hooked cross) as its symbol in 1920.
The Nazi Party, however, was not the only party to use the swastika in Germany. After World War I, a number of far-right nationalist movements adopted the swastika. As a symbol, it became associated with the idea of a racially “pure” state. By the time the Nazis gained control of Germany, the connotations of the swastika had forever changed.
The swastika would become the most recognizable icon of Nazi propaganda, appearing on the flag referred to by Hitler in Mein Kampf as well as on election posters, armbands, medallions, and badges for military and other organizations. A potent symbol intended to elicit pride among Aryans, it also became a symbol of Nazi racial ideology that called for the elimination of Jews and other groups deemed inferior.
In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote:
“I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika.”
Heidtmann, Horst. “Swastika.” In Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, 937-939. New York: Macmillan, 1991.
Heller, Steven. The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? New York: Allworth Press, 2000.
Quinn, Malcolm. The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. London: Routledge, 1994.