I had a feeling somebody might bite on that little morsel of blogger bait. Reader Wendy, I made up that term, but it’s a fair paraphrasing of what the symbol meant prior to its adoption by the Nazis. The swastika is one of mankind’s oldest symbols. In fact it’s so old nobody really knows exactly what it means anymore. Swastikas have been used at one time or another just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, from Japan all the way around to the pre-Columbian Americas, where it was a sacred image among peoples as diverse as the Mississippeans, Navajo and the Kuna of Panama.
The swastika had distinct meanings for different people, but these days it’s thought that — in very general terms — the swastika was a symbol for the cardinal directions (like the cross) and by extension motion, creation, generation and eternity. It’s been said that right-facing and left-facing swastikas meant different things. In some instances that was certainly true, but by and large both types of swastikas meant the same: a general sort of good luck thing.
The swastika was big stuff in Western culture starting about 130 years ago, the time when race-based anthropological theories were popular. Then, elite types generally were excited by what scholars and researchers (who, post-Darwin, were becoming increasingly bold about advancing non-Biblical theories) were discovering about human history. Thrilled by the idea that peoples as diverse as Scandinavians, Greeks, Latin-speakers and Northern Indians might all be descended from a common ancestor race — the Indo-Europeans, also known as Aryans — cosmopolitan Westerners lapped up popular books on the subject. In them they learned that many of the peoples in this broad geographic area spoke related languages, and that many of them also used the swastika.
The who’s and where’s of that ancient and supposedly strong and “noble” race (which is what “aryan” means in Sanskrit) were unknown. Of course the Nazis claimed to have discovered who the original, pure Aryans were: the Germanic-Nordic peoples. By their reasoning, the original white Aryans came from the region of modern day Germany and spread by conquest to the North, and then to the South and East as far as northern India where they interbred with darker races, thus becoming “impure” and weak. Re-capturing and maintaining that lost purity, and by extension strength and virtue, thus became a central tenet of the (extremely twisted) Nazi outlook.
This is how the Nazis came to adopt the swastika, though as I said, that particular symbol was as popular in Western culture as Kokopelli is to us now (that Kokopelli didn’t become universally poplar until the 90’s is lucky for the Nazis, as that little flute-playing figure would have looked awfully silly painted on the side of a panzer). You can still see evidence of the swastika’s popularity in circa-1900 architecture, especially in tile motifs. Indeed several buildings at my old university were built around 1900. The tiny swastikas in the tile work led to no end of loopy conspiracy theories.
But here’s an interesting little fact. Did you know Hitler himself designed the Nazi flag? People call him a “failed house painter” and/or a “failed artist”, but he was actually (also) a failed graphic designer. He not only came up with the symbols and the color scheme, but the exact proportions of the design including the dimensions of the flag, the size of the white circle, the thickness of the lines…everything. And if you were about to make some smart crack about graphic designers and their temperamental resemblance to Hitler, shame on you. Because it never for a second entered my mind.
Oh, and if you’re wondering where the original Indo-Europeans actually came from, today it’s thought they originated in the Asian steppes, between the Baltic and Black seas. Also, it’s thought that the Basques adopted the “round” swastika (lauburu) rather later than the rest of Europe, sometime around 1500.