Nazi Germany, the swastika and the problem of cultural appropriation

RangoliMuch confusion exists over use of the Swastika by the Third Reich. Nazi Germany appropriated an ancient sacred symbol for their own purposes. For thousands of years, this symbol has been used in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Many people brook no argument nor debate and refuse to accept the sacred origins of a symbol Nazi Germany has damaged. This continues to be a problem wherever this symbol is used in sacred settings, nearly 100 years later.


Over Diwali this year, a Hindu family discovered that their painstakingly crafted Rangoli — a South Asian decoration made up of coloured powder and rice — was destroyed by an Adelaide delivery man. This was not a xenophobic or a racist act. On the contrary, the delivery man thought he was doing the right thing by erasing the symbol contained within the decorations, for it was none other than the swastika.

In the United Kingdom around the same time, an Indian restaurant came under fire for displaying a swastika in a garland hung on their front entryway. Customers refused to eat there until they removed it. Ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, a debate over the manji has led to proposals to drop the use of the symbol, because Japanese authorities feared how it might be seen by visiting Europeans.

These reactions are understandable. After all, the swastika represents a regime of hate, and a time in human history where millions of people were victims of genocide. To see this symbol be displayed cavalierly must be deeply disturbing.

As recently as March 2019, neo-Nazis used the swastika to deface an aged care facility in Melbourne that housed Holocaust survivors. Nazi ideology is alive and well in many parts of the world. No wonder, then, that many might deem it a moral duty to stamp out the Nazi symbol wherever they see it.

The problem is, the swastika is not a Nazi symbol.

Swastika and the Buddha
Use of the Swastika in Buddhism dates back to the time of the Buddha. This is an example of cultural appropriation which has damaged an ancient religion and way of life.

In his classic nineteenth-century book, The Swastika: The Earliest Known Symbol, and Its Migrations, which nevertheless remains one of the most comprehensive studies ever undertaken on a single symbol, anthropologist Thomas Wilson chronicles how the swastika has travelled all over the world.

The name itself come from Sanskrit, comprised of Su (good), Asti (being) and the suffix Ka. Within Hinduism, it is an auspicious sign that signifies prosperity and good luck, hence it is displayed during religious festivals. However, Wilson also discovered the symbol in use by indigenous peoples along the Mississippi and Amazon Rivers before 300 AD. He found it in the necklaces and garters of the Musquakies and Iowas, as well as in dig sites from ancient Greece to Italy, and even in sixth-century ornaments from Spain— all of which led him to theorise that the symbol had migrated to the rest of the world from India.

The Swastika came to Germany in 1871 by way of Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist who had found thousands of variations of the swastika in a dig in the Hisarlik Mound, which archaeologists now believe to be the ancient site of Troy. He linked these findings to a proto-Indo-European migration, asserting that the Swastika was an important symbol for European ancestors. His work later found purchase within the German Volkish movement, an ethnic and nationalist organisation that believed in the myth of an “original nation” comprised of people of a singular racial essence. Both Hitler and Goebbels were deeply influenced by Volkish ideology and, in the 1920s, began using the swastika as the symbol of an eternal German master race: the Aryan.

Despite its appearance around the world, the swastika’s most enduring and significant use is still among the South Asian spiritual practices from which it sprang. The swastika used predominantly by Hindus is right-facing, where the arrows are pointing clockwise. The other swastika, which is in turn called the Sawastika, (or Manji) is left-facing or pointing anti-clockwise and is more commonly found within Buddhism.

Manji and Swastika
Japanese Buddhism uses the left-facing Swastika, called Manji. This is an ancient symbol of the Buddhist religion…

The Nazi symbol, or the Hakenkruez (hook-cross) is also right facing but that’s where all similarities end. The Nazi swastika is often turned on its axis on a forty-five degree angle on a white circle with a red background, and their use of a symbol that had signified luck and benediction has now come to represent death and destruction — the antithesis of what its original meaning.

The Nazi appropriation of the swastika remains one of the twentieth century’s starkest examples of how cultural appropriation has harmed originating cultures. The Nazi regime took a symbol out of its cultural context, appropriated it by divorcing it from its original intentions and then imbued it with meaning for which it was never meant — finally using it as a harbinger of evil.

Now, that misuse is all that anyone associates with the swastika.

It has been so thoroughly claimed by the Nazis that the very people from whose cultures it originates now have difficulty using it the way their ancestors have for centuries — at least, not without being thought to be lending their support to genocide. We cannot use our own names without it being the subject of public controversy, all because of one historical moment of corruption.

Claims of cultural appropriation are often derided as belonging to the project of identity politics, but the inability of Hindus and Buddhists to practice their religions peaceably or to display their symbols proudly almost a hundred years after this ideological defilement shows that cultural appropriation can do real and lasting damage. It is all the worse when those seeking to stop us from using the swastika do so out of contempt, not for those from whom it was stolen, but for those who stole it.

 

Swastika and OM
Swaasti on the left; Om on the right. In Hinduism, Swaasti is an ancient symbol signifying auspiciousness, indicating a place where religious effort brings merit.

Can the swastika be reclaimed? Some say its weaponisation has made it irredeemable. Others believe it can be reclaimed, and indeed should be. In response to the incident involving the Rangoli in Adelaide, the Hindu family asked for the education, not punishment, of the delivery man, saying they understood his actions because “most people don’t know the real roots of the swastika.”

People should not have to give up their traditions because they were misused by others. That seems wholly unfair to those who never wanted them to be appropriated in the first place. Nazis should not dictate how millions of people practice their religions in the twenty-first century.

Maybe a little awareness of culture and history is all we really need.

Sangeetha Thanapal is a Racial Equity Consultant pursuing her doctorate at RMIT. She is an activist and writer, currently working on her first novel.

 

Rangoli
The Nazi seizure of the swastika is one of the starkest examples of how cultural appropriation has harmed originating cultures. (MikeSaran / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

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