Can the swastika be reclaimed?

In Sri Lanka, one would occasionally come across the swastika symbol in various places. This had nothing to do with Nazis. The swastika predates the rise of the Nazis by millennia and is a religious symbol for many people around the world and even in the US. It only became a hate symbol with Hitler.

The equilateral cross with its legs bent at right angles is a millennia-old sacred symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that represents peace and good fortune, and was also used widely by Indigenous people worldwide in a similar vein.

The symbol itself dates back to prehistoric times. The word “swastika” has Sanskrit roots and means “the mark of well being.” It has been used in prayers of the Rig Veda, the oldest of Hindu scriptures. In Buddhism, the symbol is known as “manji” and signifies the Buddha’s footsteps. It is used to mark the location of Buddhist temples. In China it’s called Wàn, and denotes the universe or the manifestation and creativity of God. The swastika is carved into the Jains’ emblem representing the four types of birth an embodied soul might attain until it is eventually liberated from the cycle of birth and death. In the Zoroastrian faith, it represents the four elements – water, fire, air and earth.

In India, the ubiquitous symbol can be seen on thresholds, drawn with vermillion and turmeric, and displayed on shop doors, vehicles, food packaging and at festivals or special occasions. Elsewhere, it has been found in the Roman catacombs, ruins in Greece and Iran, and in Ethiopian and Spanish churches.

The swastika also was a Native American symbol used by many southwestern tribes, particularly the Navajo and Hopi. To the Navajo, it represented a whirling log, a sacred image used in healing rituals and sand paintings. Swastika motifs can be found in items carbon-dated to 15,000 years ago on display at the National Museum of the History of Ukraine as well as on artifacts recovered from the ruins of the ancient Indus Valley civilizations that flourished between 2600 and 1900 BC.

In North America, in the early 20th century, swastikas made their way into ceramic tiles, architectural features, military insignia, team logos, government buildings and marketing campaigns. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant. Carlsberg beer bottles came etched with swastikas. The Boy Scouts handed out badges with the symbol until 1940.

For the Navajo people, the symbol, shaped like a swirl, represents the universe and life, said Patricia Anne Davis, an elder of the Choctaw and Dineh nations.

“It was a spiritual, esoteric symbol that was woven into the Navajo rugs, until Hitler took something good and beautiful and made it twisted,” she said.

So how did it come to be that the Nazis choose it to represent them?

The symbol was revived during the 19th century excavations in the ancient city of Troy by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who connected it to a shared Aryan culture across Europe and Asia. Historians believe it is this notion that made the symbol appealing to nationalist groups in Germany including the Nazi Party, which adopted it in 1920.

Hitler called the symbol a ‘hakenkreuz’ (‘hooked cross’) and it was called thus in the US too and did not start to be called a swastika until the early 1930s.

People for whom the swastika represents their religious faith and traditions are trying to divest it of its recent hate-filled symbolism and reclaim it so that they can use it openly.

The Rev. T.K. Nakagaki said he was shocked when he first heard the swastika referred to as a “universal symbol of evil” at an interfaith conference. The New York-based Buddhist priest, who was ordained in the 750-year-old Jodoshinshu tradition of Japanese Buddhism, says when he hears the word “swastika” or “manji,” he thinks of a Buddhist temple because that is what it represents in Japan where he grew up.

“You cannot call it a symbol of evil or (deny) other facts that have existed for hundreds of years, just because of Hitler,” he said.

This effort has produced mixed reactions in the Jewish community. There are those for whom the symbol evokes a visceral reaction and feel that the stain of Nazism can never be erased from it and thus the symbol should always be seen as hateful and thus suppressed. But others find that discovering that the symbol has an ancient and benign meaning serves to eliminate the anger and fear that it once provoked in them by stripping it of its power.

Like Nakagaki, Jeff Kelman, a New Hampshire-based Holocaust historian, believes the hakenkreuz and swastika were distinct. Kelman who takes this message to Jewish communities, is optimistic about the symbol’s redemption because he sees his message resonating with many in his community, including Holocaust survivors.

“When they learn an Indian girl could be named Swastika and she could be harassed in school, they understand how they should see these as two separate symbols,” he said. “No one in the Jewish community wants to see Hitler’s legacy continue to harm people.”

Greta Elbogen, an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor whose grandmother and cousins were killed at Auschwitz, says she was surprised to learn about the symbol’s sacred past. Elbogen was born in 1938 when the Nazis forcibly annexed Austria. She went into hiding with relatives in Hungary, immigrated to the U.S. in 1956 and became a social worker.

This new knowledge about the swastika, Elbogen said, feels liberating; she no longer fears a symbol that was used to terrorize.

“Hearing that the swastika is beautiful and sacred to so many people is a blessing,” she said. “It’s time to let go of the past and look to the future.”

Reclaiming words and symbols that have acquired new and hateful meanings is never easy. This issue reminded me of the 2018 German film How About Adolf that I reviewed here about what happens at a dinner party when a guest says that he intends to name his yet-to-be-born son Adolf.

An uproar ensues in which the others try to argue him out of an idea that they think is utterly outrageous. The father-to-be defends the choice and counters by arguing that a name should not be banished just because one bad person happened to have it and that it is time to reclaim the name. He says that it is not as if his first name caused Hitler’s behavior after all. If one took the banishment argument seriously, he says, why stop with just Adolf? Why not make a list of all the first names that are associated with mass murderers, serial killers, and other undesirables and forbid people from using them? And what if Hitler’s first name had happened to be something very common and bland such as Hans? Or a name that belonged to some of the most illustrious figures in history such as Wolfgang? Or a variant such as Adolph? Would the same banishment rule apply?

It is hard to predict how this will go.


  1. birgerjohansson says

    It may be ‘reclaimed’ locally in countries where it has been in use for millennia before some Europeans adopted it as a symbol, beginning in the 19th century.
    Carl Sagan speculated the symbol originally was inspired by the sight of a strongly jetting comet, seen from the direction of the rotational axis, maybe 2000 BC.
    So if you are a cometologist you might use a (significantly modified) swastika?

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Interesting question, in that if it were any other symbol, or if it were any other group that were offended by it, I doubt the question would even arise. Anyone offended by it would be told to get the fuck over it it’s been nearly eighty years and subsequently basically ignored, especially if the total number complaining about it amounted to a global population in the single digit millions. Who’d give a monkey’s if everyone in Tajikistan and literally nobody else was offended, however viscerally, by e.g. the face of Spiderman because of something horrible that happened 80 years ago? I doubt most people who spoke only English would ever even find out it was a thing. Seriously: how much do you know (as in, how much have you read, how many films have you seen, how much other media have you consumed and what can you recall) about the Armenian genocide, or the Rwandan genocide, or the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? And if you happen to know something about one or more of them, how much cultural influence do you think people offended by references to them have?

    On the one side, you have all the people for whom it is an ancient symbol of life, hope, healing and wellbeing -- Chinese, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and Jains. Probably, what? A couple of billion people? Globally, I’d estimate those people have the cultural influence of a gnat’s fart in a hurricane. And on the other side, the side decreeing the symbol be suppressed, you have what appears to be a minority within a minority.

    My prediction for how it will go is this: most of those people for whom it’s an ancient symbol will go right on using it unmolested, because the people who are viscerally offended by it don’t go where they mostly are and don’t speak the languages they mostly speak. Where the people who are viscerally offended by it (and their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) are -- predominantly English-speaking countries -- it will remain a symbol of what they say it is, and no other interpretation will ever gain traction.

    Anyone want to bet against that outcome?

  3. Allison says

    Anyone offended by it would be told to get the fuck over it it’s been nearly eighty years

    It’s still in active use by neo-nazis and white supremacist groups to symbolize their agreement with and admiration of Hitler and his deeds, so it’s not been eighty years since it was used as a symbol of racism, antisemitism, and all-round hate. I don’t think a year goes by in my neck of the woods (NYC area) when someone doesn’t spray-paint a swastika on a synagogue or some Jewish gravestones.

    Where the people who are viscerally offended by it … are — predominantly English-speaking countries

    I would also include most European countries.

  4. cartomancer says

    There are actually Medieval synagogues in southern India, and other parts of the far east, which use the swastika symbol in their decorative schemes, alongside stars of David and more universal Jewish symbols.

    It used to be the case, before Schliemann and his contemporaries, that academics referred to such symbols by their local names in different contexts. So in an Indian context it would be a Svastika, in a Japanese context a Manji, in an Anglo-Saxon context the Fylfot (“four-foot”) and in a Greek context the Tetragammadion (four letter gammas in a circle). Indeed, the popularising of the Indian name was part of a wider academic movement investigating and promoting the links between the Classical world of European antiquity and that of southern Asia. The proto-Indo-European language was being reconstructed, and there was a general sense that European chauvinism and Orientalism was misplaced, given that European cultures shared many roots with Asian ones. So the symbols at Hissarlik were called Swastikas, not Tetragammadia, because it was thought that the Troy myth that was so important to a Classical European sense of identity should be situated in the shared Indo-European culture. The chauvinistic, proto-Nazi connotations came later.

    I don’t think it is at all difficult to tell apart a four-footed symbol used in a neo-Nazi context from one used in other, non-awful, contexts.

  5. Holms says

    In reply to the title, yes, and in fact for the majority of the population of the world there is no need to reclaim it at all -- it was never considered a symbol of horror, evil etc. in the first place. As you then detail. When seeing it in the wild, context is important. I would take it as a symbol of nazism if it was say, tattooed on a skinhead, on the facebook page of a guy ranting about white replacement, on a flag at a conservative political rally, that sort of thing. I would instead take it as a symbol of peaceful religious expression if I saw it on a Buddhist pagoda, or on a shop in India, or basically anywhere where it is likely unconnected to nazism. This is more or less as Nakagaki and Kelman argue, though I would phrase it as being distinct uses of a symbol, rather than distinct symbols.

    I can sympathise with those that see it as a painful reminder of their murdered kin, and those that see it as a promise that the murdering will resume, but I believe that will gradually fade. As time marches on and those who feel the pain first-hand die, we will be left with only those that know that pain second-hand; and then eventually those too will die. The living will be further and further removed from the Holocaust.

  6. mnb0 says

    “In Sri Lanka, one would occasionally come across the swastika symbol in various places. This had nothing to do with Nazis.”
    The same in Suriname. It’s here that I learned that the nazis took over quite some mythology from India. There is a hindu denomination called Arya DeWaker. They older than the aryan-nonsense from the nazis.
    Surinamese jews perfectly understand that the swastika is not an antisemitic symbol. In Suriname. Where there are no neonazis.

  7. larpar says

    I was under the impression that Nazi swastikas had arms that pointed clockwise, and other traditional swastikas had arms that pointed counterclockwise. From the picture at the link, it looks like that is wrong.
    I have a carved, wooden figurine of a Far Eastern peasant farmer. It has a counterclockwise swastika on the bottom. Being wrong is what I get from using one data point (I had heard about the orientation somewhere else).

  8. says

    I was told the Nazis took that symbol from a NORSE rune, or combination of runes, or other symbol, which meant something like “unchecked power.” So that Western symbol really has nothing to do with the Hindu/Buddhist/Jainist symbol that just happens to look very much like it. It was always their symbol, so they have no need to “reclaim” it, only to explain it to outsiders who need the explanation. For us Westerners, it meant HItlerism then, it’s still used by nazis to mean the same things Hitler stood for, and we really have no other use for it. It’s not worth “reclaiming,” because it never really had a better meaning that anyone here sees fit to remember, as, say, the pentagram or the hammer-and-sickle do.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    To whom are you replying? And to what do you think “eighty years ago” refers?

  10. sonofrojblake says

    @Allison, 3:

    I would also include most European countries.

    Really? Why?

    In European countries (the 19 most populous), the total combined population is just 838,000 -- and more than half of those are in just one country, France. There were more people at my wedding than there are Jewish people in Slovenia, for example.

    In English speaking countries (just seven of them) the population is a little over 6.5million, more than seven times as many. I think if there are 6.5 million people in one place and 0.8million in another place, it’s fair to say that they’re “predominantly” in that first place.

  11. KG says


    You do know that it wasn’t just Jews who the Nazis persecuted to the extent of genocide? And that they invaded and occupied much of Europe, subjecting the entire populations of the occupied countries to varying degrees of oppression and hardship? The surviving members of which will have told their children and grandchildren about their fear and hatred of the occupiers and their symbols.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    @KG, 13:
    Responding in the same spirit of patronising sarcasm: you do know that it absolutely was just Jews who were singled out in the original post as having “mixed reactions” to attempts to reclaim the symbol? And that I was responding directly to that?

  13. Tethys says

    @4 Cartomancer

    So in an Indian context it would be a Svastika, in a Japanese context a Manji, in an Anglo-Saxon context the Fylfot (“four-foot”) and in a Greek context the Tetragammadion (four letter gammas in a circle).

    Hmm fascinating, for several North American tribes it symbolizes whirling logs, and the word itself in Old Norse consists of sva (so that) sticks.

    For the Nazi and their bizarre attempts at using rune magic, it is two S’s. Woden harvested them, as is his wont.

    The signum manus is very common in early medieval documents. It’s a Tetragrammaton using an equal armed cross. Charlemagne never learned to read or write, and used it for his signature.

    There is also the Three Hares symbol, which is found in a few widely separated places, and used by multiple ethnicities. Nobody quite knows exactly what it symbolized, but it’s proof of the very early link between Indo-European cultures before Christianity was imposed.

  14. KG says

    ou do know that it absolutely was just Jews who were singled out in the original post as having “mixed reactions” to attempts to reclaim the symbol? And that I was responding directly to that? -- sonofrojblake@14

    No, you weren’t. You were responding directly to Allison@3. And a lot of people other than Jews are “viscerally offended” by the sight of the swastika.

  15. sonofrojblake says

    And a lot of people other than Jews are “viscerally offended” by the sight of the swastika.

    And yet, inconveniently for you, the original post stubbornly persists in mentioning “mixed reactions” from Jewish people, specifically having carefully listed a lot of other people who have no problem with it, and is clearly referring to Jews when it talks about “visceral reaction”. I mean, you can try to pretend that opposition to reclaiming it comes from elsewhere, but y’know, good luck.

    I have to wonder why you’re so invested in pretending this isn’t about the reactions of (some parts of) the Jewish community specifically, when it so clearly is.

  16. fentex says

    There’s a brick house in my home town (Christchurch, New Zealand) built early twentieth century on a busy route into the central city which has a street facing side with an obvious swastika pattern made by distinctly different coloured bricks.

    I don’t know if I recall this correctly but I have faint memories of Nazi’s having called their cross the ‘crooked cross’ rather than swastika because they made a point of orientating it in one direction where swastikas tend to orietate the other.

    I suspect effrots to ‘reclaim’ it will be strongly resisted in western nations where Nazi’s still use it because it’s just a fact that it isn’t a symbol of peace in any way in the locally dominant culture, but a symbol of hate.

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