How the Swastika Became a Nazi Symbol

The word ‘swastika’ is Sanskrit in origin and means ‘conducive to wellbeing’. The symbol, normally with its arms bent towards the left, is also known in Hinduism as the sathio or sauvastika. It often marks religious sites or objects and was used as a symbol for Aryans or nobles of ancient Hindu society.

The swastika, or gammadion cross, appears in countless civilisations all over the world, and although some have tried to derive some mystical connection from this fact, it is, simply put, a fairly basic character. Because of its very simplicity, early societies were as prone to use it as any other elementary geometric shape, such as a lemniscate or spiral.

However, it was Indian religion and culture that was the original source from which the National Socialists derived the swastika.

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A swastika adorns a chair in a Hindu temple in Ubud, Bali. Photo: McKay Savage (Flickr CC)

The Swastika as Symbol of the Aryan Myth

Post biblical scholars of the 19th century — often driven by various impetuses such as nationalism, Europeanism, anti-Semitism and Orientalism — first set the stage for larger political or folk movements that provided some of the groundwork and inspiration for National Socialism. What is crucial to these types of myth-inspired groups and especially large-scale political movements is symbolism.

In 1872 Émile Burnouf, director of the French archaeological school in Athens, incorporated the swastika into the contemporary Aryan myth. Burnouf, who was an anti-Semite, claimed that the swastika originated in India, but was altered by Christians into the cross. He also claimed that the symbol was avoided by the Jews drafting it as a symbol for anti-Semitism.

Contrary to what Burnouf claimed, it has been documented that the swastika was used in ancient Judaism by Essene monks and has been found at archaeological sites of excavated synagogues in Galilee and Syria. As far as Christianity altering the symbol, how Christ would have been crucified on a swastika is anyone’s guess.

The Swastika as a German Folk and Political Emblem

Burnouf’s colleague Heinrich Schliemann also did much to promote the swastika, and wrote three books concerning the common racial ancestry of ancient Germans, Trojans, Thracians and Vedic Indians as well as discussing linkages and comparisons between Homeric myths and Vedic India.

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A print advertising the Thule Society, a Munich-based mystical völkisch group.

Further use and development of the swastika as a mystical Aryan and anti-Jewish symbol in books and art exhibitions established it as an Aryan racial emblem in Europe at the end of the 19th century.

German author Ernst Ludwig Kraust brought the swastika into the political arena of German völkisch nationalism in 1891, also relating it to both Hellenic and Vedic subject matter.

The life philosophers, such as those who lived at the Ascona commune, used and promoted the swastika as well. In 1918 Die Tat featured a four-page essay by Ilse Alma Drews, which recommends the swastika in preference to the cross. She further describes the swastika as an Aryan symbol of the sun, which is found in India but not in China or Japan.

Where she got this information one can only imagine. One need only visit East Asia or simply look at pictures from any number of Buddhist temples throughout China, Korea and Japan, where it is known as manji or wanzi (Japanese and Chinese, respectively), to see swastikas adorning gateways and temple arches.

The Nazis Adopt the Swastika

By the time the swastika was adopted by Hitler and the National Socialists, it was already in use by anti-Semitic politicians and völkish movements in Austria and Germany. Circa 1870, followers of Austrian anti-Semite politician George Ritter von Schönerer (whose ideas influenced Hitler) were using the symbol.

It is widely agreed that Hitler chose the swastika himself as the symbol for the Nazi movement, but it is not known for sure who influenced him in that decision. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler wrote about how his version was based on a design — a swastika set against a black, white and red background — by Dr. Friedrich Krohn, a dentist from Starnberg, who belonged to völkish groups such as the Germanen Order.

By the summer of 1920 this design was commonly in use as the official symbol of the Nazional-socialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, Hitler’s Nazi party.

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A british soldier holding a captured Nazi flag behind German POWs. Credit: Chetwyn (Sgt), Morris G (Sgt), Morris R H (Sgt), No 1 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Vanderson (Lieut)

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.