When A Swastika Isn't A Swastika

When A Swastika Isn't A Swastika July 19, 2019 · 15 min. readThis article may contain affiliate links.

You probably clicked on this article because of the swastika. Many people feel strongly about it and believe that it is offensive to show any swastika, at any time, absolutely ever.

But the thing is, what if it isn't a swastika? What if it's a sauwastika?

"It doesn't matter!", some would say. A swastika is a swastika is a swastika. Well, not exactly. To start, the swastika, and its inverted counterpart sauwastika, have been used for millenniums by civilisations around the world. They have been used by the Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Vikings, First Nations, Egyptians, Celts, Mayans, Greeks, Africans, and everybody in between. Some refer to it as a symbol of good fortune, while others say it is the symbol for the top of the earth, the centre of the universe or the passaging of time. The Buddhists recognise the swastika as the symbol of Buddha's footsteps. Where his teaching goes, so does good fortune and the swastika.

Tin Tan Buddha in Hong Kong

But many of us don't recognise the swastika as a symbol of good fortune. Instead, we associate it with Nazi Germany, World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. We associate it with images of starving prisoners, gas chambers, public executions, racism, fascism and Adolf Hitler.

This is a big difference, and one that is significant enough that it would overshadow the "good fortune" message. But how did this happen?

It starts with an archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann. In 1868 he travelled to Greece in search of the legendary city of Troy. It took a few years but by 1871 he had found it in nearby Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire) – along with an oddly shaped, hooked-cross. The discovery made headlines around the world and Schliemann began his excavation. One thing he soon discovered was that Troy was built on top of many other, much older communities, and they all used this strange symbol. In fact, it had been used for a millennium, and it wasn't just isolated to this area.

Schliemann noticed this same symbol was used in various parts of the world, and its universal popularity began to spread through Western culture. Quickly, it was adopted by organisations like Coca-Cola, the Boy Scouts, the Girl's Club and the American military. It was even the namesake of the Windsor, Edmonton and Fernie Swastika hockey teams in Canada and the Navajo Swastika basketball team in Oklahoma.

Coca Cola Swastika Symbol Swastika sport teams

The swastika was, in many ways, the "meme" of the time – and just like the modern-day meme Pepe the Frog, it was adopted by the far-right.

The adoption of the swastika by right-wing German parties happened for two reasons. The first was that the Germans claimed themselves as ancestors of the Aryan race, who they believed to be superior above all other races. It's important to remember that scholars originally used the word "Aryan" to refer to anybody of the Indo-European language group, like those who spoke German, Romance and Sanskrit. But in the late 19th Century, racial purity and eugenics were becoming part of the political agenda, so the term was transformed into becoming strictly German.

The final piece of the puzzle occurred in 1896 when British linguist Archibald Sayce wrote: "The antiquities unearthed by Dr. Schliemann at Troy acquire for us a double interest. [...] They carry us back to the later stone ages of the Aryan race."

This was enough for the right-wing groups of Germany to get started, and they began by adopting the swastika as their political insignia. The only difference they made to the original symbol from Troy was adjusting the orientation of it. The Nazi swastika is at a forty-five-degree angle (with some stylistic exceptions) while the religious and cultural ones are not.

Two swastikas

Many associate the symbol with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party, but it was used by several other nationalist, racist politcal groups in Germany as well. It officially became a "sole" Nazi" symbol in 1933 when Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's minister of propaganda) issued a decree that prevented unauthorised commercial use of it.

Under this symbol, the Nazi party began "The Final Solution" and began their campaign to rid Europe of Judaism and those who follow it. The symbol became a physical representation of the evil of the Nazi party, from the gas chambers to the torture, the concentration camps to the execution, to the human experiments and the propaganda.

Inside Auschwitz Inside Auschwitz

Following the war, and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Winston Churchill requested all personal records from survivors to be submitted so that humanity can never forget what happened – and an incredible 74 years later, we still haven't forgotten. Names like Anne Frank, Oskar Schindler and Eva Galler are known around the world. Their lessons are becoming more and more important as the survivors become fewer and fewer.

But, as the years go by many find it difficult to associate their stories with reality. How can these events possibly be real? Hiding behind bookshelves and under floorboards, being captured and put into camps to either work or die; these things seem Old Testament in their brutality. It's unfathomable in the modern era to comprehend these things have ever occurred.

Although the stories seem to drift into fantasy, the swastika's power has remained absolute. Many museums house a large and growing collection of German spoils of war. Guns, uniforms, medals and flags are in the basement and storage room of every museum on the planet, and nobody knows what to do with them. These relics are too offensive to show, but it's historical censorship to hide them away.

I've visited a lot of museums in the world, from the "Canadian Museum for Human Rights" in Winnipeg, to the "Museum of Jewish Heritage" in New York, to the "Florida Holocaust Museum" in St. Petersburg to the "Saskatchewan Military Museum" in Regina. In all the museums I've been to, the only time I've ever seen the swastika was in the "Musee de l'Armee des Invalides" in Paris. This museum showed various German and Nazi relics, and it was the first and only time I've ever seen the flag in real life.

Musee de l'Armee des Invalides in Paris Nazi Flag

(Yes, I know that's the banner, not the flag, but my flag photo is too blurry. Trust me; it was there.)

It's the hesitancy to show this symbol that gives it its power. For many, the swastika is more offensive than racist comments, divisive politics or unjust laws. It's the mythos around the swastika that makes it so arcane, so offensive, and so powerful.

But recently the symbol is making a Renaissance, and not always in a bad way. In our modern, post-war, multi-cultural world, the West is coming in close contact with swastikas frequently – sometimes censored, sometimes not.

One of the most well-known incidents occurred in 1999 when eleven-year-old Stephen Langsam picked up a pack of Pokemon cards. Langsam preferred the Japanese version of these cards over the English version, and when he opened his pack of cards, he found both a Ditto and Golbat surrounded by sauwastikas – the inverted swastika.

Golbat Pokemon card

Immediately, Nintendo of America discontinued the card and apologised, saying the cards were only meant to be sold in Japan and that the English version of the cards had been changed. "What is appropriate for one culture may not be for another," the company said in a statement. "[We] also understand that there is the potential for others to misunderstand the symbol."

But Larry Rosensweig, a Jewish director of the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach, Florida said, "This [symbol] has been used throughout Asia for thousands of years and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Nazis or anti-Semitism. [...] There are plenty of things out there that people should be offended about. Put your indignation into some more productive and appropriate fight."

While these Pokemon cards caused controversy, it wasn't the only time the East was forced into censorship for the West. Another incident would occur in the manga version of Naruto, a series about fictional ninjas. The Hyūga Clan, one of the many clans in the series, uses the sauwastika as a "seal" to keep clan secrets from being exposed. The manga uses the sauwastika as the seal, but the widely popular anime version uses an "x" – a polite censorship for a society that can't tell the two symbols apart.

Naruto Swastika

As societies continue to mingle, there is more likelihood for this symbol making a return into Western culture. Many Buddhist practices like yoga and meditation are being taught in schools to help students concentrate, and with these practices come the swastika and sauwastika. A new generation of children, who will never meet somebody who survived the Holocaust, will learn to associate the symbol with mindfulness, not fascism.

But for those who know Holocaust victims, the symbol is still far too offensive. Even when used in the correct usage, in the correct orientation, and in the correct manner, it is still off-putting.

Recently this problem arose with a tattoo artist in Regina. This artist created a tattoo of a Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes wearing a red headband. On that headband was a correctly oriented swastika, much like the ones used by Buddhists, Hindus and in the Naruto manga.

Alone, the usage of the swastika could be dismissed. The owner of the tattoo, and the tattoo artist, should know the modern history of the swastika. As they were using the symbol in its authentic way – much like the sauwastika I have on a Buddha statue in my kitchen --  it could be considered acceptable, albeit still offensive.

My buddha statue Temple in Hong Kong

However, next to the swastika were two lightning bolts, symbols that when accompanied with a swastika are blatant indications of Nazism. One could attempt to argue that swastikas were also used by the Vikings, and that lighting bolts could reflect Thor, but if somebody was that acutely aware of the cultural context of the symbol, then they know better than to even use it. I would like to believe this individual just made a mistake with their tattoo, but unfortunately, I don't believe that is the case.  

Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes

I believe that one day the swastika will be an accepted symbol of good fortune, and I think that's what our veterans would want too. Our veterans didn't fight and die for censorship; they fought for freedoms of religious expression. It isn't beyond somebody to understand that a symbol can have multiple different meanings. The swastika itself isn't the problem; it's the context, the usage, and lack of education on all parties – those who hate the symbol, and those who use it. Critical thinking, understanding, personal reflection and a lot of questions will be what it takes to separate when a swastika isn't a swastika.

What are your thoughts? Will the swastika ever reclaim its original meaning? What should religious groups do that use the symbol? Should we hang the Nazi flags in museums, or keep them hidden? There's a lot to unpack there so tell me all about it in the comments below.

Additional reading:
Little Swastika.com - about swastikas
CBS News - Pokemon Symbol A Swastika? (1999)
Smithsonian - The Man Who Brought the Swastika to Germany, and How the Nazis Stole It (2017)

Don't forget to pin it!

When A Swastika Isn’t A Swastika When A Swastika Isn’t A Swastika

And, as always, a big thank you to my sweetheart Jessica Nuttall for proof reading a countless number of my articles. I couldn't do any of this without you. I love you.

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