The Daily Heller: When is a Swastika Not a Hate Symbol?

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A city market in Mumbai, where the Swastika is used as a sign of good faith

Since my book The Swastika: A Symbol Beyond Redemption was first published in 2000 (a revised edition followed in 2008 and an expanded edition titled The Swastika Symbols of Hate debuted in 2019), I have been frequently invited to lecture or debate the question of whether or not the Swastika is, in actuality, a Nazi emblem. My answer was routinely yes!

I was asked to appear in a documentary film titled Manji (produced by The Film Collaborative) that follows Dr. T.K. Nakagaki, a Japanese Buddhist priest on a mission to return the Swastika to its original spiritual connotations in different religions. In his book The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace From the Forces of Hate, Nakagaki argues that Hitler always called the symbol a Hakenkreuz (hooked cross) in his autobiographic screed Mein Kampf. Although I wrote about the longer legacy of the Swastika worshipped by many peoples throughout the world, my thesis was that once it was misappropriated by Hitler it forever became his (a smear on German history). After the shoot for Manji (the name given to the Japanese Swastika), I was introduced to Nakagaki. With cameras rolling, he challenged my assertion by saying that there was nothing to redeem. “The Nazi emblem,” he insisted, “was not a Swastika [and] the Hakenkreuz [was not] based on Eastern tradition” but a perversion of “the Christian cross.”

“Nonetheless,” I countered, “semantics did not matter, the symbol had been violated and transfigured.” To which Nakagaki convincingly rebutted that it rightly belonged to millions since time immemorial. Swastika was an ancient Sanskrit word meaning “well-being” and “good fortune” that was never uttered by Hitler. In the early 1930s a translator noted the resemblance of both Swastika and Hooked Cross and is presumed to have replaced the translated Hakenkreuz with the imprecise “Swastika.” Since then I have been circumspect in my juggling of terms. I am willing to now believe that the symbol belongs to Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, indigenous peoples, and ancient Jewish communities.

The following is a discussion on the topic with Pushpita Prasad, a member of Coalition of Hindus of North America; Nikunj Trivedi, president of the organization; and J.J. Kelman, a doctoral student in Holocaust studies who has been researching the issue.

Swastikas were common architectural decorations. This one surrounds the facade of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Steven Heller: When I wrote the first edition of Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption? I was responding to how an ancient mark was transformed from a spiritual and auspicious sign imbued with many positive attributes—not the least of which is good fortune—and applied as an ultra-nationalist, antisemitic political and national symbol. Although I acknowledged that its sacred meanings had been stolen from its rightful owners (what is now called appropriation or cultural colonialism), I was unaware that what had been branded as the “Nazi Swastika” was, in fact, not referred to as such by Adolf Hitler, the purported “designer” of the party emblem and flag. The proper name of this similarly formed configuration was called the Hakenkruez (“hooked cross”) and was incorrectly (and inescapably) translated as Swastika, a Sanskrit word representing propitious attributes. Of course, many words have been forever usurped and enter the vernacular as alternate or redefined, yet the implication of this misunderstanding has caused incalculable pain for many cultures, not only those who innocently worship the sign but those who continue to suffer because of it. Granted, if we all agree that a Swastika is not a Hakenkreuz, it is important for that “retribution,” as I call it, to be explained in serious and sensitive ways. So, my question is how do those of us scarred by the hooked cross go about this reconciliation?

Nikunj Trivedi: Meaning, application and context of any symbol or concept are important. This is even more important when it comes to the Swastika vs. the Hakenkreuz. While the two may look similar in shape, they are diametrically opposite in meaning, application and context. 

Most Westerners are not familiar with Eastern cultures and concepts and thus are generally unaware that the word “Swastika” is not even German but Sanskrit, and literally means “that which is good.” 

The German language has many words containing “kreuz”—Ritterkreuz (knight’s cross, which was the highest award of the German military), Balkenkreuz (beam cross, which was a war ensign of the German armed forces), Krummkreuz (crooked cross), Winkelkreuz (angled cross), etc. 

And, as you rightly point out, the word “Swastika” was never used by Hitler, so to pin the blame on a deeply sacred symbol from another culture is cultural colonialism and must be avoided. He also did not know Sanskrit.

Only through mutual respect, understanding and education can we create an atmosphere where people appreciate the sacredness of the Swastika while denouncing the hateful Hakenkreuz. The Hakenkreuz is used to instill fear in people while the Swastika is always used for sacred and peaceful purposes. Just like people can distinguish the sacred cross from the burning cross or other similar hate symbols containing a cross, we can distinguish between the sacred Swastika and the hateful Hakenkreuz. This becomes even more critical in a world that is increasingly interconnected.

Pushpita Prasad: In one word—context! Swastika is not the only symbol/word deemed to have with multiple meanings. We need an education campaign around the vast and varied history of what is one of humanity’s truly global symbols, found across history and cultures. As humans, we have the capability to distinguish based on context. For instance, the cross—widely used as a benevolent sacred symbol, is also used by white supremacists and hate groups like the KKK to instill fear. Genocidal campaigns like the Spanish Inquisition used the cross, similar to how the Nazis used the Hakenkreuz, yet the understanding of the cross is not unidimensional.

Trivedi: Understanding the multiple meanings of this symbol will help not only the cultures that never stopped revering the Swastika, but also those who are now scared of it due to misinformation. An encounter with Swastikas is increasingly likely in the digital, diverse and globally interconnected world we live in. Without context, those tormented by Hitler’s symbol may face further trauma if they spot the Swastika in benign usage such as a Buddhist monastery, a roommate’s altar or a Hindu’s house. Context would help them understand if the symbol they see is sacred or scary.

Heller: That makes sense for people who were not directly and negatively impacted by the Hakenkreuz, but what about those who have been harmed in some way?

J.J. Kelman: When I speak with Jewish groups, and even Holocaust survivors, about the Swastika and Hakenkreuz, they are always surprised to learn about how Hitler himself only ever used the word “Hakenkreuz,” and that he very likely would have understood it to be a derivative of some sort of warped Christian Cross. I find Jewish audiences to be very receptive to the idea of using the word Hakenkreuz instead of Swastika. The main issue, of course, is that no one from a Jewish perspective wants to amplify or empower neo-Nazis or forces of hate, or do anything that might trample on the memories of survivors and their descendants. Unfortunately, today in the West we use the word Swastika to describe nearly all these lookalike symbols. I would argue that this has not done anything to stop neo-Nazis and their ilk from making the “scrawls on gravestones and synagogues” that you rightly wrote against in your book. As long as the Swastika is only seen as evil, it remains “a “forbidden fruit,” and that intoxicating allure could best be dealt with not through deletion, but by dilution.

If you dilute the hate of the Hakenkreuz with the love of the Swastika—the Swastika of the Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, and millions around the globe—then who self-censors? Currently self-censorship is taking place in the West by those who wish no one any harm, and even the Holocaust survivors that I have spoken to feel horrible about that. In the East, no Swastika nor Hakenkreuz is scrawled on Jewish property. Whereas western neo-Nazis feel energized to draw Hakenkreuz on Jewish property, at least in part, because few in the West view the symbol as anything other than a nefarious sign. Instead, if seen as a symbol of good luck, neo-Nazis may be forced to find another symbol. They will undoubtedly find one, but we should be happy to make their efforts as difficult as possible. Therefore, using these two words, Swastika and Hakenkreuz, coupled with a large and widespread education campaign, seems to me to be the best approach.

Heller: How did this wholesale misunderstanding wreak such havoc?

Trivedi: The writings of that time are replete with references to the cross and the hooked cross together (e.g., “Christuskreuz und Hakenkreuz” by Gerhard Hahn, a prominent leader of the Lutheran Church of Hanover, Germany). Unfortunately, incorrect (perhaps deliberate) translations of “hooked cross” to “Swastika” by the likes of James Murphy and Ralph Manheim, along with newspapers like The New York Times incorrectly linking the Hakenkreuz to the Swastika of India, resulted in the mainstreaming of misinformation about the Swastika. Correcting historical misunderstandings becomes incredibly important as continued misinformation harms those who revere this deeply sacred and peaceful symbol.

Ancient hooked cross found in the runins fo troy.

The German Order of nationalsis,used the sign it ast the sun.

Poet Guido von List lead a cult based on the runnic hooked cross.

One of many books on the history of the Hakebkreuz.

Heller: How do all of you respond to my argument that if it looks like a Swastika, regardless of what other names and applications it has, it is a Swastika? Hitler’s Hakenkreuz looks like a Swastika, therefore whatever we call it will forever be so considered?

Prasad: Change is the only constant of human civilization. Words and symbols are fluid and change just like other aspects of human civilization. For instance, the word “queer,” which just a few decades ago had evolved into an epithet. The LGBTQ community took ownership of the word and turned it into an empowering concept. Similarly, the Swastika is a word that has already undergone many transformations in understanding and usage—primarily in the West, and there is no reason that journey of transformation cannot continue. In parallel it is important to understand that for a few billion humans, and across vast swaths of Asia, the word never did change from its real meaning of denoting peace, auspiciousness and good luck.

Trivedi: This approach perpetuates cultural hegemony and cultural colonialism and therefore must be avoided. Many native cultures around the world have been affected by this phenomenon and their indigenous practices have been robbed of significance and value. 

Colonialism used these types of attitudes and practices to dominate and eradicate indigenous cultures, to the point that we are now used to using words that were once benign or sacred as derogatory because Western colonial powers and writers decided to misuse certain words and concepts to show native cultures as inferior, savage and violent while deflecting away from their own violent and tumultuous history. 

This type of approach only leads to friction and avoids the acceptance of truth and mutual respect and deprives cultures from proudly and rightfully using their symbols and practices. It stigmatizes and triggers hatred against nearly two billion people around the world and robs Western society of learning the truth.

Why should a hate symbol (Hakenkreuz) continue to be incorrectly referred to by a name (Swastika) that literally means well-being and peace? Aren’t we trying to denounce hate and bigotry and not accidentally create hatred against other communities? 

Kelman: It doesn’t just look similar; it is identical in nearly every way as a shape. But a shape and a symbol are not the same thing. A plus sign (+) has the same shape as a Greek cross, or Iron cross (and many others for that matter), but that does not mean they convey the same meaning. I do not believe that whether the angled arms of the Swastika are “right tilting” or “left tilting” makes any difference. The fact is that different cultures choose their Swastikas to tilt one way, and other cultures choose another. I believe that it is never alright to trample on another culture’s symbol just because it looks extremely similar to the one that caused your group great harm. Hitler’s Hakenkreuz undoubtedly looks like a Swastika, but reclamation efforts can be successful and have been in other areas before—just look at the word “queer.” I was truly swayed to this point when even Holocaust survivors told me they were on board with using the word Hakenkreuz. Furthermore, no one wants to forget—in fact it is essential that “never forget!” retains its power. For this to occur, it is important that we do so with the historical record accurately reflected.

Heller: During this time of revived antisemitism, why is it important to build this understanding and change? Hasn’t the train left the station?

Kelman: Despite the recent backlash against various Ivy league presidents for saying that “it depends on the context” in another situation, the fact remains that context does very much matter. What might be acceptable in one situation, or time and place, may not be in another. The intention and the user also play a role. Let us say, for example, a Hindu person was to wear a necklace that has a Swastika symbol on it. Would it be appropriate for that person to enter a synagogue as an invited guest? I think so. I would like to think that someone with a cross around their neck might also be welcome in a synagogue, or vice versa, of course. The fact remains that censorship of loving or kind individuals that wish no one any ill will can only lead to confusion and potential unwarranted and unnecessary conflict. The absence of said censorship does not make for a free-for-all though. Education is still needed in order to avoid the pain that may result from one uninformed individual seeing another.

Prasad: Hitler’s holocaust targeted the Jewish, LGBTQ and Roma communities, among others. And he despised us Indians, who he, on occasions, referred to as “Asiatic jugglers.” He felt that the British rule in India was a model for Nazi Germany and an example of how a subject race ought to be treated. So, when we call Hitler’s Hakenkreuz by names revered by close to two billion Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians today, we are in some ways amplifying the hate he had for us brown people—decades after his death. The continued linkage of Swastika to Nazis amplifies the power wielded by such hateful ideologies and becomes a way to inflict damage on a set of people Hitler despised in real life—an important aspect to keep in mind today as the world deals with a surge of antisemitic hate.

Trivedi: To truly build understanding, change and peace, we all must come together and denounce hate by its true name and for what it is. Hitler’s intentions in using the word “Hakenkreuz” were clear and his hatred for the Jewish people had a historical context. The Hindu community has nothing but love and respect for the Jewish community and wishes to continue building bridges. In 2007 and 2008, a series of high level Hindu-Jewish summits in Israel and in India took the first crucial steps in building bridges and dialogue on a host of inter-religious topics, including the Swastika. And both sides agreed that the Swastika is an ancient and greatly auspicious symbol of peace and well-being. The two communities came together to condemn bigotry and antisemitism and revere what is sacred and peaceful. Since then, we have been building upon those efforts and creating spaces where mutual respect, understanding and friendship can prosper. Only through these efforts can we respect each other’s cultures and stand stronger together.

In the words of Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in this world.”

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