Learn the History of the Swastika

Swastika
Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

The swastika is an extremely powerful symbol. The Nazis used it to murder millions of people during the Holocaust, but for centuries it had positive meanings. What is the history of the swastika? Does it now represent good or evil?

The Oldest Known Symbol

The swastika is an ancient symbol that has been used for over 3,000 years (predating even the ancient Egyptian symbol, the ankh). Artifacts such as pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that the swastika was a commonly used symbol as far back as 1000 BCE.

Carved swastika patterns in The Temple of Hadrian, Turkey.
Nigel Hicks / Getty Images

During the following 1,000 years, the image of the swastika was used by many cultures around the world, including in China, Japan, India, and southern Europe. By the Middle Ages, the swastika was a well-known, if not commonly used, symbol, but it was referred to by several names:

  • China - wan
  • England - fylfot
  • Germany - Hakenkreuz
  • Greece - tetraskelion and gammadion
  • India - swastika

Though it is not known for exactly how long, Indigenous peoples also have long used the symbol of the swastika.

The Original Meaning

The word "swastika" comes from the Sanskrit svastika: "su" meaning "good," "asti" meaning "to be," and "ka" as a suffix. Until the Nazis adopted it, the swastika was used by many cultures throughout the past 3,000 years to represent life, sun, power, strength, and good luck.

Even in the early 20th century, the swastika was still a symbol with positive connotations. For instance, the swastika was a common decoration that often adorned cigarette cases, postcards, coins, and buildings. During World War I, the swastika could even be found on the shoulder patches of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry Division and as part of the Finnish Air Force symbol until after World War II.

A Change in Meaning

In the 1800s, countries around Germany were growing much larger, forming empires; yet Germany was not a unified nation until 1871. To counter the feeling of vulnerability and the stigma of youth, German nationalists in the mid-19th century began to use the swastika, because it had ancient Aryan/Indian origins, to represent a long Germanic/Aryan history.

By the end of the 19th century, the swastika appeared in German nationalist "volkisch" (folk) periodicals and was the official emblem of the German Gymnasts' League. At the beginning of the 20th century, the swastika was a common symbol of German nationalism and could be found in a multitude of places such as the emblem for the Wandervogel, a German youth movement; on Joerg Lanz von Liebenfels' anti-Semitic periodical Ostara; on various Freikorps units; and as an emblem of the Thule Society.

Hitler and the Nazis

Adolf Hitler giving nazi solute to German soldiers.
Heinrich Hoffmann / Getty Images

In 1920, Adolf Hitler decided that the Nazi Party needed its own insignia and flag. For Hitler, the new flag had to be "a symbol of our own struggle" as well as "highly effective as a poster," as he wrote in "Mein Kampf" ("My Struggle"), a rambling discourse on Hitler’s ideology and goals for the future German state that he wrote while imprisoned for his role in a failed coup. On August 7, 1920, at the Salzburg Congress, the red flag with a white circle and black swastika became the official emblem of the Nazi Party.

Nazis marching in formation with flags at a rally.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In "Mein Kampf," Hitler described the Nazis' new flag:

"In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic."

Because of the Nazis' flag, the swastika soon became a symbol of hate, anti-Semitism, violence, death, and murder.

What Does the Swastika Mean Now?

There is a great debate as to what the swastika means now. For 3,000 years, it represented life and good luck. But because of the Nazis, it has also taken on a meaning of death and hate. These conflicting meanings are causing problems in today's society. For Buddhists and Hindus, the swastika is a commonly used religious symbol.

Unfortunately, the Nazis were so effective in their use of the swastika emblem that many do not even know any other meaning for the swastika. Can there be two completely opposite definitions for one symbol?

The Direction of the Swastika

In ancient times, the direction of the swastika was interchangeable, as can be seen on an ancient Chinese silk drawing.

Counter clockwise swastika on Japanese manhole cover.
Glenn Waters in Japan / Getty Images

Some cultures in the past differentiated between the clockwise swastika and the counterclockwise sauvastika. In these cultures, the swastika symbolized health and life, while the sauvastika took on a mystical meaning of bad luck or misfortune.

Italian girls' summer camp making up a Nazi swastika, August 8, 1942, Genoa, Italy.
Italian summer camp forming group backwards swastika.  De Agostini / Foto Studio Leoni / Getty Images

But since the Nazis' use of the swastika, some people are trying to differentiate the two meanings of the swastika by varying its direction—making the clockwise, Nazi version of the swastika mean hate and death, while the counterclockwise version would hold the ancient meanings of the symbol: life and good luck.

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Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Learn the History of the Swastika." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-history-of-the-swastika-1778288. Rosenberg, Jennifer. (2021, July 31). Learn the History of the Swastika. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-the-swastika-1778288 Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Learn the History of the Swastika." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-the-swastika-1778288 (accessed December 3, 2021).