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Swastika's changing symbolism

Swastika's changing symbolism

Author: Brian Walters
Publication: The Age
Date: January 27, 2005
URL: http://theage.com.au/articles/2005/01/26/1106415661687.html?oneclick=true

The swastika is far older than Hitler's Germany and means much more.

We passed through the exit formalities at Kathmandu airport, and an official of the Hindu Kingdom of Nepal stamped our exit cards. I glanced down at mine. Staring back at me, in fresh black ink, was a swastika.

We had, in fact, encountered the swastika in many places in our travels. When we visited the personal quarters of the Dalai Lama in Mussoorie, India, we had to step over a large inlaid swastika to enter. The device figures on countless temples.

In the West, the swastika remains to this day an irredeemable symbol of the evil of Nazism. However, much of the East has merely shrugged off the Nazi association. After all, the word "swastika" is derived from a Sanskrit term meaning "being good" or "wellbeing". Even new Buddhist and Hindu temples are decorated with swastikas.

The swastika is a very ancient symbol. It has been found in the Ukraine carved on mammoth ivory 12,000 years old. The symbol figures on the oldest coins in India, Persia and Greece. The swastika has also been found on Jewish synagogues in Palestine of about 2000 years ago. It is found in many early Christian buildings, and was a sacred symbol to the Norse as well as to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. For more than 2000 years it has been a sacred symbol in China.

In the late 19th century, as the different German kingdoms coalesced into the new nation of Germany, nationalists began using the swastika as a symbol of the new country.

Stefan George, perhaps Germany's greatest 20th-century poet, adopted the swastika as a symbol for all that is good in Germany, and of its ancient cultural roots. He had the symbol printed on his books.

It was a choice that fired the popular imagination. Other nationalist publications, and some anti-Semitic ones, began to use the swastika. The fledgling Nazi party jumped on the bandwagon and adopted the swastika in 1920. They more commonly referred to it as the hakenkreuz (hooked cross).

Stefan George could not abide the Nazis, and left Germany shortly after they came to power. His protege, Claus von Stauffenberg, the noble officer who sought to restore Germany's moral integrity, placed the bomb in Hitler's briefing room on July 20, 1944, and launched the insurrection known as "the July plot".

Some claim that Hitler reversed the swastika, and therefore reversed its association with good fortune. He did reverse the design as presented to him, but by far the most common version of the swastika in the east is that with the open ends pointing clockwise, as the Nazis' symbol did. It is a positive symbol whichever way it points.

It is illegal to display the swastika in Germany. After an exhibition of bad taste by Prince Harry, and a tantrum by far-right deputies in the German parliament, there is a motion before the European parliament to ban the swastika throughout Europe.

There is no doubt the motion is well-intentioned. For many, the swastika today must continue to be a source of pain, a reminder of the unspeakable horrors perpetrated by Hitler's regime - a symbol of hatred, particularly of Jews. Use of it, in many contexts, can be insensitive and offensive.

But should it be banned by law? This would concede to Hitler and his memory propriety over an ancient symbol of goodness. Why should we permit him that legacy?

A ban on the swastika would not in itself remove racism or silence those who wish to express such views. For many in the world a ban on the swastika would be quite bewildering - the equivalent of banning the cross or the crescent. And, in ignoring the sensitivities of people in the East, such a ban would itself be an act of Western arrogance - the very kind of attitude Hitler encouraged.

When we seek to stamp out an evil, we should take care not to perpetuate it in some other way. Hitler's totalitarian regime banned many symbols. Adopting his methods is scarcely a wise way of removing his legacy.

Let us condemn racism, and the use of swastikas, burning crosses, and other symbols to represent it. But such symbols may have good associations as well as bad, and common sense enables us to distinguish. Banning a symbol won't root out the problem.

Brian Walters is president of Liberty Victoria and vice-president of Free Speech Victoria.

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