The swastika probably wins the award for the most hated symbol in the Western world thanks to its use by the Fascist Nazi party in the lead up to and during the Second World War. However, its origins lie in a different time, in a different place. For thousands of years the symbol has been used to convey good fortune in almost every culture worldwide, including Greece, the United States, and perhaps most notably as a key symbol in Indian heritage.
In ancient Greek textiles and ceramics the swastika is visible as a widely used architectural ornament. American use includes marketing for companies such as Coca-Cola and Carlsberg, Boy Scouts and Girls Club, and even the military. In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, swastika means “well-being”. It has been used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains for thousands of years, and is commonly perceived to be an inherently Indian sign. Western travellers to Asia were inspired by its positive associations and took it home, where it became a widely used symbol of good luck.
The Nazis laid claim to the symbol based on the work of 19th-century German scholars who notice similarities between their own language and Sanskrit and translating old Indian texts. This was assumed to indicate that Indians and Germans must have had a shared ancestry. The swastika was seized upon as an Aryan symbol to boost a sense of ancient lineage for the Germanic people. This use has tainted the perception of the symbol irreversibly.
93-year-old Holocaust survivor Freddie Knoller told BBC correspondent, Mukti Jain Campion, that “for the Jewish people the swastika is a symbol of fear, of suppression, and of extermination. It’s a symbol that we will never ever be able to change… We will always remember what the swastika was like in our life – a symbol of pure evil”. The swastika was banned in Germany at the end of the war, and the country even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to introduce an EU wide ban in 2007. (Full BBC article: How the world loved the Swastika, until Hitler stole it).
So it is clear that the swastika has vastly disparate meanings in different cultures, and depending on how and where it is viewed. In many communities the symbol still represents divinity, life, power, peace and good fortune. However, in much of Europe and the US, the symbol injects shock, fear, and perhaps even guilt.
In the world of marketing and international communications, the oppositional interpretations could surely have lasting damage if used inappropriately. An organisation based in Asia, in a Buddhist or Hindu community, may justifiably and effectively make use of the swastika in domestic advertising to suggest good fortune. However, in the event of stepping into the global market, the enterprise’s semiotic representation would require reassessment in order to avoid tainting their image in the eyes of the Western community.
Can we ever move on? Is there scope for semiotic redemption across the world?
While the memory of its Nazi uses are still relatively fresh in the minds of the global community, and the scars are still healing, it probably can’t. Short of rewriting the history books and editing all photographic evidence of fascist activity, its association with the horrors of World War II will most likely strike a permanent mark against it, and its positive and philosophical heritage will remain only in the eyes of the few.