Wednesday 14 November 2012

The swastika - hate or re-assimilate?

[Warning: this post contains images of swastikas, as used in Eastern cultures.]

Bit of a thoughtful and possibly contentious post today, following on from a chat with my husband yesterday. As I've said, he's away in India at the moment, on another two week business trip. He's currently staying in a business district of Hyderabad, in a hotel used mainly by Westerners. He wasn't working when I spoke to him, as his colleagues in the office out there all had the day off to celebrate Diwali.

My husband is Jewish. He's culturally Jewish, rather than religious, as is the case with most of his immediate family. We live in London. He has friends and colleagues of  all kinds of religious and ethnic backgrounds and he travels a lot as part of his job. He is well aware that the swastika is an ancient religious symbol, derived from Sanskrit and denoting 'good luck', and that it's used extensively in Buddhist and Hindu parts of the world; as well as by the Native American people. He is also well aware that it was misappropriated by Hitler and his Nazi party, and that the swastika on the Nazi flag has been tilted 45 degrees. It is also missing the dots which would often sit inside the open areas. He knows all this, yet it still felt 'like a kick to the gut' to walk out of his hotel room and see this design in the lobby:

Happy Dewali sign made in coloured stones - hotel lobby, Hyderabad

What are your immediate thoughts? I am not Jewish, but like anyone brought up post 1940s Europe - and who doesn't have fascist leanings - the flag of the third reich inspires nothing but revulsion. Whilst it is not strictly illegal to display Nazi memorabilia in the UK - unlike in Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Israel - it is widely considered to be in extremely poor taste. We do have laws against 'incitement of racial hatred', so wearing swastikas or painting them all over your house would have you on shaky legal ground. However, all this applies to the flag  itself - the swastika within a white circle, on a red background. [I would rather not have a picture of it on my blog, we all know what it looks like.] To me, that stylised version above is quite far removed from that on the Nazi flag - and clearly there was no intent to offend - Diwali is a joyous occasion, as important culturally in India as Christmas is here. However, Ben saw it immediately. The connections made in his brain inevitably lead him to the missing branches of his family tree. Those who came from Poland, not Latvia. The cousins of his step-father who never made it out of the camps. I am never going to have the same gut-clenching personal reality.

To many, that swastika is a similar to Hitler's as this  Letterman's jacket is to the anarchy symbol - the same root, but signifying completely different things:

Suppose violent anarchy took off again in the UK - the return of the riots we saw in the Summer of 2011, but this time leading to millions of deaths and the virtual collapse of society - would the symbol on the left seem as innocent? Or would it be tainted forever? Like the yellow swastika above, it might seem cuddlier looking to those who weren't directly affected, but for others the association would be immediate and inherently negative. [Likewise, it would be terrible but fascinating from a theoretical standpoint to wonder what would happen if a terrorist group committed atrocities using the Star of David as their 'stolen' symbol. Would it be given up by the Jewish faith as a result?]

Of course, context and background are everything. You can accept that the only place the swastika denotes fascism is on the Nazi flag - but how about if you see it spray-painted on a wall as you walk through an unfamiliar part of town? If it's carved into the table in the pub you're sat in? Your first thought is probably not going to be 'Buddhist temple nearby', as it might be if you were in Japan. [See flickr picture here - I don't have rights to use the photo]. If in the UK, I see a swastika in one of those scenarios, I shudder. I walk a little faster, or I finish my drink up quicker than I'd planned. That spindly graphic design, even divorced from the flag which attempted to 'trademark' it, still hums with menace. It says aggression - and even if you're not Jewish, or black, or gay, or a gypsy, or any other arbitrarily decided minority, the threat of violence is tangible.

"A boot stamping on a human face forever"  
George Orwell1984. 

That's the most perfect description of fascism I can imagine, and it's the line that comes to mind when I see 'that' swastika.

I am educated enough to realise that if I saw it on a poster advertising yoga classes at a Buddhist centre (for example) that the intent would not be the same, but I think that sad though it may be, a socially conscious yoga teacher wouldn't use the symbol anyway.You can argue until you're blue in the face that language changes and 'mong' just means a foolish person, but you just don't use it in front of a Mother of a child with Down's Syndrome unless you're an unmitigated git. [or Frankie Boyle]. Ditto using the word 'gay' to mean stupid or pointless - why use a word in a way that can hurt someone when you don't need to? Maybe I'm too old to have picked up this particularly uncharming bit of slang, but at least I don't have to spend my time going 'Oh, sorry, haha'  in front of certain friends. Explaining that someone's visceral reaction to a word or symbol is wrong doesn't make them feel better. Just apologise. Or better yet, think and don't use it.

I rang my friend Sunita earlier, and asked her whether the swastika spoke more to her as a Hindu symbol, or whether her immediate thought was fascism. She was more easily able to disassociate the two because of her family's cultural background, but as she is British - and the Holocaust is a vital part of our secondary school curriculum here - she agreed that seeing the swastika alone would still signal racism to her. I realise this 'evidence' is merely one person's opinion, but I do think that rehabilitation of the symbol is impossible in Europe and the Western world.

[This has turned into an essay, sorry]. 

Anyway, if you agree with my points above as they relate to the UK, shouldn't the same care for people's feelings - on both sides - apply in India? My husband is not one of the ranks of the 'professionally offended'. He does not make a fuss.  We know that the symbol does not carry any of the same connotations there - however he did have to explain to a friend and colleague who had taken him to a market why he could not possibly buy any wooden goods decorated with swastikas. His colleague was somewhat bemused, the cultural significance of the holocaust being almost zero to him. It would be pointless to see a swastika on a building - as a personal attack. If this was a house in the UK - it would be easy to justify refusing an invite. Who but a racist would decorate their home in such a way? But if this were a friend's family home in India, is it worth risking giving grave offence when none was meant?
I can't speak for Ben as we didn't discuss this scenario, but I would consider it rude to bring up the the cultural resonance it has for us, unless I was directly asked why I looked uncomfortable. Of course, I will say again - I am not Jewish.

Sunita - my friend - agreed it was a different matter when it comes to the hotel. Given that their clientele is almost exclusively Western business travellers, should they perhaps be a little more circumspect in deciding what are appropriate symbols to use? The sign was after all in English - so not aimed at locals. The intent was good, but the execution could be improved. I know that horrible racism and intolerance is experienced in the UK every day, but our I believe our basic tenets of law and government are good. We're against 'honour killings' and female oppression, but we have freedom of religion and know better than to decorate hotels with cartoons of the prophet Mohammed - to give a crazy example. The world is getting smaller - our global village has never been more crowded. Tolerance means understanding - not that we should tolerate hurting each other when it could be avoided.

What are your thoughts?
Lakota x

There is an interesting article and comments in the Jewish Week here, if you want to read more opinions.


  1. I'm used to seeing swastikas on souvenirs, temples and houses on my travels throughout India. I'm well aware of the fact Hitler reversed this traditional Hindu sign of peace as a banner of hatred and as the Indian ones are the reverse to those of the Nazi party I've never given it a second thought although those less observant may do hence the reason I've avoided buying fabric printed with the Indian version. x

    1. Yep, definitely not something to wear over here! He didn't reverse it though, just tilted it on its side. That one on the house has spokes going the same way as the one on the Nazi flag. Jewish people may have to accept they will never feel comfortable with the amount it's displayed in India. Likewise I think visitors to Europe/USA should be aware of how it's perceived in the West. The article on Jewish Week goes further into this.

  2. I confess I didn't find the hotel sign offensive, I guess because it wasnt quite so stick like as the image I am more acquainted with,
    The latter picture on the house doesn't fill me with repulsion either, for me I guess context is the key.
    I would be repulsed by seeing the Nazi version and seeing it daubed as graffiti but again I think that's because the context it being presented in.

    I accept however I am not Jewish so perhaps less sensitive to the image.

  3. As I'm not Jewish, seeing a swastika in India or anywhere it has a peaceful meaning would not offend me, but I'd certainly be jolted. IMHO western countries are a little more likely to be *seen to be* culturally sensitive and understanding. Whether we are or not, is an enormous question in itself.

  4. My first encounter with a non-Nazi swastika was a tattoo on a bloke I was seeing in my late teens. He spent a long time explaining the origins to me and why he had had it done - and even though I knew all of the Eastern meanings - it still jolted me each time I saw it. I don't think the western world - Europe especially - will ever get past this symbol and what it meant for all those years.

    But - when you see it in the peaceful context used in other cultures, you have to remember how *they* see it.

  5. Weirdly, for a while I actually had an Afrika Korps ammo box, someone gave it to me and I passed it onto someone else a couple of years later. I wasn't ever comfortable with the swastika daubed on the side.
    I think in India I'd be fine with seeing the Swastika around, after all it belongs to them, Hitler nicked it (actually he nicked it from the Romans), but unfortunately it became associated with fascism forever more over here.

  6. That was really well written; thanks. If I visited India, I would not reel in shock at seeing swastikas, at least, not after the first time; I would soon remind myself of its meaning to the people who displayed it. I would not be offended by any Indian people who used the symbol in their own country. To me it is like word in another language that sounds like something obscene in English; seems bad but stop and think and you know it's ok. (Incidentally, I don't believe in good luck and I don't believe in Hinduism but I wouldn't make an issue of it with them, just explain politely and respectfully if it came up.) In the western world, I would expect anyone to whom the swastika is a harmless signal to be sensitive to what it means to western culture. I think anyone who gets it tattoed on them is daft (as the man mentioned in LandGirl1980'scomment); he might explain it but how many times could he get beaten up before he could explain? People seeing it in the street would not get the explanation and would feel sick at the sight of it; a wrong assumption on their part but a natural one and would an elderly person who lived through the Nazi era ask him for an explanation? I think not. If I was in India and someone with the symbol on their house invited me in, I would happily go; it's not a Nazi symbol to them, but I don't subscribe to what it does mean to them, so I would not wear it or accept a gift with it on, no matter how well meant. You can disagree while showing respect.

  7. It just goes to show how powerful a symbol can be, and how important it is to be EDUCATED on these matters.
    I don't think the feelings of revulsion, horror, distress and outrage should ever be played down or put to one side, whether you're in India seeing the sign as an innocent gesture of peace, or you're at the post office looking at a vile tattoo of Hitler's stolen version.
    I almost feel it's time for a decision to change the Hindu symbol of peace, as the connotations will always be linked in some way to atrocities which any peace-loving faith would want well shot of.
    It's not as if we are talking about small scale horror, is it? Unfortunately, the message of peace will always be tainted by anyone who has been moved, disturbed or devastated by what went on during Hitler's rule.

  8. As an american I was unaware of it's original cultural symbolism. We don't have the ties to India Britain has, nor do we have a large Indian population where it would be seen commonplace. The only time it's seen here is in it's horrible hateful Nazi connotation.

    Excellent, thought provoking essay Lakotah!!

  9. A very well written and thought-provoking article. I first came across swastikas everywhere when I lived in Bali- I saw it engraved on a temple and I was like, "WHY is there a swastika carved on there?!" and then I saw them everywhere. Someone explained it to me but I still didn't feel comfortable with it. AS well as peace, it's considered a lucky sign there- several people I know even have the word Swastika in their name as a sort of middle name!

  10. This is a great post! It reminds me of the brilliant show the comedian Richard Herring did called 'Hitler Moustache' the idea was to see if he could reclaim the toothbrush moustache for comedy – 'it was Chaplin's first, then Hitler ruined it!' It ended up being a very funny and thought provoking show about racism, political correctness gone mad and how these things affect us. Interestingly he got a shedload of abuse from people who assumed on the show's title and picture of him with said moustache alone that he was a racist neo-nazi, this was without even bothering to find out what it was all about.

    I have to say I do think, especially in this country, we have a weird situation of either not going far enough to respect people's beliefs and going way too far to try and respect people's beliefs. I wish we could find a comfortable middle ground.

  11. What a thought provoking post. I attended a workshop a few months ago about racism in schools. We discussed the Union Jack flag and I felt and said there is a big difference between a Union Jack on a teapot (and I felt that this vintage trend had reclaimed the image to some degree and was more of a nostalgic thing than a cultural one that was associated with fascism) and a Union Jack tattoo on someone's arm with BNP written underneath it, it is all about context.
    However, I personally find the image of the swastika very shocking. So I guess this could be seen as a complete double standard on my part?
    Oooo I could go on and on, but promise I won't....
    Twiggy x

  12. It's not the same. It's the original in the country where it means what IT means. If it were the Nazi reference I would have no qualms about airing being upset about it- but it's not. It has a different meaning. I feel we could allow that original meaning to come through.

    I remember when I worked at an Afghan restaurant and the owner's response to me talking about a movie about the holocaust was that genocide goes on still, and did in the past- the Afghans have been decimated many times over- and so all these tragedies needs to be acknowledged not just the Jewish one. Which is a whole other ball of wax but the common thread is- we can't ask a whole other culture which has an original meaning to a symbol take it out of existence- it was and still is a horrid tragedy but the pain doesn't come from the swatstika icon but from the act of hatred and violence that happened at that time.

    I hope your husband can translate the true (not Western) meaning of the symbol and relate to that. The intent I gather is a blessing and celebration of the goodness in life, which no matter what tragedies stain our past, we should focus on the joys of our present.

    I'm sure I didn't cover the depth of this hot button topic, but thank you for being so serious and thoughtful as well as side acheingly funny.

  13. A really interesting and well written thought provoking post. I find the swatstika a horror to see - but not sure i would if it was in india and if it was like the one in your first picture.I do think that it is sometimes the intent and understanding behind it. Then again why would you display something if you know it will offend - more than offend - intimidate? This particular image has been used to reprisent the most awful period in history and should only be seen to educate. you certainly have given me lots to think about - and i thank you. xxxx

  14. I do think context is all, and I don't see how we in the west can expect other cultures and faiths to drop a symbol which for them represents something peaceful and compassionate. We don't get to decide that, despite the hateful connotations which it now has for us, since the Nazis misappropriation of it.
    The language thing is a whole other fascinating topic. I am old school, I know, and cannot get on with the use of many words, supposedly in jest, which actually seem hurtful and to further entrench many prejudices. Language does matter, it's what we have to describe and name our world, it reflects AND shapes that world, and we should be thoughtful about how we do that.
    Interesting post, Lakota. xxx

  15. I think it's about time we let people take back something that was always sacred to them. Why should we let Hitler ruin and own this symbol? I think in a way by being bothered by it we are letting him win. Cultural jews crack me up, I mean the idea of it. What does it really mean anyway? Am I one because my Grandma was Jewish but I don't go to Synagogue. I can see where someone who lived through and survived the Holocaust would still be bothered by this symbol but honestly the rest of us should just probably get over it. No offense. You made me think hard on this one.
    Thanks for sharing.

  16. I agree with Se~nora Rosebud. And thank you for making me read so much. My brain needed that.

  17. Growing up in the 50's and 60's I find the modern attitude to the swastika slightly bewildering. I was aware from quite young that the symbol had its origins in the east simply because I happened to have an old Rudtard Kipling book that had it imprinted into the cover design along with an elephant. As a child it was commonplace to see swastikas, usually because little boys drew war pictures all the time and they always drew swastikas on the baddies.

    I do find it interesting that many of the people who seem to be so offended by the swastika are younger than I am, I am a generation away from the war and the holocaust, the people who take the greatest offence seem to be a generation (or even two) below mine. Granted I am not Jewish and only recently have a friend who is Jewish, so have no view of that perspective.

    It feels as though this is all part of the world of politicsl correctness which has grown in recent years which seems (in Britain) to be pushed as part of an educated, white, middle class group who are slightly detached from the real world - I am educated, white and middle class - just not of quite the same thinking. We live in a world where certain words that were acceptable sometimes are deemed unacceptable by "the powers that be". eg Black people are "black" not "coloured" despite my West Indian friend calling herself coloured. Is she wrong, or politically incorrect?

    The design outside the hotel did not look like a swastika to me, it looked like a windmill, it would not have even occurred to me to think of it as a swastika. I think perhaps younger people are being, almost unconsciously, to only see the bad in a swastika because the holocaust is taught in schools today, but no-one is teachjing the other meaning, which one could say is politically incorrect in Britain today when to so many English residents it is a symbol of good luck, joy and happiness. Perhaos rather than thinking that people in India are being tactless or offensive we should turn that on its head. Why not reclaim the original meaning of the swastika, through education and attitude. Why not wrest it back from the thugs who wish to use it today and use it positively, in the way it was meant to be used. I doubt that Indian schools teach a great deal about the war or the holocaust and probably feel quite distant from the reasons for offence that the west feels today.

    To play devil's advocate here, it could be said that the fascist west wish to impose their doctrines upon the Eastern Continent. Isn't that a bit Victorian and imperialistic?

    Interesting and thought provoking blog, thank you.

  18. Symbols have power and meaning, I don't have a problem with the one in the hotel. It looks different then the Nazi one. I have a really hard time when a costume calls for a swastika armband( The Producers/ Caberet) And have flat out refused to make them for the set changers in another show. I make red armbands, with blank white circles. Here in south Georgia some people fly the Confederate flag---the stars and bars-- and don't get why African-Americans get pissed about it. Think about that. Anyway, it a good thing to talk about these issues. It makes us understand the rest of the world.

  19. I thought this is a fascinating post and raised lots of questions in my mind about my feelings. My knee-jerk emotion to a swastika is revulsion whichever way round it is even though I am aware it was a peaceful symbol before the Nazis. It doesn't matter if it's turned on it's side, research has shown that even babies recognise symbols if they're upsidedown, it's hard-wired into us.

    Karen Lizzie made an interesting point too about words and how some are no longer acceptable. The charity for cerebal palsy (Scope) used to be the Spastics Society. Very recently I have seen 2 respectable American bloggers use the word "spazz out" iro themselves and my instant reaction was revulsion. I asked one if the word is as offensive in the States as it is in the UK and she said it's considered ok to use it about yourself but not as an insult to others. I can see that if you have CP yourself and want to "reclaim" the word like some black people use the "n" word among themselves. But to my English ears it still sounded wrong in the same way the swastika jars in my mind.

    Thanks for being thought-provoking this week.

  20. I do take offence at the sight of a swastika but it does depend on the context. I would not be offended by the Hindu connection but I am when it is the swastika associated with Nazism. I feel it is offensive to a lot of people and not just Jewish people.

    I would also like to point out that I am Jewish and like your husband more culturally that religiously.

  21. Surprisingly, The Phoenix and I are constantly thrashing out similar discussions. My non-Jewish parents exposed me to evidence of the Holocaust horrors from a tender age so when we moved to Fiji, where the population majority were Hindu Indians, I was shocked at the use of the emblem in every day life there. I found it difficult to get used to it as a good luck sign. But I believe that the use of the Hindu swastika is the right of every Hindu in any country to display as they wish. I am sure however, that Hindus in westernised countries would be unlikely to display the emblem. Now, when I see the neo-Nazi use of the bastardised version of the sign, I feel physically ill and highly offended. I relive the images and film stock I was shown of the atrocities that I was shown throughout my childhood. I guess that means I have learned to separate the meanings of the sign, but it's only because I've learned both meanings of the swastika in context. I think it is important for cultures and religions to retain and honour their traditions so if I was visiting India I would not be upset by the sign and would expect to see it everywhere. I don't think I would buy souvenirs and travel trophies with the swastika on them, unless they were so very, very obviously Hindu-looking. Thanks for this excellent post! xo

  22. very interesting stuff. i cant even see the swastika in the first image, but the one on the wall of a house-i'd be very upset setting foot in there, not because I'm jewish, but because my nanas brothers were all lost in the war and my friend mum who i know survived a camp and i know a lot about nazism... and that symbol is shorthand for all of it. but the upset would be a misplaced regardless. perhaps one day the original meaning of the symbol will be reclaimed or known more than the nazi version in the west, but i don't imagine so without some concerted plan. but in a way i'm glad that it's original use and meaning has endured for the people to whom it is relevant.

  23. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information.

  24. Interesting post & although i am from India it was interesting to note the reactions from posts. I can relate to why it's hard for West to deal with Swastika but let me tell you that if you can sort your emotions out & deal with it you might be able to embrace it's (Swastika's) beauty.

    Reasons for difficulty :-

    Education is the first solution & second is people's responses.

    E.g. - As soon as European, US, Israel etc. see this symbol they relate it with Nazism, may I ask why they can't relate it to Sub-Indian religions ? It is because they read mostly about Nazism & not about the symbols relation with other cultures.

    Secondly as soon as people see this sign they start thinking that the person is pro-Nazi why they don't go and ask them if they are Hindu, Jain or Buddhist ? This behavior will result in increased awareness about symbol & help in creating a much more tolerating society while at the same time demotivate Pro nazis from using the symbol for personal gains.

    About world war II let me tell you that not many people know about the sacrifices which Indian people had to go through so check these articles :-

    So we also lost many people just like Jews, Britishers & other countries which were involved in the war so to say that this sign is offensive & so we should keep it away from others (who get offended by it) is like telling that people should stop using crucifix or cross as many atrocities of similar nature has been committed in it's name.

    We condemn Hitler but We will not do away with Swastika just because a bad person's name is being associated with it.


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