The Swastika: Constructing The Symbol

Reviews by Steven Heller
1 862 words10 min read
“[T]he swastika is the only image which remains of Nazism qua Nazism, the one sign which distinguishes farce from terror,” writes Malcolm Quinn in The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol. Bristling at the idea that the swastika might someday be co-opted or satirized by those (or the descendants of those) who suffered under it, as African Americans have reclaimed the word “nigger,” or worse, be transformed back into a benign mark used to signify good fortune, Quinn says never! Although he admits that virtually any icon can be “desymbolized” by making it historical, the Nazi swastika is the exception which cannot—and should not—be renamed or “resymbolized.” In Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler says the swastika “has been and always will be anti-Semitic.” And as if this assertion alone did not alter its historical meaning, Quinn argues further, that “Nazism was fascism plus the swastika” and any contemporary application is forever tainted by the heinous crimes it represented.

Yet of all the symbols and marks produced by ancient and modern man the swastika is the most contradictory. For thousands of years it was a thing of mystery that surfaced in otherwise disparate cultural iconographies throughout the Near and Far East, Europe, North America, and Africa, and was presumed by some scholars to be an ancient tool (a barometric pressure device perhaps) that over time was transformed into a sacred artifact and reduced to a graphic form. During the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries it was imbued with commercial attributes which when applied as trademarks for such products as fruit, medicine, tobacco, and matches inspired trust. The swastika had myriad other benign uses: The author Rudyard Kipling appropriated it as his personal logo; in World War I the U.S. 15th Infantry adopted it as their emblem; and even the Girls Club of America named their monthly magazine The Swastika (and awarded its members a diamond studded swastika pin). But at the same time as these adolescent girls coveted their personal swastikas, a struggle for the right to own the hakenkreuz or “hooked cross” was waged by those who wanted its hypnotic strength to represent the creed of nationalism and the ideology of racism. Even before the Nazis emerged the swastika was adopted by a unit of Bavarian Freikorps, the illegal paramilitarists who sought the violent overthrow of the Weimar Republic. Later adopted by Adolf Hitler as the symbol of the “victory of Aryan man,” the swastika not only stood for the Nazi party (and ultimately the nation) but the party, writes Malcolm Quinn, facilitated the mission of the swastika, “which was to unite a racist (anti-Semitic) image with an Aryan racial identity."


The Nazi swastika is the textbook example of the power of a single symbol to ignominiously alter human behavior, however, until now there has not been such a book targeted at the makers of symbols—graphic and industrial designers. In 1896 the Smithsonian Institute realized the symbol’s ubiquity was worthy of scholarly attention and commissioned the first exhaustive study by Thomas Wilson (The Swastika, The Earliest Known Symbol and its Migrations, with Observations on the Migration of Certain Industries in Prehistoric Times, 1896), which was followed by various other serious and cultist analyses of the historic swastika and Fylfot (its Anglo-Saxon relative). The cultist approach is represented by Edward Butts’ privately published Statement Number 1: The Swastika, an oddly obsessive exegesis that uses parapsychology to deconstruct the symbol. After the Nazis came to power in 1933 Norman Brown’s The Swastika, a Study of Nazi Claims of its Aryan Origin (1933) and Norman Rev’d Walter’s The Real History of the Swastika (1939) were academic refutations of Hitler’s ownership of the mark. But Malcolm Quinn’s The Swastika Constructing the Symbol is really the first contemporary book (which originated as a scholarly paper) to offer a “reading” of the symbol that includes not only its ancient history but the often mythologized reference to the swastika as a modern corporate identity.

What makes Quinn’s analysis of the swastika ultimately so compelling is that he generously summarizes the primary research on ancient and modern history while proposing many original ideas about the swastika’s symbolic role during and after the Nazi period. Moreover, his “Introduction: Reading The Swastika,” is an exceptionally important critique of what he calls “consequences of misappropriation” which forever confused the East Indian Svastika (which had its own significance within India) for the Nazi emblem which became inextricably wed to the Hitlerian cult of German nationalism and racism. In this self-contained “paper” within the book Quinn says it is more important to read than react to the swastika, and argues that “the best way to approach the swastika is to show that the atrophy of history and the deracination of tradition has a history and tradition of its own. Unfortunately, many anti-Nazi and anti-fascist strategies have succeeded only in reinforcing the stasis of the swastika, rather than making it fully historical.” Goebbel’s May 19, 1933 decree, the “Law for Protection of National Symbols,” insured the transcendence of the swastika by preventing its unauthorized commercial use. But Quinn argues that the Allies’ de-Nazification legislation passed in the closing months of World War II which outlawed the swastika as being indivisible from the Nazi party, inadvertently increased its already incredible symbolic power. The famous film clip of the three story concrete swastika atop the Nuremberg stadium being blown to pieces (the opening sequence of Judgement at Nuremberg) marked the end of Nazi Germany but the beginning of a continued cultist reverence for the symbol.

Quinn divides the rest of the book into three parts: “Symbol” explores history and mythology; “Ornament” addresses the Nazi swastika in terms of expression, rhetoric, mimetics, and mass ornament; and “Swastika” analyzes its commodification and the false relationship between it and modern corporate identity. The sum of these three parts is indeed an exhaustive, though remarkably concise, report on the swastika’s past and present, but the most intellectually stimulating is the “Ornament” section. Here Quinn confronts the unique position of the swastika as typography; like German Fraktur it was appropriated from elsewhere but was so inextricably wed to German culture that Quinn says people did not “write in German, they write in Germany.” This section also vividly describes the swastika as sign, symbol, and most importantly as the synonym for the Führer and the nation.

In Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess declares that “Hitler is Germany, Germany is Hitler.” Quinn goes a step further in stating that, “When Hitler is absent in Riefenstahl’s film, his place is taken by the swastika, which, like the image of the Führer, becomes a switching station for personal and national identities.” This transformation of the man into the symbol has religious overtones that were deliberately exploited by the Reich’s leading designers, Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer, who created a “decorative scheme” of swastika ornament throughout Germany ("graphology of the Volkgeist") which was as pervasive as the Führer’s image. Hitler wanted the heraldry of the swastika and its contemporaneous form to symbolically bridge medievalism and modernity. Or as Quinn writes: “...[T]he Nazi swastika, whose modernist dynamic slant quite literally balanced the image on a fulcrum between the myths of the past and a future race... The swastika offered the paradoxical solution of a ‘return to the future’ and a fictitious path through the uneven political terrain of post-1918 Germany"


In “Ornament” Quinn also addresses non-Nazi uses of the Swastika, for example, as part of the first Weimar Bauhaus emblem. Paul Klee studied the swastika in Pedagogical Sketchbook as a dynamic assemblage of other basic geometries. In this sense the swastika could easily be confused as a totally Modern form and so antithetical to the Nazi aesthetic. To avoid any relation to “degenerate” formalism the swastika was presented by the Nazis to the German people through what Quinn refers to as “gestural repetition and self-signification.” Indeed at choreographed pageants, athletic events, and party rallies masses of participants became the swastika. In turn, writes Quinn, “the swastika was the sign in which a modern mass was encouraged to see itself as an ancient community, a Volksgemeinschaft.” Through the swastika the Nazis colonized the visual world as they did the occupied territories.

In the last “Swastika” chapter Quinn focuses on a theme of great interest to the graphic and industrial designer in his potentially controversial comparison of the Nazi swastika and the corporate logo. “The swastika made German nobodies into Aryo-Germanic somebodies in much the same way as the commodity sign continues to set standards for judgments of value, class, and gender,” he writes. However, for anyone obtuse enough to draw simplistic conclusions Quinn adds, “However, part of the appeal of the swastika lay in its ability to cut across social stratification by commodity and wealth with its single division of race, whilst at the same time leaving those distinctions intact, distinctions which a Marxist form of state would immediately have erased.” Moreover, the swastika offered such a potent “value additive,” in the argot of today’s marketing specialist, that its use was officially legislated and policed so not to be trivialized. According to Geobbel’s regulations of May 19, 1933: “if the symbol is used on an object or in connection with it, it may only be used with the object itself has an inner relation to the symbol [i.e. a badge or medal]...The use of symbols for publicity purposes is in any case forbidden.” Although superficial similarities exist between corporate identity systems and the regulations applied to the swastika, Quinn takes great pains to differentiate the differences between this exclusively national manifestation and the scores of commercial marks that were among Germany’s graphic legacy. Although Hitler earned personal money licensing his picture on postage stamps used in occupied countries, the swastika was never so exploited and only used to make political and ideological profit.

For all its strengths, The Swastika: Constructing The Symbol suffers from unsmooth editing. The transitions from section to section are rocky. Although the “Introduction: Reading the Swastika” is thoroughly engaging in its complex originality, “Symbol” dryly reiterates ancient history from other sources. The value of “Ornament” lies in its expert interpretation of existing ideas and Quinn’s own theses, but not in its writing, which quivers a bit under the weight of too many quotations. Finally, “Swastika” is an admirable plunge into otherwise falsely charted waters. Quinn definitely did his homework (even I am quoted on the non-Nazi uses of the swastika from an article in Print, “Symbol of the Century,” 1992) citing many sources ranging from the history of the swastika to the practice of corporate communications. His notes are also revealing in that for the scholar of the swastika or any powerful symbol they raise some interesting new directions.

Publishers say, and it is quoted in this book, that “sex and swastika’s sell books.” Ultimately this is among the most important books about design history and design’s role in political and social persuasion that has been published to date. Proving in a different way that the swastika continues to exercise unparalleled influence.