It was the symbol adopted by ruthless German führer Adolf Hitler, one of the most-hated men who ever walked the earth. It’s a symbol that represents slaughter of millions of people in perhaps the most destructive of all the wars ever fought. But the history of the Swastika dates back to thousands of years, long before Hitler grew a likeness to it.

The Sanskrit connection

For Hindus and Buddhists in South Asia and elsewhere in the world, the Swastika is still considered a holy symbol. Even today, it can be spotted in generous numbers in temples, book covers, public transport and several other things. It’s a common symbol in Hindu worships and auspicious events, including marriages and birth. Swastika, by origin, is a Sanskrit word which means “good existence”, “well being”, “good luck”, or simply “it is”.

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Not only in South Asia, the Swastika symbol was used in Greece as well. Remains of the symbol were found by famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the ancient city Troy that existed more than 4,000 years ago. Ancient Celts and Druids also used the symbol, as reflected in several excavated artifacts. Swastika was also used by Nordic tribes. Even the early Christians used it, including Teutonic knights, a medieval German military system that later became a fully religious Catholic order. The Swastika is known as “Manji” in Japan, “Wan” in China, “Tetragammadion” or “Tetraskelion” in Greece, and “Fylfot” in England.

19th century revival

The symbol witnessed resurgence in late 19th century, following exhaustive research into the history of the Swastika by Schliemann, who connected the hooked cross specimens unearthed in Troy to pottery of similar shapes found in Germany. Schliemann concluded that the Swastika was a major religious symbol of ancient German ancestors.

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At the turn of the 20th century, The Swastika began to be widely used in Europe. The symbol had several meanings. But it was largely believed to bring good luck and happiness. Soon, however, Schliemann’s work was taken up by the völkisch movements. They were less interested in the history of the Swastika and branded it as a symbol of German nationalism and Aryan identity.

History of the Swastika : Why Hitler Stole It

But all said and done, why did Hitler steal the symbol and make it a Nazi emblem?

When Hitler, the frustrated artist, was put in charge of propaganda for the fledgling National Socialist Party in 1920, he realized that the organization needed a unique and expressive symbol to stand apart from its rival parties. Hitler began hunting for a design which will attract the masses. He zeroed in on Swastika as the Nazi emblem to instill racial purity. The symbol was displayed against a red background.

Also Read: 15 Little Known Facts About Hitler

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Hitler had a convenient, albeit controversial reason, behind choosing “Hakenkreuz” or the hooked cross, as the Swastika was known in Germany, as the Nazi symbol. According to some popular history of the Swastika, it was used by Aryan nomads to India around 2,000BC. Some theories claim that the Aryans had German ancestors and Hitler concluded the symbol to be eternally anti-Semitic.

Regardless of the fanciful history of the Swastika, cooked up by Hitler, the effect of the new Nazi emblem was dramatic and exactly what he wanted, right from the day it was first unfurled before the public. Anti-Semites and unemployed people rallied behind the new Nazi flag. Even the rivals of the party acknowledged the hypnotic effect of the Swastika.

Hitler wrote in his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf: “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, and in the Swastika the vision of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man.”

The Bremen incident

Among the first things Hitler did after he became the German Chancellor in 1933, was to abolish the Weimar Republic flag. The führer decreed on 22 April 1933 that the imperial German tricolor of red, white and black must be flown together with the Swastika. Both the flags were flown on German merchant ships leading to serious diplomatic consequences.

On the night of 26 July, 1935, hundreds of Communists brought out an anti-Nazi rally on a pier of the New York harbor when German merchant liner Bremen was all set to leave for Europe. They tried to board the ship but were fought back by more than 250 policemen and crew members. About 30 demonstrators managed to get on to the ship. They ripped the Swastika flag and threw it in Hudson River. A fierce struggle followed, a police detective was roughed up, and the Communists were evicted.

Also Read: 15 Interesting Facts About Hindu Mythology

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By then, fierce fighting had already spread in the neighboring areas. Police beat the protestors out and arrested four persons for allegedly injuring the detective. Others were arrested for rioting.

Bremen sailed on time. Police escorted the ship to safe waters. While Bremen’s commander praised the New York police for its cooperation, the latter blamed the vessel’s officers for not paying heed to their warning they had sent much earlier.

The German charge d’Affaires in Washington protested the Bremen incident to the US acting secretary of state. The US government pointed out that the demonstration was carried out against the Nazi Party flag and not the German national flag.

Formal adoption of the Swastika

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The entire issue of the German national flag was resolved in September 1935 during the Nuremberg Seventh Reichsparteitag Congress. Hitler announced that the Swastika flag in red, white and black, would henceforth be Germany’s national flag. The Bremen incident had indirectly given the German dictator an opportunity to wriggle out of an imprudent arrangement of flying two flags simultaneously. The Swastika’s official adoption coincided with more widespread practice of racial politics, encouraged by the government, at the behest of Hitler.

The führer’s philosophers

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Also Read: 13 Unbelievable Stories From World War 2

Vicious and crude anti-Semitism, bigoted nationalism and total indifference to the genocide of millions of people, are something that’s not expected from philosophers and thinkers. But that’s exactly what these people chose to do to fan Hitler’s single-point agenda of annihilating Jews. Majority of them, like Martin Heidegger, not only reconciled themselves to the German dictator, but also embraced the Nazi Party’s ideology. They forged elaborate reasons justifying the killing of Jews, persecution of opponents, and occupation of other countries. They went that extra mile to prove their loyalty to Hitler. Heidegger used to attend classes in full military uniform. The hall was decked with Swastikas. Jewish academicians were ousted and that included his mentor Edmund Husserl as well.

The anti-Semitic push

Notwithstanding the history of the Swastika, the new German national flag began to be used to push the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitic agenda, which was adopted in the Nuremberg Reichsparteitag Congress under the formal nomenclature “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour”. Government officials began sporting the Swastika armband.

The law scrapped citizenship rights of the Jews to stay in the Reich. They were not allowed to cast their vote or marry Aryans. All their civic rights were withdrawn, including the right to seek education and employment.

history of the swastika

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Jews found themselves driven out from schools, theaters, libraries, public transport and all other services. Passports began to be issued with the word “Jew” stamped on them. They were not allowed to change their names. Jewish men had to add “Israel” as their middle name, for women it was “Sarah”. Over the next decade, Jews grew paranoid of the Swastika, until the surrender of Germany in World War 2, on 7 May 1945.