When we see a hooked cross, or swastika, on the TV, tattooed on the arm of someone on the street, on a t-shirt, or even a graffiti on a public wall, we can’t help but shudder. It’s a symbol of fascism, white supremacy, and death. We’re horrified by the fact that it continues to exist and be propagated by those who believe in hate over love, in violence over tolerance and understanding.
But actually, this symbol didn't use to mean any of that. Not until the Nazis took it as their coat of arms and ensued a reign of terror all over Europe. The hooked cross predates the Third Reich by a couple thousands of years. Its first meaning comes from the Sanskrit word for wellbeing. However, according to Dr. Jessica Frazier from the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies in an interview with the BBC, swastikas can be observed throughout China, Japan, Mongolia, Indo-European civilizations, the United Kingdom, and even American Indian tribes.
While it might come off as bizarre for all these cultures to share this symbol, researchers say it’s possible that it was a decorative motif for some, while it was a more symbolic figure for ancient India. It could’ve been a religious symbol, as some archaeologists have found clothing from the twelfth century that had embroidered swastikas for protection.
In reality, most of these cultures probably did not call the hooked cross by the name that is now widely related to one of history’s darkest moments. But if we look closely at buildings predating the nineteen thirties, we’re sure to find this motif in plenty of places.
At the Essex County Council headquarters the symbol can also be observed, as it can be at dozens of churches. In Yorkshire, tourists visit the so-called Swastika Stone, which was not called as such until the Victorian era. Several researchers in Hindu Studies believe that calling the motifs swastikas is problematic because it makes people think of Nazi Germany, poisoning the concept of whatever they might have originally have meant.
So is this proof that some things once tarnished are forever changed? Could it be that by culturally appropriating this symbol, the Nazis destroyed another part of the world? Can a symbol be forever linked to death and destruction simply because one group chose to take ownership of what wasn’t theirs in the first place?
From this it can be observed that terrorism is not just an act of violence, but the remaining fear left in the population. Despite several groups’ attempt at separating the hooked cross from Hitler’s regime, the memory still feels too fresh in our minds. By seeing it we are already visually reminded of the horror that gripped Europe and the world during the nineteen thirties and forties.
That’s why an image can be dangerous. Because even after the humans who did these atrocities are almost gone, the visual reminder of what people are capable remains. Several of these buildings have been asked to take down the walls or floors that have swastika motifs on them. But most respond saying that the architectural style predates the Nazi rising. There are legal discussions and academic debates still surrounding it.
What is true is that even almost a hundred years later we cannot change this image from our mind. We as the world’s population are terrified of that grotesque side of humanity rising again. And even if it’s not originally theirs, the symbol of the swastika brings out wounds that are far from healed.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum