The Corruption of Powerful Symbols

A US humanitarian food packet

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are surrounded by symbols that play a huge part in our daily activities. Many of us wake up to numbers that beep or chime at us and then it’s off to grab a cup of coffee at the nearby shop where a mythic green siren welcomes patrons with a smile. These symbols are often so recognizable that we sometimes don’t even acknowledge the impact they have on the psyche. Think of all the times you’ve seen a Dunkin’ Donuts sign looming ahead and felt the urge for (more) coffee or a sudden need to obtain a sugar high. Apart from corporate symbols, nations have been historically known to adopt insignias, flags, and banners to represent their countries or empires.

The United States bears one of the most recognizable of all the flags in the world. This recognition is due to the easily distinguishable, yet simple design of “Old Glory.” It also helps that, unlike many countries, the US has enjoyed the luxury of consistency in government, thus maintaining a constant flag design. Furthermore, the amount of aid the US provides countless countries around the world afford opportunities for sharing its “brand.” In fact, most aid packets usually come stamped with the “Stars and Stripes.” Americans should be proud that, in most cases, their flag is truly a symbol of peace, hope, and freedom.

Throughout history symbols come and go, most fading into the deepest depths of antiquity. However, some remain to influence later symbols or perhaps they simply withstand the test of time. Other symbols are repurposed and given new meanings. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

The Star Wars Connection

The Galactic Roundel

Dharma wheel

In Star Wars there is a similar story involving a familiar symbol. Most fans will recognize the Imperial crest. This symbol is seen throughout the Original Trilogy on the helmets of TIE Fighter pilots, AT-AT Drivers, and even as shoulder patches on Imperial crewmen. One may rightfully associate the Imperial symbol with the swastika because both the Empire and the Nazis were evil. Of course, that is true, but there is a much deeper story behind the symbol adopted by the Empire.

The Imperial insignia is actually based on the Galactic Roundel which dates back thousands of years to the Bendu monks. For those who don’t know, the Bendu monks were instrumental in creating the Je’daii Order, predecessor to what became the Holy Order of the Jedi Knights. The Bendu believed the number nine signified the benevolent presence of the force and unity of the galaxy, and so they developed a symbol (the Galactic Roundel) consisting of a circle with eight spokes unified by a single core. In our world such a symbol could be paralleled with the Buddhist dharma wheel.

Many years later, the Galactic Roundel and its understood message of unity were adopted as the icon of the Galactic Republic. Some years after that, Chancellor Palpatine (later Emperor) altered the Roundel by reducing the spokes from eight to six. Palpatine further defaced the symbol into what ultimately became the Imperial Crest (see pictures below for a comparison).

Corrupted Republic Emblem

Imperial Crest

Under Palpatine’s rule, Imperial domination resulted in the enslavement of countless alien species and the deaths of millions of innocent civilians, most notably in the destruction of Alderaan. With the Imperial crest as their standard, the Imperial Navy paved its way through the galaxy marking every turn with devastation and injustice. Ultimately, the Empire came to represent all that was evil in the galaxy.

The Alliance Starbird

Eventually the Empire was defeated and the Rebel Alliance succeeded in restoring the Republic. Due to the oppression and atrocities of the Galactic Empire, the once peaceful Roundel grew to be reviled within the New Republic and, despite its positive association with the Old Republic, the Roundel was ultimately replaced by the Alliance Starbird. This transition of a once revered symbol into a loathsome insignia is reminiscent of how the swastika is often viewed negatively today due to the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Just as Hitler transformed the swastika into a symbol of hate and racism, Palpatine corrupted the Galactic Roundel into a shape that became synonymous with Imperial tyranny.

The Swastika: An Image Redefined

The swastika is one of the most widely recognized symbols today. Each year during a World War II discussion, I put a swastika on my Promethean Board and then ask my students to tell me what they see. The students may not consistently know it’s called a swastika, but they will most certainly refer to it as “Hitler’s symbol” or the “Nazi symbol.” After letting them fall for the trap, I zoom the image out to reveal that it’s actually a swastika on a statue of the Buddha. Most students seem confused and occasionally I’ll get the ridiculous question, “Was Buddha a Nazi?” Of course he wasn’t, but the image does spark a powerful question, “How did the swastika go from a symbol of good to a symbol of hate?”

First, understand that the swastika is an ancient symbol dating back to the Neolithic Age. The oldest known swastika, a carved ivory figurine, dates to 10,000 BC. The swastika’s true origin and purpose is not known. Some theories view the symbol as a representation of the sun while others believe the swastika signifies the four aspects of nature (sun, wind, water, and soil) or the four seasons. What is certain is that the swastika is found throughout the world, represented similarly within many past and present cultures.

An Ancient Greek doll adorned with swastikas

A typical Hindu swastika

The word swastika comes from the Sanskrit word svastika, “su” meaning “good” paired with “asti” denoting “it is” and finally the diminutive suffix “ka.” Thus the literal translation of swastika is “it is good.”

Today, the swastika remains a revered symbol in the Hindu faith. Hindus use the symbol to evoke “Shakti” or cosmic energy in tantric rituals and will also paint the symbol on their doorways as an invitation to Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. In Jainism, swastikas are commonplace, appearing in all derasars or temples. Jains believe the arms of the swastika represent the four places a soul can be reincarnated: heaven, hell, human, or flora/fauna. The swastika also remains popular in Buddhist iconography.

So, how did this symbol become associated with Hitler and the Nazis? The story of the swastika and Hitler is one that cannot be easily told because there is not a single answer. In the years since World War II historians have written countless chapters and even entire books on the subject of the swastika and the Nazis. For this article I will attempt to keep the explanation as short and simple as possible.

The re-emergence of the swastika can be traced to another German, Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the ancient city of Troy in the late 19th Century. His discoveries drew public fascination and amongst the ancient artifacts he found were relics adorned with swastikas. The symbol was instantly connected with similar objects known to exist in Germany and in Asia. This led Schliemann to associate the swastika with the migrations of the Indo-Europeans or individuals who migrated from Western Asia into Europe. Schliemann once stated the swastika was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.” This belief would later play a key role in the Aryans (people of European and West Asian descent) being touted as a master race, for which the swastika would become a symbol. During the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the swastika also became a popular symbol of good luck, particularly amongst pilots (The Finnish Air Force continues to use the swastika in their flag and insignia).

It was during this time the idea that Aryans were the highest level of humanity began to take root. Such belief was further enhanced by the emerging and popular idea that Nordic or Germanic people were superior and more racially pure than other Eastern European Aryans. The Nazis, in their Nordicist and skewed version of Aryan invasion, believed the Aryans of India to be the ideal invaders and adopted their swastika as a symbol of the so-called “master race.” This idea of racial superiority would be the crux of Hitler’s push for expansion and domination.

There are numerous theories as to how Hitler came to choose the swastika, but one cannot deny the already growing recognition of the symbol amongst Germans and its association with the equally burgeoning idea of Aryan racial superiority. It is possible that Hitler simply adapted a common and popular icon of his day. The coloration of the Nazi flag, however, does have a known meaning. In Mein Kampf Hitler states the following of the swastika and the Nazi’s new standard:

"And a symbol it really is! Not only that the unique colors, which all of us so passionately love and which once won so much honor for the German people, attest our veneration for the past; they were also the best embodiment of the movement's will. As National Socialists, we see our program in our flag. In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man, and, by the same token, the victory of the idea of creative work, which as such always has been and always will be anti-Semitic."

Whatever the true reason Hitler first chose the swastika, the symbol has undoubtedly come to be associated with hate, anti-Semitism, murder, white supremacy and tyranny due to his actions as Führer of Germany. In the West, the commonality of the swastika has all but faded. Many countries, including Germany and France guard against the use of the swastika with strict laws. Most countries, particularly those in Asia, continue to allow the symbol to be used for more peaceful purposes. Let’s not forget that Jains, Buddhists, Hindus and others continue to revere the symbol within their respective religions.

The swastika has survived as a global symbol for thousands of years and only time will tell if this controversial emblem will last thousands more.

More On:

Emperor Palpatine, Galactic Empire, The Galactic Republic, The Jedi Order, Alderaan

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First posted on: April 15, 2014 by Wes Dodgens