Why the swastika can't be rehabilitated - Macleans.ca

Why the swastika can’t be rehabilitated

Hitler co-opted a symbol that, for Canada’s growing South Asian population, stands for good fortune and well-being. Redeeming it has proven difficult.

Swastika, Ontario. (P199/Wikimedia Commons)

Even after the war, residents of Swastika, Ont., refused to change the name of their village (P199/Wikimedia Commons)

There’s a certain feeling Corey Fleischer gets from blasting his power washer at a graffitied surface and watching the paint of a swastika melt away. “It kind of—” he says, pausing to find the words, “it’s a euphoric feeling. It’s like a drug.”

Over the last seven years, Fleischer has become the go-to man for Montrealers wishing to get swastikas and other offensive imagery erased from public and private property. When he got a call in mid-August about two ship anchors that served as decorations in a park outside the city, each embossed with a swastika, he knew he was about to get his fix. His moment of bliss was interrupted, however, when the town’s mayor and a team of police officers showed up to shoo him away from the artifacts, but not before he took his power washer to one of the anchors.

Those swastikas, it turns out, had no connection to Nazis or anti-Semitism. They were from English ships that long predated the Second World War. Fleischer didn’t know that at first because the anchors were mislabeled. Had he known, he says he would have erased them anyway.

On the heels of controversy surrounding confederate statues in parks, the anchor incident raises another question about public displays of potentially offensive imagery. Specifically: Is the swastika acceptable when taken out of the context of white supremacy?

Before the Nazis co-opted the swastika as the banner under which they triggered a devastating world war and killed 11 million people, the symbol of South Asian origin existed for millennia as a sign of good fortune and well-being. By the early 20th century, western cultures were embracing the swastika, too. It became a popular emblem on sports jerseys; Canada was home to both the Windsor Swastikas in Nova Scotia and the Fernie Swastikas in B.C. (both teams disbanded before Second World War). In 1906, a northern Ontario town was named Swastika, which the provincial government tried renaming during Second World War, mounting a new sign for the town of “Winston,” as in Churchill. But the residents resisted, reinstalling a new Swastika sign with the message: “To hell with Hitler, we came up with our name first.” The name hasn’t changed to this day.

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The community, now part of Kirkland Lake, Ont., is a social outlier with regard to the swastika. Today, you can’t utter the words Nazi or Hitler or the Holocaust in the West without conjuring images of the hooked cross, and vice versa. The swastika is indelibly linked to anti-Semitism and racism in general. It’s why people are shocked, if not offended, by a town named Swastika, even if it has nothing to do with Nazis. But in the decades since the war, there have been a number of fringe attempts to reclaim the swastika as the auspicious symbol it was, and still is, in many cultures. The late Canadian artist who went by the name ManWoman was a fierce advocate of the non-Nazi swastika. He sported over 200 tattoos of the symbol and wrote a book titled Gentle Swastika. In 2013, tattoo artists around the world organized a Learn to Love the Swastika campaign by offering free swastika ink to raise awareness about the icon’s history. This year marked the 8th annual International Swastika Rehabilitation Day. And in New York, Buddhist priest Toshikazu Kenjitsu Nakagaki was recently on the speaking circuit promoting his new self-published book The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross, and making the case for the symbol’s revival.

To date, none of these efforts has taken hold. “Symbols take on cultural meaning based on their social context,” says Christopher Todd Beer, a sociology professor at Lake Forest College near Chicago. “When Hitler’s Third Reich used the swastika, it became embedded in our collective memory to mean white supremacy. In the western world,” he continues, “there’s not enough memory of the swastika as a symbol with any other meanings for anyone to reclaim it and have it be widely accepted.”

There is, however, a growing South Asian population in the West with a wholly different collective memory around the swastika. The most recent census data shows that 1.6 million Canadians are of South Asian descent. And close to 900,000 people in Canada identify as Buddhist, Jain or Hindu—three religions wherein the swastika features prominently.

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Bhaskaranand Sharma is a Hindu priest at a 50-year-old temple in a west-end Toronto neighbourhood. Above his front door, on a duplex across the street from the temple, is an eye-catching black swastika. “It’s good luck,” Sharma says in broken English, gesturing to the symbol before heading into the temple. Inside the house of prayer, there’s a wall dedicated to shrines to various Hindu gods. Above them hangs an orange banner with a repeating swastika motif. “The swastika is for Ganesha,” says Sharma, showing me to the first, most distinguished statue in the room. Ganesha, recognizable by its elephant head, is widely viewed in Hinduism as the remover of obstacles; the bringer of good luck and prosperity. It’s often the first god worshipped at the beginning of a ceremony or prayer, sometimes by drawing a swastika. Sonia Singh, a member of the temple, tells me it’s common for Hindus to have a swastika above their front door—even in Canada. She has one similar to Sharma’s on her home. For the most part, Singh says neighbours understand that the symbol has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or hate. When anyone does ask, she simply tells them it’s a peaceful sign of worship. “Most people understand when I explain it,” she says.

An anchor with a swastika on it is shown in a park in Pointe-des-Cascades, Que., west of Montreal, Thursday, August 24, 2017. (Graham Hughes/CP)

An anchor with a swastika in a park in Pointe-des-Cascades, Que., west of Montreal (Graham Hughes/CP)

Fleischer, the Montreal man who removes hateful graffiti, can’t say for sure if he’s ever erased a Hindu or Buddhist swastika. “But I probably would if I saw one,” he says, adding the caveat that he does think there’s a place for the swastika as a religious symbol; just not in public space. Beer is sympathetic to the impulse. “I don’t think people in the West hold any ambiguity about its meaning,” he says, implying that a Hindu swastika out of context, for example, still implies white supremacy. And when so-called white nationalists, like the ones at the rally in Charlottesville, use the symbol as a emblem for their cause, that association with racism is reinforced. Re-appropriating the swastika isn’t going to happen soon, he says.

“And why should we bother,” adds Rudhramoorthy Cheran, a Sri Lankan-born Tamil poet and sociology professor at the University of Windsor. “Appearance isn’t what matters; substance is what matters,” he says. “As long as we can have the substance without this particular appearance, it’s fine.”


Why the swastika can’t be rehabilitated

  1. We have lots of swastikas on old buildings in Ontario……and Kitchener was once name Berlin

    We think we’re important and permanent now……but Time will move on.

    ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

  2. First things, first! No one is going to throw the baby with the bath water. Swatika has remained a character, a symbol with deep-rooted meanings for some thousands of years to an entire civilization and a Faith that thrived and continues to thrive in the Indian sub-continent. Two-thousand five hundred years ago at the time of the earliest known textual use of the word swastika is in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, where it is used to explain one of the Sanskrit grammar rules, in the context of a type of identifying mark on cow’s ear, the German language has not even born. The Nazi thugs who are not highly known for their erudition used the Swastika for a misadventure and referred to it as the “Hakenkreuz”. In short, Hakenkreuz resembled Swastika. That’s all to it.
    Another important Historical matter to consider is that some five thousand years ago, when the Indo-Aryan people stepped out of Steppes, one branch went westwards and gave rise to the Germanic tribes. The group that descended down to the South, split again became the nations of Iranian people and the Sanskrit using Indian people. Hence it is unavoidable that the many hundreds of Aryan (Non-Semitic) languages that exist today in total disconnect in Europe, in the Middle East, and the Indian Sub-Continent all are likely to have at least a rudimentary connotation of this letter “Swastika” in their writing system especially when considered in the light of their individual vocabulary which consist of thousands of mutually recognizable words.
    If someone is advocating abandoning ages-old “Swastika” only because some thug used it in modern history, let me come up with some better choices for a boycott: The letter “A” and “H” appear prominently in Hitler’s name. Let us banish them too. The space travel and the modern pharmaceutical chemistry have its roots in Nazi Germany too. Let us banish them too. The totally peaceful modern German people must be banished too only because their ancestry cannot be disconnected from the Nazi past. Let us also banish the ultra-pacifist Mongolians only because once upon a time, there lived among them, a man called Genghis Khan who was comparable to Hitler. If we want to talk and do only absurdities, let us take it to the extreme.
    Or we can do the sensible things like what the modern Israel does. Immediately in the aftermath of World War II, when the wound were raw, the pain was unbearable, and a majority of the population had just returned from extermination camps to take up residence in Israel, it was unthinkable to talk about Richard Wagner or his music. Even today, talking about Wagner there might open up some raw wounds, but not his music. The average Israeli with his higher than average education and tastes, understands the difference between enjoying music and applauding Richard Wagner.
    In Indian philosophical thought, religious practice and Hindu Mythology, the word Swastika stands for production of good effects – Su (good) and Asti (fortune) when used in right hand orientation and destruction of bad effects when used in left-hand orientation. The left-hand oriented Swastika is called Sauwastika and very prominent in Indian Buddhist thoughts where it stand for destruction of all evils.
    In short, just because the Nazi Hakenkreuz which signifies the pure Aryan race of blonde, blue-eyed Germans and that Hitler “stole” the Swastika, and perverted it for his own ends, the Hindus not yet ready to equate their deities with Hitler. In the West, the only person who made the “Swastika” familiar was Adolf Hitler so it cannot be saved but in the East, thousands and thousands of volumes on Hindu thought over two thousand five hundred years had made use of the letter “Swastika” and therefore it cannot be made to disappear. I hope this makes everything clear.
    I always get this funny and queasy feeling when someone refers to a Hakenkreuz as a Swastika and I hope this settles the matter once and for all!

    • Westerners dwell on the surface. Thank you for taking the time to pass on your knowledge.

  3. The symbol has been co-opted, by our media, for a specific purpose of propaganda.

    When it is trotted out, it’s ok to hate. That can be very useful.

    It’s also a get out of jail card, forever, for the enemies of the symbol, useful.

    The one story providing meaning to the symbol cannot by law be scrutinized with science and history. This is both convenient and necessary.

    Yes, the symbol is still being co-opted and many people have been and will be harmed with its recent propaganda value.

  4. This symbol carries extremely negative meanings for many people-it’s associated with the systemic annihilation and torture of millions. If eastern cultures must maintain it as part of their religious expression, please do the courtesy of keeping it out of the public eye. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be, as a holocaust survivor or the relative of one, to be driving down the street and to be assaulted once again by this image.

    In addition, by insisting that it should be rehabilitated because it was originally a positive symbol risks normalizing it and desensitizing us to its use. And while buddhists may see nothing wrong with this, it’s still very much the go-to symbol for white supremecists. And white supremacy is not something we want to normalize, correct?

    • A cross is a symbol of execution.

      People wear it everyday.

      • Yes but it is not a crime to scrutinize the Christian narrative with history and science.

        • Isn’t a crime to scrutinize Nazism or Hitler either.

          • It is a crime to scrutinize the story of the holocaust.

            That story is what gives the symbol its power and value as propaganda.