One of the most visceral and globally recognised logos ever created is also a symbol of hate, fear, intolerance, war-mongering, genocide and totalitarian cultism – the Nazi swastika.
The origins of the symbol date back over 5,000 years. In Hindu and Buddhist religions the svastika is a representation of well-being. All corners of the globe have had versions of the bent cross appear in their history. The oldest surviving instance is a figurative carving of a stork in flight on ivory, and it also appears as a fertility symbol in some cultures. In ancient Roman mosaics it is used as a repetitive pattern. Unfortunately, it is the bastardisation by Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party which has become the swastika’s primary modern association.
To the poverty-stricken German masses, recovering from the economic rape indulged in by the winning nations of the First World War, the swastika was a symbol of hope, of excellence, of unity against a common enemy, of the chance to rebuild their country, and make Germany great again.
The National Socialists understood visual power only too well, especially under the direction of Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. The black leather ensemble, the powerful red, black and white of their insignia and the idealised paintings of blonde haired, blue eyed young men and women of the Reich combined to create heady imagery that was fetishistic, over the top and worked incredibly well to brainwash the fragile nation, swept up in enthusiastic fervour. They were selling strength and power, and woe betide anyone who disagreed with the cult-like preaching of their insane leader.
Goebbels commissioned the greatest artists, writers and film-makers of the time to work for the Reich. Some fled to America, sensing the evil that was rising, such as Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis (1927) was one of film buff Goebbels’ favourite movies. Many were killed, either for their ethnicity or daring to disagree with the fascist doctrine. Some stayed and contributed, such as film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triumph of the Will (1935) documented the Nazi Party Congress of 1934, and is a masterpiece of totalitarian propaganda. The sheer scale of the rally is breathtaking in the extreme. Hundreds of thousands joyously celebrate the efficiency and beauty of the Nazi war machine, and raise Hitler to god-like status.
Post-war, such artists faced a life of guilt, shame or execution. They had helped inspire the slaughter of millions of a scapegoated religion or ethnics who didn’t conform to the uber-perfection of the Aryan master race, and had believed in their own hype while it happened. The incriminating evidence was their own work.
Promotion and use of the swastika is now banned in Germany, although it is still used by right-wing extremist groups and fanatical hate-mongers as a symbol of their own ignorance all around the world. It is a potent reminder that, while art can be used to enrich our world with the great beauty of human achievement, it can also be perverted to encourage vile brutality and inflict terrible suffering.