Sixty-five years ago today German President Karl Dönitz declared an unconditional surrender to the Allied forces, ending the war in Europe. Berlin had fallen to the Soviets, Hitler had killed himself a week before, and the Third Reich was dead.
The scars from that terrible conflict are slow to heal, and symbols used by the Nazis still cause controversy. When the Hamburg Radisson Hotel remodeled last year, a giant pane of glass in the lobby ceiling had etched designs resembling swastikas, causing a public uproar. When Google Earth revealed a U.S. Navy building built in the shape of a swastika, the Navy promised to spend $600,000 to change the shape of the building.
But the swastika is far older than the Nazis. Cultures all around the world have been using it since before recorded history. Travelers can encounter swastikas in the most surprising places, and it can take a little getting used to.
The word “swastika” is Sanskrit and loosely translates as “lucky” or “auspicious”. It’s one of the oldest symbols in the world and one of its earliest and most enduring meanings is as a symbol of the sun. The one pictured here is from Bongeunsa Temple in South Korea. The Buddhists see the swastika as a symbol of, among other things, dharma (sacred duty) and harmony.
In Hinduism it’s a symbol of Brahma, the creator, although it retains its ancient solar symbolism as well. Because of the great variety of beliefs and practices in Hinduism, it actually has several meanings. Swastikas can be found on temples and private homes throughout India, one of the most visible to travelers being on a riverside temple in Benares. The swastika is sacred to the Jains as well, making India one of the most swastika-heavy countries in the world.
The swastika was used in the West too. Interlocked swastikas are a common motif in Classical art. In more modern times they were used as everything from good luck charms to occult symbols of the Sun. The book The Nazis and the Occult by D. Sklar traces the symbol’s use through various occult societies in early twentieth century Germany. These societies hearkened back to pagan times and believed the swastika was the sun symbol of the Nordic master race. Many early Nazis dabbled in the occult and it seems this is where the Nazi Party got the idea to put it on their flag and ruin the swastika for the Western World.