Books

The Ethics of Examining the Swastika, the Energizer Bunny of Hate Symbols

Steven Heller’s latest edition of The Swastika and Symbols of Hate begs the question: if one were truly interested in divesting the symbol of its power, would it not be better to let it fall into the dustbin of history?

A visual history of the swastika as a motif, excerpted from The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (2019, Allworth Press) (all images courtesy Allworth Press)

Steven Heller opens his latest treatise, The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (2019, Allworth Press) by establishing the symbol now associated with Nazis as a “visual obscenity.” This acknowledgement serves as a framework for understanding the over 200-page exploration that follows, but comes 10 pages into the book, by which time the reader has already encountered several photographs, political cartoons, and various representation of Nazi regalia and culture. “If you want to know what the logo for hate looks like,” writes Heller, “go no further.”

One rightly imagines this book to be a tough a read for anyone of good conscience, but for someone like me, whose family line and continued existence stands in direct defiance of the stated agenda of Nazism, I had to ask myself: what is the point of this exercise? The point, for me, is to examine the power of a symbol. One cannot be concerned with art without a belief in the power of symbolism, and — as Heller notes there are few symbols as potent as the swastika. Other symbols of hate — say, the Confederate flag, which is also (finally) experiencing a moment of being recognized as culturally destructive and irredeemable — were expressly designed to engender division and the oppression of certain groups, but as Heller writes, the swastika is an ancient symbol that was “hijacked and perverted, twisted into the graphic embodiment of intolerance.”

This history, and the swastika’s unfortunate modern-day resurgence under the aegis of the alt-right hate movement, for example, are all covered in Heller’s detailed examination of this, the Energizer Bunny of hate symbols. This is not Heller’s first pass at the swastika; it appears to be an ongoing professional obsession of the author, who has written a couple dozen books about graphic design, spent time as an art director at the New York Times and several decades with the New York Times Book Review, and who serves as co-chair of the MFA Designer as Author Department at SVA, and Special Consultant to the institution’s President for New Programs. Previous editions of this book seemed to question whether the swastika could somehow live down its association with Nazism and go on to represent better things, but in the introduction, Heller seems to have at last come around to the point of view that the swastika is ultimately beyond redemption.

“To focus an entire book on the swastika arguably intensifies its power and perpetuates its evil, but to ignore it is to allow its representation to go unchecked,” he writes, in the introduction, before continuing:

I no longer believe what I tacitly espoused in the two previous editions of this book: that in time the swastika can (and should) be returned to its benign state when it once represented, among other things, the sun — giver of light. I’m afraid that the swastika will forever be eclipsed by the darkest of shadows.

It seems that Heller’s change of heart has been affected by the continuing employment of the swastika in association with a disturbing public resurgence of white power groups in the US and elsewhere, though I would argue that is hardly a new development. Invoking the swastika’s history as an ‘ancient Indian symbol of peace or something’ is a classic argument of needless provocateurs.

The cover of The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (2019, Allworth Press), by Steven Heller. In this most recent meditation on the swastika, Heller has dropped the subhead, “Symbol Beyond Redemption?” — though that remains the title of the first chapter.

“The swastika holds a special fascination for graphic designers, like myself, who work with trademarks and logos all the time,” writes Heller, in the first section, titled “Symbol Beyond Redemption?” in an echo of his previous editions on the subject. Despite his introduction, which goes out of its way to explicitly condemn the swastika, Heller’s ongoing obsession with its formal elements and power as a symbol reads to me as a low-key white power propaganda agenda masked in “history buff” clothing, or — at best — an attachment to provocative subject matter that grabs more attention, headlines, and book sales than, say, meditations on Art Deco lettering.

Are there really interesting factoids about the swastika’s long history, prior to its integration into Nazi party regalia via unfounded fringe German cult beliefs that it was a sign of an ancient Indo-European elite — an Aryan race — and by extension, a secret heraldry? Yes. These include swastika decorations discovered in 1874 during Henrich Schliemann’s archeological excavation of Homeric Troy, its inclusion as a decorative motif on Etruscan pottery, Cyprian vases, and Corinthian coins.  Schliemann also drew a connection between the swastika and a description of the ancient Hebrew letter “tāw (ת)”, as described in Ezekiel 9:4 — the sign of life, “which was ritualistically written on the forehead of its believers (the reason given for why cult killer Charles Manson had a swastika carved into his forehead).”

The question is: who cares? Devoting 200 pages to understanding the swastika feels a bit like reading the biography of a murderous dictator — there are probably some interesting insights to be gained, but nothing really changes the bottom line about something so irrevocably intertwined with the genocide and suffering of millions of people. If you believe in art and the power of symbols, as I do, there is a sense that they gain power in repetition — that is the lifeblood of propaganda. No matter what Heller says about the swastika, if one were truly interested in divesting the swastika of its power to strike revulsion and terror in people’s hearts, would it not be better to let it fall into the dustbin of history? A symbol can only lose meaning through obscurity, not through scrutiny; it cannot be intellectualized away.

Full disclosure: I couldn’t make it through all 200+ pages of swastika history and Nazi imagery, but of what I did read, nothing made a strong enough case for continuing to propagate the symbol, only to come to the facile conclusion that [SPOILER ALERT] it is, indeed, beyond redemption. I honestly have to question the intentions of anyone who wants to think or read this much about swastikas. It might be time to find another hobby.

The Swastika and Symbols of Hate: Extremist Iconography Today (2019, Allworth Press) by Steven Heller is now available on Bookshop

comments (0)