Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism. Become a Member »

Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.

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

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....

6 replies on “The Ethics of Examining the Swastika, the Energizer Bunny of Hate Symbols”

  1. 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.

    Wait — what? Are you kidding me? If you’re going to accuse someone of being a white supremacist, you better have some clear evidence. This piece provides zero evidence, so that’s a despicable slur.

    This isn’t much better:

    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.

    That’s a bit of ahistoricism that’s so laughable it’s self-refuting. We don’t need biographies of dictators? Jesus.

  2. This faux book report never should have been published. It’s shameful to allow a forgone conclusion to be published masked as if it were an actual book review. Heller is an esteemed expert on graphic design and graphic symbolism with a career spanning decades. It makes perfect sense within that context he would want to examine the most controversial graphic symbol of the past century.

    To draw a conclusion about the author with zero evidence, admit you didn’t even read the book in its entirety demonstrates an inherent lack of professionalism and removes any credibility from the author and this so-called essay.

    It seems even more meaningful as a jew to address this symbol’s history given our current political dynamic. Understanding how fascism’s mechanisms have remained consistent for a century seems an important lesson for today, especially for a community that is at high risk from its potential impacts. I doubt Hannah Arendt took pleasure in writing about Adolf Eichmann but understood the importance of revealing the philosophical and historical root of his evil actions. Looking away from painful topics is exactly the kind of reasoning that allows fascism to come to power in the first place.

  3. As an immigrant ,a visual artist , a graphic designer not having read the book yet I can not but help adding my opinion to this dialogue and with humble apology.First as a graphic artist I would say sign of swastika was identified long back before western war philosophy had been conceptualized as a marker.It showed a linear rhythm of any movement and also recycling of any given momentum one can say.To capture this liearism as a hate symbol happened through mind of NAZI cult-ism.It still resides in minds of cultists and cult aesthetics.This does not enhance or decrease those movements expressed by human mind looking into nature ,decoding through visual senses.Let it be a cultist’s refuge , let it be a visual artist’s delight, let all aesthetics become one if we have to end this conversation without any education of this symbol for any visual interpretation.

  4. While I generally find articles on this site incisive and well-analyzed, this one is bordering on nonsensical. This line in partcular:

    Invoking the swastika’s history as an ‘ancient Indian symbol of peace or something’ is a classic argument of needless provocateurs.

    — is dismissive of, oh … the entire genesis of the swastika as a symbol?

    I’m of Hindu descent and I am uncomfortable seeing the swastika used in the West, because I grew up in the West and it represents fascism here. But there should be some thought given to the symbol’s rightful place, within an Eastern religious context, where it first began. The violence done by the Nazis in appropriating (and horrendously weaponizing) Indian concepts as a means through which to persecute Jewish people was a violence done to Indian culture, as well.

    (I am not comparing these violences — one is clearly of a more devastating scale — but nevertheless they do coexist.) Books like this may not be comfortable, and I do believe that they have an ethical responsibility to condemn the genocide perpetrated under the swastika flag, but I too think that the knowledge is useful. Letting that knowledge “fall into the dustbin of history” leaves the Nazis with the last word on the subject. What good is that?

  5. My family left Europe after WW II. My father was sick of the place, being a Polish POW in Germany from late 1939 to early 1945, my uncle was killed by German troops. I learned later my mother was a “guest worker” of the Nazi regime, pressed into making munitions. My oldest half-sister was born during this time and has a swastika on her birth certificate. Books like these are sadly necessary. Because what do you tell people who run into swastikas from other times, places, and cultures? Avert your eyes? Stop thinking? Not know your enemy?

  6. Thought makes you think. The question is why, how, and where. Having an open mind keeps thought from dying.

Comments are closed.