Can the swastika be rehabilitated? In a word, no

A fashion designer thinks he can rehabilitate the swastika

The Atlantic has an article about a fashion designer who wants to take the stigma out of the swastika. I’m tempted to limit my comment on that idea to a sarcastic “Good luck with that.” But the proposed rehabilitation of the swastika -- a symbol with positive connotations in some cultures -- raises an interesting question. Can a symbol be so tainted by an association with evil that it can never be reinterpreted?

The Atlantic reports:

“Today, there are those who would like to highlight and make use of the swastika’s original meaning. Among them is artist and designer Sinjun Wessin, whose Spiritual Punx line of clothing, accessories and stickers -- which started in 2013 and is designed to ‘inspire people to be more loving and accepting to all’ -- treats the 'swasi' as a feel-good icon. …

"'If the hate is taken away from the symbol by energizing its positive side, then we take away power from the people who want to use it in a hateful way,' Wessin says. 'If we don't do anything and just leave it as negative, then we still let hate win.'"

Wessin stressed that his designs employed "ancient positive versions" of the swastika, not the Nazi version.

Wessin isn’t the first person to try to purge the swastika of its associations with the Nazi regime and its unspeakable cruelties. There long has been a movement to rediscover the swastika’s benign, pre-Hitler symbolism. As a BBC article notes: “The word is derived from the Sanskrit 'svastika' and means 'good to be.' In Indo-European culture, it was a mark made on people or objects to give them good luck.”

My first encounter with swastika revisionism was when some college friends and I toured the Carlsberg brewery in Copenhagen in the 1970s.  At the brewery’s gateway was a statute of an elephant whose saddle blankets were ornamented with -- you guessed it.

It turned out that the swastika had served as a logo for the brewery until, as our elderly guide put it, Hitler “took this beautiful symbol and ruined it.” We were aghast. (On a recent return visit to the brewery -- which has been turned into a beer museum -- I noticed that exhibits of the company’s early advertising were accompanied by a rather cryptic explanation about why the swastika had been retired.)

I’m no semiotician, but I know that symbols can have many meanings. Still, like the burning cross, the swastika is so freighted with negative associations that reinterpretation seems a quixotic enterprise. Its appearance is unsettling even when it's clear that no endorsement of Nazism is intended.

Last year, NBC aired a live production of “The Sound of Music” and critics and viewers alike cringed when the Von Trapp family performed in front of (historically accurate) swastika banners. In 2005, Prince Harry scandalized Britons -- not all of them World War II veterans -- when he sported the symbol on an armband as part of his costume-party impersonation of an Afrika Korps officer.

In some parallel universe, it might be possible to “energize the positive side” of the swastika, but not this one. Our brewery tour guide was right: Hitler ruined it. Forever. 

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3.

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