The charm that killed millions

The Swastika
August 11, 1995

The swastika, Malcolm Quinn tells us, "was the sign which crucially distinguished the Tiller Girls" - those preachers of military, imperialist misrule - "from the Nuremberg rallies." That the symbol has proved particularly susceptible to manipulation lies perhaps in its singularly uncertain origins.

The swastika has been found at locations as far apart as the Indus Valley and North America. The 19th-century archaeologist Schliemann, who discovered numerous examples at Troy, tried to invest the symbol with both racial and religious significance. Thomas Wilson in 1896 argued that it was at most a good luck charm. Fifteen years later, Andrew Lang proposed that it was so ubiquitous it could only have been an ornament. For North American young ladies at the turn of the century, however, the swastika was simply a logo for a hockey team jersey or perhaps a pattern for earrings.

So how did the swastika get shorn of every association apart from that ascribed to it by Hitler? What precise meaning did he fill the symbol with? And how exactly did the Nazis use their "trademark" in the various genres of propaganda? These worthy issues are all raised by The Swastika. But unfortunately the nearer Quinn gets to the Third Reich itself, the less satisfying his analysis becomes.

Perhaps a lack of empirical sources is part of the problem. True, this book makes reference to some 20 black-and-white plates, but only seven are from the Hitler regime itself. The only Nazi explanation is taken from Mein Kampf. The Triumph of the Will is the sole propaganda film mentioned in the discussion. And, strange to say, only five German-language texts appear in the book's bibliography.

Nor does Quinn help his case by dressing up his arguments in impenetrable language. Non-specialists in the visual arts (and that includes this reviewer) will require substantial patience to thread their way through a text of less than 140 pages. Consider the author's own summary of his chapters: in the first, "the swastika is seen as deracinated and rendered incomplete by being set apart as the sign of the Aryan ancestor"; in the second, "the link between image and identity is explored through the tropes of romantic aesthetics and the half-life of the 'Gothic'"; and lastly, "the logo is seen as effecting a pseudo-exchange between the corporeal and the corporate, supporting rather than transcending the exchange of commodities."

All of this is a shame, because at times provocative points do catch the eye. Most interesting among them is Quinn's idea that the swastika came to embody a message more definite than any verbal message; and that once it was imbued with meaning, the image allowed no room for interpretation.

Martyn Housden is a lecturer in modern and contemporary European history, University of Bradford.

The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol

Author - Malcolm Quinn
ISBN - 0 415 10095 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £25.00
Pages - 176

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