A charm spinning in blood

October 27, 1994

There are many films which include images of the swastika; in Leni Riefenstahl's notorious Triumph of the Will the city of Nuremberg is transformed into a "swastika world". Less well known, however, is Sam Fuller's attempt to de-Nazify the swastika. His 1958 film Verboten is set in Bavaria towards the end of the Second World War.

In an opening scene, a wounded US army sergeant is tended by a young German woman in the ruins of her home. Pointing to the swastika armband on a portrait of Adolf Hitler, the soldier drawls "That's an old American Indian sign that Hitler took from us." When the woman stares at him, uncomprehending, he points to his epaulette and says: "The 45th division used to wear the swastika right here. We had it long before little Adolf got the idea." In Verboten Fuller attempted to reclaim the swastika as part of the American de-Nazification programme.

The precedent claimed by Fuller in this copyright dispute was perfectly correct. During the First World War, an orange swastika on a red field had been the shoulder patch of the American 45th division. However, its identification as an "old American Indian" sign which had been adopted and militarised by white settlers, repeated the construction which had "Aryanised" the swastika in the 19th century, and which Adolf Hitler had adapted to serve his "mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man".

In Verboten, Fuller tried to place the Nazi sign back into a global context, and established instead that the limits of the globe were the limits of European expansionism. It is this legacy of colonisation that has frustrated attempts to salvage noxious Nazi culture. Punk use of the swastika, which has been described as an heroic example of reclamation, in fact used the Nazi image to slow down the appropriation of punk by the cultural mainstream.

Philanthropic attempts to reclaim a pre-Nazi meaning for the swastika, like efforts to change its post-Nazi significance, only serve to divert attention away from the strategic use of the swastika in Aryanism and Nazism. "Aryan man", a fictitious person occupying the gap between Indo-European language theory and archaeology, possessed neither language nor material remains, but the image of the swastika was employed as evidence of his presence.

At the Paris Exposition of 1889, Michael Zmigrodski, a Polish archaeologist, exhibited over 300 drawings he had made of particular "occurrences" of the swastika. He proposed that the symbol was the ancient heraldic device of the Aryan race. Zmigrodski was working at the outer edge of a constellation of theorists and theories which had gathered around a particular set of swastika signs discovered by the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in his excavations at Troy in the 1870s. In 1871, Emile Burnouf, Schliemann's cartographer and confidant, had assured the archaeologist that the sign Schliemann had noticed adorning numerous objects at Troy was Aryan, and that this same emblem had been "completely rejected by the Jews".

Zmigrodski's address to the tenth International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology of 1889 included the systematic reduction of the "many hundreds" of swastika-like forms mentioned by Schliemann to a list of 65 Aryan swastikas of "pure form", a morphological purge which elided the problem of producing a race out of racism and of establishing an Aryan identity to complete the Aryan sign, by transferring the search for the pure race to the search for a pure image.

Contrast Zmigrodski's "ethnic cleansing" of the Aryan field of vision with the view of Rudolf Virchow, scientist, politician and honorary vice-president of the congress of 1889. Virchow, perhaps best known for having coined the concept of the Kulturkampf to describe Bismarck's "great cultural struggle" with the Catholic Church, had suggested to Schliemann that the wide distribution of the swastika rendered it useless as an index for reading archaeological time. However, it was the swastika's timelessness which made it adaptable to Hitler's Aryanism. On the eve of the First World War, the archaeologist Gustav Kossinna developed the concept of the Kulturkreis to link "Germanic" ethnic groups to geographic regions using material culture; the Nazis subsumed this pan-nationalist concept within the self-contained system of the racist swastika. In the Nazi swastika, "race" was not legitimated by relating excavated material to its geographic context, but rather by the construction and invention of context as a space defined by the material symbol itself. The Nazi swastika was a landmark whose meaning was displaced.

Hitler's inclusion of the swastika within the black, white and red colour scheme of the flag of Bismarck's Reich made explicit this insinuation of the geographic space of the nation somewhere between the political domain of the party and the abstract and mutable space of the Volk. This construction was effectively challenged and inverted by John Heartfield's 1934 photomontage "The old motto in the 'new' Reich: Blood and Iron", showing four axe blades bound together in the shape of a swastika. Heartfield directly attacked the structure of the Nazi symbol, rather than offering an alternative interpretation, thus leaving the swastika visibly intact. His montage broke the chain of reference linking image to image which had constructed the Aryan monument, and replaced the swastika's ahistoric temporal dimension with an historical one. Although Heartfield's specific reference was to the execution of four Communists by the Nazis, the blood shown on his axes posed a more general challenge to the Aryan "bloodline" promoted by National Socialist propaganda and heralded by the display of the swastika. Heartfield's montage also showed that the attempt to transcend time and the displacement of meaning could only be maintained by repression and violence.

The Alberta girls' hockey team photograph taken in 1916 is evidence that the swastika was used in exactly the same way as the symbol on the epaulette of the US army's 45th division was used. But the question of "who was there first" is less relevant than the issue of how the symbol is used to establish precedence per se, to create a foothold in time. It was the desire for such a foothold which motivated Michael Zmigrodski's perverse attempt to construct temporal stability from the fragments unearthed by Schliemann's venture capitalist archaeology. Hitler was to repeat Zmigrodski's fallacious and misplaced appeal to an ancestral time by setting the "Aryan" swastika at the centre of his design of the Nazi flag. The racist swastika from 1889 to 1994 cannot be rehabilitated as text, since this swastika is not a single image with a decodable meaning or an ideological content, but a set of relationships between displaced signifiers whose functioning, as Heartfield showed, must itself be displaced and thus revealed as an historical construct.

Malcolm Quinn is a lecturer in art and design history at Wimbledon School of Art. His book The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol will be published by Routledge this month.

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