A sign of moral degeneration?
The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?Steven Heller
Allworth Press, £14.95
Is the swastika so tainted by the horrors of Nazism that it cannot, should not, be used again? This important, instructive book gives an emphatic answer. ‘Designers and artists who ignorantly play with the swastika and other Nazi emblems are not only perpetrating a crime against history, they are mutilating a universal language.’
Although Malcolm Quinn covered the same ground not long ago in The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol, there is an urgency to Heller’s account of the swastika’s history that makes it an altogether more compelling book. Heller writes well and clearly. He tracks the migration of an ancient symbol across cultures where it has taken many different, even contradictory meanings. Heller’s quotations show how long the phenomenon of the swastika emblem has attracted anthropologists, archaeologists, political historians and art historians – and his own research has ranged widely to include lively detail, such as the discovery of swastikas in places as unlikely as the tiling pattern of synagogue floors. His account is fascinating and disturbing.
In the early twentieth century the pseudo-scientific sat side by side with mystical racism and occult bigotry. The importance that Adolf Hitler attached to the swastika and its use has been often been quoted from his manifesto, Mein Kampf. Heller’s extract cites the Nazi emblem design as one originally suggested by a dentist member of a racialist secret society. For Hitler, colour had symbolic importance: ‘As National Socialists we see our programme in our flag. In the red we see the social idea of the movement, in the white the national idea, in the swastika the mission of the fight for the victory of the idea, the creative work, which in itself is and always will be anti-Semitic.’
Heller misses the opportunity to discuss the form of the swastika: a simple sign, ideal for graffiti, easily scrawled, painted and sprayed. And its geometry is not analysed. ‘It seems that the origin of the magic power ascribed to these patterns lies in their startling incomplete symmetry,’ was the view of the Princeton mathematician Hermann Weyl.
Heller says in the introduction that the swastika is ‘like a propeller, its hooked edges cut through any surface on which it appears.’ Doesn’t this miss the point? In the form that Hitler chose, its modernity is in its flatness, its two-dimensionality.
The black diagonals, dynamic elements within the circle (suggesting steady movement), which is placed in the static rectangle – these are archetypal conventions of basic design. They are also constructivist elements, and constructivism was the formal language of the Nazi’s enemies, the dreaded Bolsheviks and socialists. (Paradoxically, there are mystical components to radical early Modernism, in Malevich as much as in Mondrian.) In this context, Heller has found that the original of Hitler’s choice was a design by Wilhelm Deffke, a designer identified by the Nazis as a ‘cultural Bolshevist’, who had refined the symbol for a commercial purpose.
Heller follows the transformation of the swastika as party emblem into the flag of the state. He continues by looking at the innocent commercial use of the swastika up to the 1930s, and its later exploitation, illustrating music packaging, clothing labels and skateboards. ‘It is indeed ironic,’ he writes, ‘that the swastika has evolved from benevolent sign to sinister national emblem to veritable point-of-purchase display in only a few generations.’ Nor does he avoid the implications of the Internet.
Just before the Nazis took over Austria, Hermann Weyl, lecturing in Vienna in 1937, remarked of the swastika: ‘In our days it has become more terrible than the snake-girdled Medusa’s head.’ A glance from the Medusa’s head meant instant death. Such is the speed with which symbols are discarded that few of his audience today would recognise a Medusa’s head, or its meaning. Heller convincingly demonstrates that the swastika, though, has survived, together with its dark meaning. ‘Fifty years after the fall of the Third Reich, the flame of ignorance is kept burning in large degree by the continued currency of the swastika.’
This is a small book, but significant. It is design history thoroughly done. And it will sharpen our awareness of the part visual design plays in people’s lives. Heller’s is a brilliant achievement but it has a sombre, sobering message.
Richard Hollis, designer, London
First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.