This last month Madonna’s latest international concert tour has made headlines around the world, but not for the reason you might normally think. Apparently, at one point in the show, an image projected as part of a background video montage is the face of French politician Marine Le Pen, with a swastika superimposed across her forehead. This was first shown at Madonna’s concert in Tel Aviv, and according to the pop-star is a comment on the subject of intolerance.
For her part, Madame Le Pen was most definitely not amused. The National Front, the hard-core rightist French political party that Le Pen heads, is not exactly known for its inclusive multi-cultural policies. Even so, being associated with a swastika in this way was not okay as far as Le Pen is concerned. So she and her supporters mounted a vigorous campaign against Madonna, defacing concert posters, promising to arrange mass boycotts and pickets outside of performance venues, as well as issuing the usual threats of litigation.
Surprisingly, it has worked. In the case of Madonna vs Le Pen, the French right-wing politician has emerged victorious over the left-leaning singer-cum-kabalist. Madonna has now reportedly backed down, and has replaced the offending swastika in her show with a more neutral question mark.
All of which I found to be incredibly fascinating stuff, because I have recently developed a bit of an interest in the subject of swastikas. Perhaps, let me explain.
To start with, last week I was in Warsaw, where I had the rather surreal experience of playing a game of soccer on a field that would once, seventy years ago, have been located inside the walls of the former Warsaw Ghetto (see my previous post Soccer in the Ghetto). I mentioned in that post the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, an ill-fated one month revolt in April 1943 by the Jews living in the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto uprising was crushed by the Nazis, and in reprisal the site of the Ghetto was subsequently “liquidated”.
What I didn’t get around to mentioning was the more general Warsaw Uprising that took place fifteen months after the Ghetto Uprising, in late 1944. By this time, the tide of the war had begun to turn, and the German army was generally in retreat across Europe. The Russian army was fast approaching Warsaw from the east, and to coincide with their expected arrival, the Polish resistance staged a mass uprising that began on 1 August, 1944.
In what turned out to be a complete disaster for the Poles, the Soviet army halted its advance on Warsaw before reaching the city limits. Some historians say this was a deliberate abandonment of the Poles by Stalin, as part of a broader agenda to establish Soviet supremacy in the region once the war ended. In any case, 63 days of fierce fighting followed, during which about 16,000 members of the Polish resistance and 8,000 German soldiers died, not to mention there being close to 200,000 civilian casualties and massive numbers of wounded and injured on both sides (sometimes, we forget how “civilised” modern warfare has become, and how truly awful by comparison are the casualty numbers from the battles of WWII. For example, more people died in the 63 days of the Warsaw Uprising than died in the entirety of both Gulf Wars and the War in Afghanistan, combined. Quite a sobering thought, really).
Without any reinforcements to back them up, the Polish resistance was outnumbered and outgunned, and the better-equipped German army was able to eventually put down the uprising and “retake” the city. After which, in punishment, Hitler issued an order to flatten the whole place, and the systematic destruction of what was left of Poland’s capital began. Three months later, when the city was finally liberated by Russian troops in January 1945, around 90% of the buildings in Warsaw had been reduced to piles of rubble.
I learned all of this at the impressive and very informative Warsaw Rising Museum, a place dedicated to the history of the 1944 uprising. The museum is located in a suburb of Warsaw well away from the main tourist hub of the Old Town, and is housed in a building that was formerly a tram power plant. It is a relatively new museum, opened in 2004 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the uprising. I had a few hours free on my last morning in Warsaw, and I decided to make a quick visit there before heading to the airport.
As museums go, the Warsaw Rising Museum is world-class. Difficult and sometimes quite disturbing subject matter is dealt with in an accessible, engaging way. The museum is packed with well thought out multimedia exhibits, and interactive displays designed to evoke the atmosphere in 1944 at the time of the uprising. Your senses – sight, sound and touch – are engaged at multiple levels, and as the museum refers to it, the intention is to create “virtual history”. So in one room, there is a full-scale model of a B-24 Liberator aircraft hanging from the roof, brought to life by the accompanying sounds of gun-fire and mortar; in another, there is a life-size replica of a section of the Warsaw sewer network, through which you can crawl around, much as the resistance fighters would have done in 1944. In a courtyard outside, there is a black-granite Memorial wall, juxtaposed in a strangely moving way with graffiti-style murals created by young Polish artists.
But, despite the many eye-catching exhibits on display, what I noticed most was the swastikas. Like in every museum, film or book dealing with WWII, wherever you look you can’t help but to come face-to-face with this iconic symbol of the Nazi party. In any picture that shows a German soldier, the soldier is proudly wearing a swastika armband. Swastikas are everywhere: printed on flags and banners, and painted on walls and buildings and on the sides of planes and tanks and military equipment. I saw swastikas embossed on rifle butts and cigarette cartons and on the covers of books, and there were even little swastikas pressed in neat rows into the metal of army-issue biscuit tins.
On one wall of the museum, I noticed an exhibit where a swastika had been cleverly spray-painted over so that it came to resemble the face of Adolf Hitler. In another room of the museum, a simple black and white swastika was projected onto the floor, instantly creating an atmosphere of chill and dread. When I entered the room and saw the swastika underfoot, I literally shivered. Just like one of Pavlov’s dogs, I experienced an involuntary, but very real physical reaction in response to something as benign as an image of a crooked cross, projected onto the floor. That is just a little bit peculiar, don’t you think? But that is how strong the anti-swastika conditioning I have received is.
And, I am sure I am not alone in this regard. The Nazis plastered their swastika symbol on everything and anything, and it has become an ever-present, albeit silent and often unnoticed mood-setter to almost every modern-day depiction of WWII. A swastika has become a quick and easy way to tell who is good, and who is bad. Like in one of my all-time favourite movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where in one memorable scene Indie comes across a group of people in uniforms, hunched over a table plotting and scheming, and he immediately says: “Nazis, I hate these guys”. The mere presence of swastikas on their armbands serves as a cinematic alarm bell, instantly warning our hero, and all of us in the audience, that these guys are without question the baddies.
I can’t think of any other symbol that evokes feelings and responses as powerfully as the swastika does. Since the end of WWII the swastika has been constitutionally banned in Germany from any public display that associates it with the Nazi party, and even today, wearing a swastika T-shirt in central Munich could land you jail. In 2005, a media firestorm erupted when Prince Harry wore a swastika armband to a friend’s fancy dress-party. And a few years ago the mighty Microsoft had to rush a free patch out for a newly released version of Office – there was public outcry when someone discovered that a swastika symbol was buried in one of the many graphic options attached to one (out of literally hundreds) of the fonts.
Or take the case of Spanish fashion chain Zara, when it inadvertently released a handbag that looked like it had swastikas embedded in its design. There were calls for a boycott of Zara products, and “academic” newspaper articles appeared in the European press seriously arguing that Zara was attempting to legitimise fascism (got to love the European “intelligentsia”). The bag was immediately withdrawn from circulation, there was an apologetic media release, plus a public mea culpa from the Zara designers involved. All this fuss, just because some green squiggles that looked like swastikas had been embroidered on the four corners of a handbag.
Bottom line: as Madonna’s recent travails illustrate, in the broad Western consciousness the swastika is associated with very, very bad things indeed. Slap a swastika on anything and everyone knows, immediately, that you are now in the presence of evil.
And that barely begins to explain the special place that the swastika holds in the collective consciousness of the Jews. The swastika has become the symbol of choice for anti-Semites and Jew-haters. It is preferred by synagogue vandals and Jewish grave desecrators and neo-Nazi thugs all around the world, because as symbols go, the swastika is guaranteed to cause maximum offence. Paint a swastika on the side of a synagogue, and there is no mistaking your intention. And of course, the swastika instantly associates with the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust. No wonder I shivered just from the sight of a swastika ominously projected onto the floor of the Uprising Museum in Warsaw.
All of which brings me to the source of my recent fascination with swastikas.
About four weeks ago, a Singapore-based reader of this blog sent me an email. He told me that he had been riding his bike along Keng Lee Street, and had passed by a building with a big sign on the front, advertising that the building was the headquarters of “The Singapore Red Swastika Charitable Foundation”. My reader, who obviously has the same cultural understanding of the swastika that I do, found it odd that an organisation with a name as improbable as the Red Swastika Charitable Foundation should exist, and in Singapore of all places. He suggested that it might be something worth writing about in my blog.
Now, apart from being completely chuffed that someone who reads my blog actually took the time to email me a suggestion of something to write about, the very idea of the words Swastika and Charitable Foundation appearing side-by-side did strike me as being the ultimate oxymoron. So just prior to leaving on the trip that would eventually take me to Poland, I decided that I would drop in on the Red Swastika Charitable Foundation to find out what it was all about.
It turns out that The Red Swastika Charitable Foundation is a part of the Red Swastika Society, an Asian charitable organisation founded in China in the 1920s. It was modelled on the Western “red” charities (Red Cross, Red Crescent) but based on the eastern religions of Buddhism and Taoism. In its heyday the Red Swastika Society – “devoted to the practice of philanthropy and moral education” – allegedly had millions of members, and ran soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals. The organisation was active in China and in all those places where Chinese migrant communities settled (like Singapore). Today, the global headquarters of the organisation is in Taiwan.
In Singapore, the Society occupies a very large, imposing building, fenced off and surrounded by a car-park designated “for members only”. Walls are proudly decorated with massive red swastikas. The iron-work on the front gates is painted with swastikas as well. The whole place looked to me to be a festival of bright red swastikas.
In addition to the club-house I visited, I learned that the Red Swastika Society also operates a school in Singapore that bears its name. The school is located near the airport in Changi and since 1951 has been providing free education to needy Singaporean children. I couldn’t help thinking what it would be like for a graduate of the school if they were, say, trying to apply for a job at Goldman Sachs in New York, and had to explain the part on their resume that said they were an alumnus of the Red Swastika School, Singapore Branch…..
I found a picture on the internet of a Red Swastika Society member, taken in around 1937. It is a picture that, if you approach it with a Western attitude to the swastika, makes absolutely no sense. In the picture, a man is shown holding a swastika flag, with a large swastika armband displayed prominently on his forearm. In all respects, it looks like a picture of a Nazi, or perhaps a Ku Klux Klan member. Except that the man in question is clearly Chinese, and the Nazis were not entirely fond of non-Aryan folk. So a fellow with a Fu Manchu beard waving a swastika flag is not an entirely obvious proposition.
How to explain this all? Quite simple, really: in Asia the swastika is a religious symbol, and as a result, everything you may think you know about this simple shape is completely inverted.
The word “swastika” itself derives from a Sanskrit word “svastika” which literally means “to be good“. So in direct contrast to the graphic representation of evil it has become in Western culture, swastikas have for thousands of years been used in Eastern culture to represent the exact opposite: auspiciousness, good fortune, good luck and wealth.
In most Indian religions the swastika is a sacred symbol, and consequently swastikas can be found practically everywhere in India and Nepal – painted onto buses and cars and rickshaws, on the side of buildings, and on clothing. One of my Indian-born work colleagues mentioned to me that a swastika is smeared on his forehead prior to just about any Indian religious ceremony.
The swastika is also a holy symbol in Buddhism, and as a result decorative swastikas can to be found at Buddhist sites and temples across Asia. There are swastikas in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and on the roof of temples and palaces throughout China. In Japan and Korea, swastikas are the official symbol used on maps to indicate a Buddhist temple.
It is not just in Asia, though, that the swastika is considered to be a symbol of good, not bad. I was quite surprised to learn the little hooked cross was on a trajectory to enjoy similar status in the European sphere, had the Nazis not appropriated the swastika for their own purposes in the 1920s and 30s. (As an aside, it is often said that Hitler inverted the traditional swastika orientation, from left to right to right to left, and put the swastika on an angle to make it look like it was in motion. Quite a few articles I read, however, dispute this, and say that prior to Nazi use the direction of the swastika was interchangeable, so Hitler’s use of the swastika was no different from how it had been used prior).
Swastikas were used for centuries for decorative and religious purposes in Ancient Greece, Rome and in the area of modern-day Turkey. They were also used widely across Scandinavia and in Celtic lands. Swastikas were common in Europe during the middle ages, including as a protective charm, painted on shields by crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, and as a decorative feature on some medieval churches.
More recently, in the early part of last century, the swastika was known in Anglo-Saxon countries as “the cross of good luck”. Coca-Cola issued a swastika pendant in the United States as part of its marketing efforts. In the same era, the Canadian women’s hockey team and the American girls scouts both had swastikas on their uniforms. A 1907 postcard depicts the American flag and the swastika together: “may our glorious flag and this lucky star guide you and keep you wherever you are”. In World War I, the official emblem of the American 45th Infantry division included an orange swastika as a shoulder patch. The recent Madonna saga is nothing compared to the public wailing and gnashing of teeth that would without question follow if any of this happened today.
And closing the circle, for me at least, I learned that the swastika was even often used in Jewish culture. Apparently, there are ruins of old synagogues across North Africa and the Middle East that are decorated with swastika mosaics. The last known synagogue to include a swastika in its design was supposedly built in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1927, with a swastika embedded in the floor tiles. And swastika motifs have appeared in kabala (Jewish mysticism) texts, used as a symbol for light and the power of the sun (bet you Madonna didn’t know that!).
The swastika was even a part of the original logo of the Bauhaus movement, a style of craft, design, art and architecture that emerged from the Bauhaus School in Germany (it was removed from the logo in the 1920s, shortly after the Nazis adopted the swastika as their official symbol). Which is interesting mainly because modern-day Tel-Aviv in Israel comprises the world’s largest single collection of Bauhaus architecture. I find it mildly ironic that many of the buildings in what is today the world’s largest Jewish city were constructed in the style of a swastika-branded movement.
And then, as always, there are those on the margin. In this case, however, I am not referring to the ultra-hard core white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups that continue to use the swastika as their primary symbol. These lunatics we are all well aware of. I am instead more interested in the other end of the spectrum. Do some research into the swastika and you will quickly discover, as I did, that there is a whole alternative swastika reality out there, in the form of organised groups that are devoted to the important task of rehabilitating the image of the much maligned swastika.
So, for example, there is Reclaim the Swastika (“the goal is to reclaim the swastika as a symbol of lasting spiritual victory and begin a great new chapter in human history”), Friends of the Swastika, and Pro Swastika (whose emblem, rather provocatively, inserts a swastika into the middle of a Star of David). Not to mention my personal favourite, in name at least: the Swastikaphobia Project. Seriously, that is what it is called. Imagine how the receptionist at the Swastikaphobia Project must feel every time he or she answers the phone. (In case you are interested, the Swastikaphobia Project is an international art exhibition designed to showcase how the swastika is used in different cultures).
Finally, as if to cap off the madness, I also learned that June 23rd has now been proclaimed (I am not quite sure by who, but I assume by whoever is responsible for proclaiming such things) as International Reclaim the Swastika Day. According to the Pro Swastika website, in 2012 the day was celebrated with much colour in Los Angeles, Chicago, Italy, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Tel Aviv (of course), and for reasons that utterly escape me, in Burkina Faso and Libreville, Gabon. Go figure.
So there you have it: my recent travels from Singapore to Poland, in pursuit of the meaning of the Red Swastika Society, and where I have seen first-hand how different folks around the world have been conditioned to react so differently to this emotionally charged little symbol. There is a message in all of this I am sure; something about not judging a book by its cover, or perhaps more along the lines of “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”.
All I can say is that I have a new-found appreciation of the swastika, and perhaps, in the future, the mere sight of it won’t make me shiver in fear and dread. Plus, I am very much looking forward to June 23rd 2013, where with a little bit of luck I hope to attend my first Reclaim the Swastika Day. Preferably, in Burkino Faso. If I am going to challenge some of my longest-held, most deeply-engrained beliefs, then I am going to challenge them in style.