by Adrian Bean
Whatever kind of person would choose to have a swastika on a headstone? Somebody evil? A Nazi sympathiser surely? *
Well…no. In fact, a century ago, a Swastika was for many years a fairly common choice to be put on a headstone, and there’s no doubt that up to Adolf Hitler’s time, people who were commemorated with a swastika were generally perfectly well-balanced and kindly, who would have been disgusted by being connected in any way with one of the most appalling groups in History. There at least two pre-WWI headstones in Bedford Cemetery which have a swastika prominently marked.
The swastika wasn’t always a symbol of Evil. In fact, for thousands of years it has been used in many cultures of the world as a symbol of Good Fortune, especially by Buddhists and Hindus in India and the East. In Sanskrit, it means “well-being.” It has always been seen as a striking image, and has been found in decorative architecture in Ancient Rome, Troy, Iran and Scandinavia, and was common on blankets woven by indigenous North Americans. Everywhere, it was used as a geometrically pleasing and eye-catching symbol of Good.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western travellers to the East caught on to the symbol’s positive and inspiring connotations, and started to spread its use in advertising and everyday life.
It was used in advertising for Coca-Cola and Carlsberg and on playing cards.
The Boy Scouts used it on badges.
Early copies of books by Kipling had swastikas printed on the covers or fly-leaves. The “Girls’ Club of America” had it as the name of their magazine, and gave out swastika medals. A town in Ontario was named (and still is) Swastika. “An inter-war edition of a British “Home Handyman” magazine included instructions on how to make a set of wall-mounted display shelves in the shape of a swastika.” The list is enormous.
The swastika was used as decoration on some US and RAF planes until the late 1930’s. The symbol of the No 273 RAF Squadron (now defunct) was a form of swastika.
Hitler approved of archaeological speculations that swastika symbols found on old pots in Germany were similar to ones found in ancient Iran, and that they were religious symbols linking shared ancestors, the original “Aryans.” To Buddhists, the anti-clockwise swastika symbolised good fortune; Hitler insisted his swastika should be clockwise (the version used by Hindus), but which to Buddhists symbolised “cessation” or “away from God.” Hitler’s version was rotated at 45 degrees, and used as a race emblem of Germanism, becoming a badge for his gang of dangerous playground bullies to rally round, with their poison contaminating the symbol of Good with their Evil…a change which will probably never be reversed. The swastika is still favoured by neo-Nazi groups.
Sadly, a striking symbol of Goodness and Hope was stolen and used to promote Evil and Fear, and so the immediate natural reaction on seeing a swastika on a grave is to be shocked. To some, it is still a genuinely frightening symbol. Almost as sad is the fact that the deceased person’s final message to the world was intended to be one of joy and positivity, but it will nowadays be interpreted by most people in a massively negative way. A noble thought gone wrong.
*(To clarify, the Nazis were members of Adolf Hitler’s racist right-wing political party in Germany, which was ruthless in persecuting minority groups, especially by mass extermination in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. More than six million Jewish people were killed in this way.)
April 19, 2021
February 21, 2021
January 27, 2021