The Swastika

The Swastika – A Symbol Beyond Redemption, Part One

The Swastika – A Symbol Beyond Redemption, part 1 of 2 from SVA MFA Design on Vimeo.

This is the first half of a presentation by Steven Heller, author of The Swastika – A Symbol Beyond Redemption?

Your task: discuss two things you heard in the video that surprised you in some way. Explain why it is you were surprised.

The Swastika – A Symbol Beyond Redemption, Part 2

The Swastika – A Symbol Beyond Redemption, part 2 of 2 from SVA MFA Design on Vimeo.

This is the second half of Steven Heller’s presentation. Your task: how would you answer the question that forms the title of Heller’s book, i.e., is the swastika beyond redemption?

The Nazi Party Platform

The forerunner of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party) was the German Workers’ Party. In 1920 they issued a 25-point platform that was largely written by Adolf Hitler. I’ve annotated the platform:

The 25-Point Program of the German Workers’ Party (forerunner of the Nazi Party)

Your task: do any aspects of the party platform remind you of any political situations today, here in Canada or elsewhere?

ProfMoment: Our obsession with Nazis and Nazism

There’s a famous story about the late British journalist and writer Alan Coren. He was publishing a collection of essays in 1975, and he wanted it to be a hit. His publisher told him that three types of books do well in the United Kingdom: books about pets, sports, or the Second World War. So he called his collection Golfing for Cats, and this was the book jacket

That’s pretty funny. But it underscores our fascination with Nazism. Go to Chapters or Indigo books some day, and have a look at the history section. When you come to the sub-section on Germany, the vast majority of books will be about the Third Reich and Nazism. The books will either have a swastika on them, or the title will include Hitler even if the book has little directly to do with Hitler (Hitler’s Antarctica UFOs is an outlandish example of that). If you want some more examples, have a look at this BBC article from 2011.

In Germany, displaying the swastika or any related symbols is strictly regulated and for the most part forbidden. When the Allies defeated Germany in 1945, they set out to destroy many of these symbols, and when West Germany regained its sovereignty in 1949 they maintained these measures as part of an overall policy to prevent any resurgence of Nazism.

I think it’s especially important to recognize that this symbol represented a party that came to power in a weak democracy, and then led that country on a course of action that had as its main goals the destruction of the Jews and the domination of Europe if not the world. It’s the symbol of a movement that put brutality, murder, anti-democratic thinking, and a cult of hero-worship at the core of its identity.

Your task: discuss the swastika. Does seeing it bother you in any way? Has learning about in this course changed your attitude towards it?

Hitler as Symbol

Perhaps the only symbol in the Third Reich to rival the presence of the swastika was Hitler himself, or at least his image.

Take a look at these three posters featuring Hitler.

One people, one empire, one leader! (Poster from 1938)Campaign poster, 1932Long live Germany! (date of origin uncertain)

Both Hitler and the propaganda arm of the Nazi party understood very well that Hitler could be leveraged as a symbol of a strong and united Germany. A cult had grown up around Hitler in the Nazi party, and the party managed rather successfully to transfer that to the population as a whole. In 1932, during the presidential election that Hitler would eventually lose, he was presented in quite modernist form: just his head, floating on a black background, and his name. No slogans, no other imagery – the implication was that Germany needed just Hitler, nothing else.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, they elaborated a little more on the iconography around Hitler, as the two posters show. Notice the determined face in both pictures – very determined in the “Es lebe Deutschland!” poster, with the clenched fist and his gaze meeting ours, followed by legions of swastika banners. That image is even a bit messianic, with a very large dove descended from the sunlit heavens, reminding us of the stories from the New Testament when the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus to indicate that he is God’s anointed one.

The poster on the left has a slightly less determined Hitler – his left fist looks more relaxed than in the poster on the right – but that might be because it was released on the occasion of one of his greatest triumphs, the annexation of Austria in 1938. Much of his political message was based on the idea that he, as the one supreme leader, would establish a strong and united Germany, and the annexation of Austria indicated that he was indeed succeeding. It’s a poster that also bespeaks of optimism, not because the light of God shines on him, but his gaze is forward-looking, confident and in charge. The Nazis, to get the German population to support them, needed them to believe that the future, after a dozen or so years of economic and social unrest, would look kindly on them.

Like the swastika, Hitler’s image has been slow to fade. It is used as a meme whenever someone wants to call a politician fascist (I’ve even written a newspaper article about that). We know the face instinctively.

As an example of how Hitler’s facial features have become implanted in our brains, look at the book cover at right. The novel imagines Hitler returning to 21st-century Germany and becoming a talkshow host. (The English version is entitled “Look Who’s Back,” and it has been made into a movie that’s available on Netflix.)

Notice that the designer has used just the barest aspects of Hitler’s image, but you know immediately that Hitler is the one being depicted. The title of the novel (Er ist wieder da = Look Who’s Back) forms his moustache (the cover of the English translation does the same thing).

And if you’re wondering about how we can’t NOT see Hitler’s image in the world around us, have a look at this famous website that collects photos of cats that look like Hitler.

Your task: Compare Hitler as a symbol of Nazism to the swastika. Is one symbol more powerful or effective than the other? Do you react differently to the one or the other?

[image information: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,]

The symbol that just won’t go away

Steven Heller, co-founder and co-chair of of the MFA Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The author or editor of over 100 books on graphic design practice and history, he is well known for his 2000 publication “The Swastika: Symbol Beyond Redemption?” In this interview with kultur360 co-editor James Skidmore, Steve speaks about a symbol that just won’t go away.

Your task:  Steve Heller talks about how a symbol derives meaning in two ways: it derives meaning from that which it represents, or we decide to invest meaning into the symbol. The swastika used to be the latter – different cultures thought of it as a good luck symbol – but since it has become associated with the Third Reich, its has become the symbol par excellence of violent bigotry, at least in the western world. Discuss whether this situation will ever change.

A One-Woman Fight against Neo-Nazism

Read this story about Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a woman who has removed over 72,000 Nazi and neo-Nazi symbols in Germany:

How One Berliner Battles Hate: With Conscience and a Sharp Scraper – The New York Times (if you have trouble accessing that link, use this one: alternative link).

Included in the article are links to two very short videos; watch those as well. (They’re linked at the passages: “she gets rid of it” and “video of rehabilitated symbols.”)

Your task: consider what’s going on here. Ms. Mensah-Schramm has removed thousands of these symbols. Is this a sign that Nazi ideology is still alive and well in the country (even if it is politically impotent), or does her work show that Germans have overcome Nazism?