Many in India found themselves offended by the use of the swastika in the audacious and highly visible protest mounted recently in London by the Awaaz Network against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UK. The protest, which took the form of a projection on the Palace of Westminster and was multiplied many times over through the dissemination of photographs over the digital media, reminds us of the complex history and destiny of this ancient symbol. While the swastika plays an important role in Hindu as well as in Buddhist and Jain symbolism as a sign of auspiciousness, India has no monopoly on it. We may rightfully claim the Sanskrit name it bears, but the symbol itself boasts a universal antiquity. A solar archetype, it was originally derived from a circle crossed with a vertical and a horizontal and set in rotation to suggest the diurnal cycle.

Indeed, if we insist ahistorically on reading our present national and territorial conceptions back onto the remote past, we would have to concede that the swastika is a Ukrainian symbol. As the distinguished mythologist Joseph Campbell observes, in his Primitive Mythology (1959), the earliest known occurrence of the swastika anywhere in the world is “on the under-wings of an outstretched flying bird carved of mammoth ivory and found in a Palaeolithic site not far from Kiev.” The swastika’s second known occurrence after this Old Stone Age site, Mezin, is in the Mesopotamian New Stone Age pottery style known as Samarra ware (c. 4500-3500 BC), where it appears as a whirling form from which birds and animals are born.

Somewhat later, with the emergence of the hieratic city-state in Uruk, Mesopotamia (3500-2500 BC), the swastika takes its place as a symbol in ceramic design that weds the solar ascendancy with royal prestige: the sun at its heart is identified with the sanctum of the god-king’s palace complex. The swastika has also been found in prehistoric North American burial mounds, whirling both clockwise and counter-clockwise, and appears in the ritual performances of the Pueblos, the Navaho and the Apache nations. In Mycenae and elsewhere in ancient Greece, it is described as the tetraskelion or ‘four-legged form’ or the tetragammadion, a form composed of four gammas. These forms also appear in the cultural contexts of ancient Britain and Ireland, among the Etruscans and the Celts, in Mayan art, and indeed, in ancient and mediaeval India.

Emergence in modern Europe

The swastika reappeared in modern Europe after a long interval through the excavations of the autodidactic German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in Troy and Mycenae during the 1870s and 1880s. Schliemann’s findings, especially his discovery of the swastika in Mycenaean culture, were co-opted into the work of Aryan racial theorists such as the Orientalist and Sanskritist Emile-Louis Burnouf, who were eager to prove that the protagonists of the Homeric epics were Aryan superheroes. Another source for the revival of the swastika in European popular culture was the Theosophical Society, established in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, Colonel Olcott, and William Quan Judge. The Theosophists generated a persuasive world religion compounded from Hindu and Buddhist ideas, as well as occultist and utopian themes that they distilled from the fertile and febrile neo-religious imagination of late 19th-century Europe and North America. At its highest point, Theosophy counted many thousands of individuals across the world among its believers, and with its transreligious appeal, seemed well placed to rival the more established forms of belief.

Espousing imperial privilege in terms of articulation and transregional mobility while foregrounding religious conceptions drawn from the subject peoples of the Indian subcontinent, the Theosophists were to give rise to an astonishing variety of outcomes, not all of them intended. The best known of these is a Messianic cult developed around the Maitreya or future World Teacher in the form of J Krishnamurti, who disclaimed the mantle and went his own way as a guide to the “pathless land” of truth. Almost equally well known is the breakaway school of Anthroposophy led by Rudolf Steiner, today represented by schools practising the Steiner method of education around the world. And, relatively unknown to the world, is the indirect and osmotic influence that Theosophy had on various groups active in an occultist-racist underground that spanned Germany and Austria between the 1890s and the 1930s. These included the Ariosophists, the Germanenorden (Germanic Order) and the Thule Society.

Of these, the Thule Society is of special interest to students of the swastika’s journey through history. The image used by the Awaaz Network is unmistakably an evocation of the Nazi Hakenkreuz or ‘hooked cross’, which has very little to do with Hinduism as an everyday religious practice. Its origins lie instead in the esoteric beliefs and ceremonies of the Thule Society. A circle of aristocratic malcontents – or, more precisely, malcontents with aristocratic pretensions – the Thulists prospered in the political and cultural chaos that followed Germany’s defeat in World War I in 1918. Blaming the Jews and the Communists for Germany’s collapse, they pinned their hopes for the future on a supreme Aryan spirit of mythic Nordic antiquity that would re-assert itself despite the reverses of the historical moment. Like the Ariosophists and the Germanenorden, the members of the Thule Society were neo-paganists who sought the sources of spiritual sustenance and cultural meaning in the pre-Christian Nordic and Germanic religions. A detailed account of their world-views appears in the historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke’s magisterial 1985 study, The Occult Roots of Nazism.

Importantly, as I have noted, these groups drew distorted inspiration from the writings of Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, who developed an elaborate cosmology and alternative history of humankind, replete with evocations of previous "root races" and the lost continents they had once inhabited, including Hyperborea, Lemuria and Atlantis. Indeed, the Thule Society took its name from a mythic island located in the circumpolar north, identifiable with the Theosophical Hyperborea, land of permanent ice. On Thule, the Thulists believed, a small group of super-intelligent beings – modelled on the Mahatmas of Theosophy in their Himalayan fastnesses – had survived the destruction of their continent and remained as guardians of invaluable secrets of survival and transcendence. And the key symbol that all these occultist-racist groups shared was the Hakenkreuz, a squarely positioned swastika with curved legs.

The Nazi banner

The Thule Society bitterly opposed the short-lived and utopian Bavarian Soviet Republic that sprang up in Munich from the ruins of post-World War I Germany, led by a loosely knit coalition of socialists, anarchists and writers. The Thule Society financed the right-wing militia known as the Freikorps, made up of decommissioned Prussian Army officers and soldiers, which brutally overthrew the Soviet. The Thulists then dedicated themselves to the undermining of the Weimar Republic, the precarious successor to the Prussian Empire, which they held in contempt as insufficiently committed to Germany’s resurgence, and weakened by political compromises. Supported by mysterious reserves of wealth, the Thule Society promoted its cause through diverse front organisations pitched at various levels of society. One of these, admittedly rather proletarian from the rarefied perspective of the Society’s core members, was the Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei or German Workers Party, established in January 1919.

A little more than a year later, this humble organisation was to be re-launched and transformed by an Austrian war veteran and failed painter as the Nazional Socialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-partei or National Socialist German Workers Party. The man who presided over this transformation would go from strength to strength until at last, no longer the loser from Linz but the seemingly omnipotent but delusional Führer, he would lead Germany and the world to colossal evil and catastrophe. In 1919, however, he was still apparently one among a circle of men and women plotting dramatic revolution. Even in these anti-Semitic and white-supremacist circles, Adolf Hitler was already more obviously driven than any of his colleagues by an obsession with the purification of the Self through relentless violence against the Other, the eradication of the contaminating presence of the Other.

He was also, in 1919, a man deliberating over a flag, a militant banner that would announce the NSDAP’s presence to the world. In this he received inspiration, not from Odin-Wotan, the supreme deity of the Nordic-Germanic pantheon, but from a Bavarian dentist, Friedrich Krohn. A member of the Thule Society in good standing – he had sworn that “not a drop of Jewish or coloured blood” flowed in his exalted veins – Krohn became one of the earliest members of the DAP. On May 2, 1919, four months after the organisation had been founded, he wrote a memorandum bearing the resonant title, "Ist das Hakenkreuz als Symbol nationalsozialisticher Parteien geeignet?" or "Is the Swastika a Suitable Symbol for the National Socialist Party?" The question was purely rhetorical; the imaginative Dr Krohn already had the answer. He proposed a prototype of the symbol that would wave from countless Nazi banners from 1920 to 1945: the black swastika on a white disc set against a red field.

Twinned for all time

Krohn’s contribution might not have been entirely original. According to Rudolf von Sebottendorf, another Thule Society member – a charlatan who, in addition to being a Nordic-Aryan racist, also managed to be a Freemason and claimed to be a Sufi of the Bektashi order – the inventor of the Nazi banner might have picked up a cue during the fall of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. A captured red flag of the enemy had been pinned up in the Thule Society’s offices; a white disc had been sewn over the hammer and sickle, and a Thulist had drawn the Hakenkreuz on it. Whatever the origin of Krohn’s design, it wasn’t quite there yet from Hitler’s point of view.

Krohn’s swastika was a mystical symbol familiar to the Thule Society and the Germanenorden, squarely positioned, oriented leftwards and with curved legs. This did not impress Hitler, whose lack of success in the fine arts did not prevent him from becoming a master of the demagogic image designed for the massest of mass audiences: the rally, the crowd, the mob. As David Luhrssen tells the tale in his absorbing 2012 book, Hammer of the Gods: The Thule Society and the Birth of Nazism, Hitler learned from Krohn that the leftward-facing swastika signified universal order and redemption from the cycle of rebirth in Buddhist usage. Krohn also cautioned him that the opposite movement, the rightward turn, spelled annihilation. The future Führer unhesitatingly ignored Krohn’s caveat and reversed the direction of his swastika. He also straightened the curved legs of the Thule symbol and set the symbol at a 45-degree angle.

On May 20, 1920, the banner was displayed for the first time at a party meeting in Starnberg, near Munich. The Hakenkreuz would forever after be identified with Hitler, who would dismiss Krohn with a cursory and condescending word of acknowledgement in Mein Kampf, the autobiography he would dictate to his deputy Rudolf Hess while in prison after his failed “beer hall putsch” of November 8-9, 1923 (“a dentist from Starnberg did deliver a design that was not bad at all, and, incidentally, was quite close to my own”). Under the auspices of Hitler’s symbol, millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, dissidents, mentally and physically infirm people were sent to their deaths; millions were made complicit in acts of horror, sent to war, or engaged in brutalising confrontations; entire communities and countries were destroyed; and the damage took many decades to redress and heal.

The ancient legacy of the swastika as a symbol of solar glory, auspiciousness, redemption and the flight of the questor-soul must always contend with the malevolent persistence of the Hakenkreuz as a symbol of vengeance and annihilation, an extermination of the Other that involves a barbarisation of the Self. By the strange fate that attends many of the symbols that humankind creates and invests with powerful significance, these will be twinned for all time, sometimes mistaken for each other, sometimes mapped over each other, sometimes defined in sharp contrast to the other. And for every swastika that is lovingly rendered on a doorstep or over a lintel with thoughts of festivity and joy somewhere in the world, somewhere else a Hakenkreuz is sprayed on a door or painted on a wall to signify the undying challenge of hatred.