Mat McDermott is Senior Director of Communications for the Hindu American Foundation. He lives in Los Angeles. The views expressed are his own.
Earlier this month, CNN ran an article about how right-wing extremists in Italy draped a Nazi flag over a coffin outside a church and how both Catholic and Jewish leaders condemned the actions. I didn’t see the article until HAF supporter emailed about it, asking me to attempt to get CNN to make a correction to the piece on the use of the word ‘swastika’.
The article described the Nazi emblem as a swastika — something which isn’t unusual in any way, based on common contemporary usage in the English-speaking world. To most people today the Nazi emblem simply is a swastika.
Except the Nazi emblem is not a swastika, historically speaking.
As an increasing number of Hindu activists are pointing out, Hitler himself and the Nazi party referred to the emblem as a hakenkreuz, a ‘hooked cross.’ The word ‘swastika’ was never used in Nazi Germany as the name for their emblem.
Despite Nazi notions of an Aryan Race and the origins of the word aryan in Sanskrit, grossly misinterpreted by Europeans, the tradition being evoked by the use of the symbol was not a Dharmic cultural or spiritual tradition, but explicitly a European Christian one.
This is a historical fact, well documented in books such as TK Nakagaki’s The Buddhist Swastika and Hitler’s Cross: Rescuing a Symbol of Peace from the Forces of Hate.
European cultures have used variations of the hooked cross — known by a variety of names — at least as long as the swastika has been used in Indic traditions. And there was a revival in the use of the symbol in both Europe and North America just prior to the rise of the Nazis, so it’s not surprising that Hitler would use such a symbol. European and American news media initially often used translations of the German hakenkreuz, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, switched to using ‘swastika’ and the name has stuck ever since.
CNN is making an error, unwittingly no doubt, that has been made for the better part of a century.
All of this may seem like mere historical fiddling about, something academic and distant, but historical accuracy has real-world effects today.
At HAF we’ve regularly had requests from Hindu Americans to intervene with homeowner associations, with colleges, and other places where Hindus want to use swastikas in the traditional manner as an auspicious symbol. All these incidents stumble into cultural revulsion, rooted in an ignorance that equates the Dharmic swastika with the Nazi hooked cross. A symbol of peace is mistaken with a symbol rightfully associated with genocide, hatred, and war.
My ask to all people and organizations is this: When writing about the Nazi emblem, please use the original German hakenkreuz or the English translation ‘hooked cross’.
News organizations can lead the way here. They have an obligation to do so.
As to the objection that the use of ‘swastika’ represents contemporary English usage, I counter that while that may be the case, there are other recent examples of the news media changing their copy editing standards to better represent reality.
The Guardian, for example, now uses the phrase ‘climate crisis’ rather than the more usual ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’ The reason being: the editors of that outlet decided, rightly so, that ‘climate crisis’ more accurately represents the reality of the situation than any of the more usually-used terms.
Changing what we call the Nazi emblem will not eradicate the bigotry and hatred it represents. It will not stop its use as a symbol of antisemitism — something which Hitler explicitly said the hakenkreuz represents.
It will, though, perhaps slowly, begin to educate the public that the hateful hakenkreuz is an entirely different thing than the peaceful and joyous swastika placed above doors, on cars, and in other places by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains.
It’s an easy change in phrasing and one we all ought to make.