Wearing one’s grandmother's knit mittens in the winter time is one of the most natural things a Latvian can do. Growing up I had a drawer full of hand-made mittens of different colors with various patterns stitched onto them. Only after years of wearing my favorite mittens did I begin to look more closely at those stitched patterns. This was how I first encountered a swastika, or as I knew it at the time, a Thunder Cross.
The swastika is a religious symbol of protection, wealth and hope with some 15,000 years of history that was ruined in the latter half of the twentieth century when it came to be associated with hate and violence. It is one of the most widely recognized symbols in the world. Its origins can be traced to Asia at around 3000 BCE and it is a valued symbol in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Over the course of history, people have drawn swastikas on the walls of their homes or on the steps of their porches for protection and harmony. The symbol, with its variations, was and is still used for religious practices in many Eastern countries. It is a beloved and honored sign.
Meanwhile, the Western world only became truly acquainted with the swastika as the symbol of Nazi Germany. The flags and wristbands with swastikas that began to appear across Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and 1940s did not symbolize harmony or protection at all. It became a symbol of tyranny and fear for anyone opposed to the Nazi Party. The sign gained a completely new meaning.
Decades later, a time when technology and globalization allow people of the world to collide faster than ever, people with different definitions of what a swastika means can often be found at two ends of the same dinner table. And because interpretations of the symbol can be so drastically different, misunderstandings may cause unnecessary conflicts. For this very reason, some people have completely disassociated themselves from the sign and intentionally do not include it in the places where they previously would have done do. For example, in 2006, NATO kindly asked Latvian officials not to give mittens with swastikas — or Thunder Crosses — to the delegates at the summit. Others have altered the sign to make it clear that their variation of swastika does not support Nazism. Its use as a symbol for the Nazi Party has also been restricted by multiple countries, including Germany. However, the use of the swastika as a religious symbol is still allowed.
Determining the meaning of individual swastikas truly depends on the circumstances. I know my grandmother knitted the Thunder Cross into her mittens for protection and energy, not to show support for Nazism. Has learning about what this cross means in other contexts ruined my mittens for me? Yes, to a certain extent, but being ignorant about the symbol and its implications would not help me either. There are so many variations of the sign that I believe it is possible to find one that does not remind us of the swastika employed by the Nazis.
Last August, a new clothing company called KA design released sweatshirts and t-shirts with a swastika — rotated 45 degrees, the same way the Nazis rotated it — on a rainbow background, symbolizing the LGBTQ community, with the words “peace” or “love” written underneath. Although KA’s intentions were admirable, as they only wanted to bring back the original meaning of the sign, they received a lot of criticism on public platforms. One of the main reasons for the criticism was that the scars caused by the sign are still fresh in many countries, and the swastika is still used by neo-Nazis. Swastikas are also painted on walls in Jewish areas as a vandalistic threat. However, KA design claimed that their intention was only to glorify the design of the sign and to not let Nazism ruin it.
Perhaps it is too soon to try to deny that swastikas mostly harbor bad connotations in people’s minds. Conversely, we also need to understand that a long time before Nazi Germany, swastikas brought wealth and luck to people. Next time you see a building with patterns on it that include the swastika, think about which time period it was built in, and for what purpose.
Keep your eyes open, and I will keep wearing my mittens.
Liene Magdalena Pekuse is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]