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A Reception History and Impact History of the Swastika Since the 19th Century

Essay 2015 14 Seiten


The colonialism of the 19th century has not only been the consequence and reason for the rapid industrialization, urbanization, socio-political and cultural changes, but also invoked a change in a way people would perceive the world around them. In other words, it is important to discuss how reception history entered people’s lives: its notion is important in itself not only as a concept, but “as a method to investigate the dynamics of what is being ‘read’ in selected products from another culture.”[1]

The term “Reception history”, as suggested by H. Marcuse, is the history of the meanings that have been imputed to historical events. This approach traces different ways in which participants, observers, and historians and other retrospective interpreters have attempted to make sense of events, both as they unfolded, and over time since then, to make those events meaningful for the present in which they lived and live.[2] However, it is more applicable in this work to look at the reception history from the perspective of cultural history rather than general history. Looking at the reception history from the point of view of cultural history suggests us two aspects: the way a person or event was portrayed and the way those portrayals were perceived. The first aspect has to do with the historical methodology and depicting history as such; the second aspect is a category of cultural history, where images and depictions of the real things were perceived. This is usually a case of transmission of one cultural heritage to another culture, and their consequential mixing, if occurs.

There is a great extent of theories within the field of the reception history which suggests the theoretical background of this approach. Hans Robert Jauss, a German reception history theorist, argued that in interpreting a phenomenon, interpreters bring to bear the subjective models, paradigms, beliefs and values of their necessarily limited background.[3] This is called “the horizon of expectations”, and this element does not distort the meaning or the intention of the phenomenon, as suggested by Jauss. Considering one’s culture through the lens of one’s own perception is not even a positively described thing, but a logical consequence of reworking and reprocessing of information in terms of one’s personal or, in the case of the whole society, collective background. However, it is still not a one-sided process – perceived phenomena also take part in transforming the societies and interpreters. As Hans Robert Jauss supposes in his Towards an Aesthetic of Perception, a great text ( or any other phenomenon) can result in a change of horizons by negating the familiar experiences or by accumulating new experiences to the level of consciousness.[4] This is a necessary condition for any flow of information to be processed – new information or phenomena invoke something never experienced before in interpreters.

Reception history as a method is interesting because the use of the method can educate us more about the interpreter of a certain phenomenon rather than the interpreted phenomenon. In the reception history there is less attention paid to the ‘essences’ of the object or phenomenon themselves and what they mean to the original source of their production, instead we look at pars-pro-toto selection processes: selective appropriation, cross-cultural interpretation, bi-polar and constructive ordering of identities and other occurring things.[5]

In this paper the focus is on the 19th century European perception of the swastika, one of the most striking symbols of Orientalism. In order to understand how the reception history works in terms of receiving, processing and appropriating the phenomena from distant cultures, the symbol of swastika will be researched, considered and re-evaluated under the notions of the message decoding and fragmentation of knowledge. The question in the framework of the reception history studies will be about what the perception and decoding of the swastika, an ancient Southern Asian symbol, can tell us about the socio-cultural atmosphere in Europe in the 19th century. What is more, it is even more of importance to trace the connection between the 19th century’s perception and reworking of the swastika and its future use and adaptation in the times of the Nazi Germany’s uprising and the WWII period. As a result of this relation, looking at the post-war experience and embracement of the swastika in Europe would give an account of the degree of changes taken throughout the 150 years of the swastika’s perception in European minds and further elaborate on the status of the symbol and the European society. Using the method of the reception history helps us not only to investigate the 19th century Zeitgeist and gather deeper insights in the culture and people of the 19th century, but follow the development of perception and changes throughout 150 years of the symbol of swastika – this way, it becomes possible to learn something about the contemporary society as well.

The swastika is a highly controversial symbol in the contemporary history. In popular culture the symbol of swastika starts with Hitler and is usually associated with the Nazi Germany and its ideology of the Germans as the highest Aryan race. Nevertheless, the origins of the swastika lie much deeper and go back to thousands years ago, when the Ancient civilizations built their world on our planet. Etymology of the word “Swastika” originates from Sanskrit’s meaning for “well-being, good fortune, good luck”.[6] The symbol of the swastika can be found almost in all parts of the world. The oldest surviving representation of the symbol comes from the Northern Indian Coast of Lothal, however some archeologists claim that the oldest representation found originates from Ukraine. The swastika found its use and appeared an important religious and spiritual element also in Ancient Mesopotamia, early Christian and Byzantine art, North, Central and South Americas. Nowadays, the swastika is still the most widely used symbol not only in India, but other parts of Asia as well, in particular Buddhist countries.

Elena Blavatsky refers to the swastika as the most philosophically scientific, understandable and sacred symbols that ever existed. The swastika has got other names as well: Jana’s cross, Thor’s hammer and hermetic cross. The symbol got its sacral meaning because it was stamped on Buddha’s heart, consequently getting ad additional name – the Heart’s Stamp.[7]

The growing colonization of the 19th century brought about the developing interest for everything Oriental and introduced many things before unknown to the Westerners. The 19th century subsequently became the Age of Asian discoveries in the fields of anthropology, history, culture studies, archeology and etcetera. For example, the discovery and birth of the Indo-European language group theory has a strong relevance with the growing popularity of the swastika in the West. Heinrich Schliemann, a German archeologist, concluded that the swastika was a specifically Aryan symbol after consulting two Sanskrit specialists following his discovery of objects in the ruins of Troy with the symbol of swastika on them.[8] How did this idea spread out throughout whole Europe?

The daily routine of the 19th century with its fragmented and well-ordered way of life, understanding and interpretation bothered the European society enormously. The processes taking place in the light of the century gave birth to counter voices and diverse reactions. Anti-slavery, call for humanity and rise of right activists in many fields (labor, gender etcetera) were the vast responses to the harsh and inevitable fragmentation and Social Darwinism which gave floor later to such movements as Social Evolutionism and Nationalism.[9] Human activities were not enough to differentiate from the ordered mass, thus brand new cultural waves from the East (Asia) became an escape from the pressing reality of the 19th century into the new world of exotic and unknown things.

Industrialization which was achieved with the help of constructing railroads and urbanization as a consequence of increased mobility fastened the process of nationalization – for instance, people would get recruited for ‘the national army’ from remote areas, and in order to accommodate themselves they would have to give up their local dialects and start speaking a common language which could be understood by everybody.[10] Another reason for nationalization was the political aspect of the 19th century which started with the French revolution at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.[11]

Hence, the 19th century’s cultural and political atmospheres became the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of ‘Aryan’ theories of ancestry and race in Europe. The conclusion accepted by Heinrich Schliemann was only in favor of the existing ideas, and his finding was taken up by many other writers which increased the fame of the symbol of the swastika even more. Between 1880 and 1920 swastikas were imprinted on many architectural sites throughout Europe. Another illustration for growing importance of the swastika can be the Paris Exposition of 1889 where 300 pieces of art with swastikas on it were exhibited. What strikes the most is the fact that the sign got repeated in the chain of identical images which caused the separation of the symbol from tradition – instead, the new tradition was constructed from the repetition of the identical images.[12] The process which took place in the end of the 19th century with swastikas reminds of the new form of art introduced by Andy Warhol with his Campbell’s soup cans images – his idea was to replicate identical images in order to manifest the mimicking and uniformity of advertising.[13] The connotation was thus partly negative. Exposing 300 images of differently painted or carved swastikas could not suggest any other views or opinions for people who observed it rather than banality of the symbol and perception as an ornamental mix. Even though swastikas had a positive meaning in the 19th century Europe and indeed promoted auspiciousness and good luck, it still could not be satisfactorily and finally decoded within the available categories of the meaningful symbol or the meaningless ornament, as suggested by Malcolm Quinn, – it could begin to function only as the image of a negative value and of purity established in opposition to definition of the unclean.[14]


[1] Nugteren, A.(2015). LAS 2015 Extra Session Eight (Reception History) [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

[2] Marcuse, H. (2013, November 3). Reception History: Definition and Quotations. Retrieved April 28, 2015, from

[3] Machor, J.M. (2001). Theoretical account of reception. In Machor, J.A.M.E.S. .L & Goldstein, P (Eds), Reception Study: from literary theory to cultural studies (pp. 1-2). Great Britain: Routledge New York and London.

[4] Jauss, H.R. (1982). Toward an Aesthetic of Reception. (p.25) Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

[5] Nugteren, A.(2015). LAS 2015 Extra Session Eight (Reception History) [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

[6] Nugteren, A.(2015). LAS 2014 – session nine., The Svastika: an example of a very specific and time-defined appropriation and re-working of Indian heritage [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

[7] Blavatsky, H.P. (1888). Proem. In Gomes, M (Ed), The Secret Doctrine (pp. 1-27). New York: Tarcher/Penguin.

[8] Glyn, E.D. (2015). Encyclopaedia Britannica . Retrieved 14 May, 2015, from

[9] Nugteren, A.(2015). LAS 2015 – session six., Darwinian despair: the Victorian crisis of faith (in almost anything) [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from

[10] Rietbergen, P. (1998). Progress and its discontents,. Europe: A Cultural History (pp. 366-391). Great Britain: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

[11] Nugteren, A.(2015). LAS 2015 – session four., [WordDocument]. Retrieved from

[12] Quinn, M. (1994). Symbol., The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol (pp. 22-61). Great Britain: Routledge London & New York.

[13] MoMA. (2015). MoMA Learning. Retrieved 14 May, 2015, from

[14] Quinn, M. (1994). Symbol., The Swastika: Constructing the Symbol (pp 23-24). Great Britain: Routledge London & New York.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
532 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Tilburg University – Liberal Arts and Sciences
2016 (Dezember)
colonial history colonialism swastika nazism reception history impact history



Titel: A Reception History and Impact History of the Swastika Since the 19th Century