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Q: What’s the origin of the Nazi swastika, and why is it sometimes rendered in a level, horizontal position and sometimes rotated at 45 degrees?
—T. Lambert, San Francisco, Calif.

A: The swastika, an ancient symbol found in Native American and numerous other cultures, is sacred to the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist faiths. However, it is perhaps best known as the symbol of Hitler’s Nazi Party.

The Nazi adoption of the swastika owed much to Adolf Hitler himself. According to the account he gave in Mein Kampf, Hitler personally designed the Nazi flag in 1920, with its “strikingly harmonious” combination of red, black, and white, which recalled the German Imperial colors, and with the swastika at its center, rotated 45 degrees from horizontal. It was this design that was adopted as the national flag of Germany in 1935.  

In addition to this, the state arms of the Third Reich—the Hoheitsabzeichen, which displayed a wreathed swastika clutched in the talons of the Nazi eagle—always showed the symbol rotated at 45 degrees. This, then, is the swastika’s most typical depiction in Nazi usage.  


The Nazi swastika was most often depicted rotated at 45 degrees, but was also rendered horizontally, as on standards at a 1934 festival in Bückeberg (above)(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When the swastika was adapted for a banner, however, or incorporated into a standard—for military and paramilitary units—it could be rendered horizontally. Indeed, Hitler’s own official standard as Reich chancellor and Führer showed the swastika displayed in this way. These differing representations in official Nazi usage were aesthetically determined and did not denote any deeper significance. 

Due to its association with Nazism, the swastika has been banned in Germany and Austria since 1945.  

—Roger Moorhouse is a British historian specializing in modern German and central European history and is the author of The Third Reich in 100 Objects.

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