The swastika and the unarmed man: symbols of power and peace

There are certain symbols in life that somehow seem able to draw psychic energy from the collective consciousness and focus it toward a specific cause: the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) symbol is one very potent example. The instantly recognisable design immediately resonated strongly with protesters back in 1958 when it was conceived and was quickly adopted by the peace movement across the world. Indeed, it was the perfect antidote to the German swastika of the previous decade, also known as the Hakenkreuz: the crooked cross. And contrary to the CND symbol, the Nazi emblem pulsates with menace and, for most of us, triggers an association with murderous hatred.

It’s an unfortunate fact that this was not always the case for the swastika: the origins of the swastika are ancient and its usage spans continents. It has had profound meaning for civilisations throughout the ages and was generally associated with wellbeing and good fortune. This didn’t stop it being appropriated by Germans seeking an emblem to represent the nationalist cause even prior to the rise of the Nazi party, which infamously set it in black on a white circle with red backdrop. After the downfall of the Third Reich it is often hard for Europeans to view the swastika in its original, more innocent, context, say in India for example (Swastika is in actual fact a Sanskrit word), where it can be seen everywhere.

The famous CND symbol—actually, another variation of a black cross on a white circle, except with the horizontal lines dropping from the centre at 45 degrees—was created by a graphic designer from Britain called Gerald Holtom who was one of several thousand conscientious objectors during WWII. Holtom suggests the design arose from a combination of ideas. He took the signs for N and D from semaphore, to denote Nuclear and Disarmament, and placed them one on top of the other; but he also had in mind the image from Goya’s well known painting of the forlorn peasant with arms outstretched as he despairingly faced the firing squad. This abstract depiction of an unarmed person standing passively against overwhelming firepower, embodies the entire ethos of the movement in one beautifully simple design.

The political right in America have often tried to demonise the symbol which appears to inspire their disgust and hatred—they infer that it somehow represents communist oppression or that it has roots in Satanism. The gentleness of its aura is apparently completely lost to them.

Like the swastika, Holtom’s unique design has been appropriated for various causes that are not necessarily in tune with the spirit of CND; there is no copyright and he made nothing from his artistic creation. It is permissible to pin it to virtually anything, whether political or commercial—dubious or otherwise. Generally speaking, however, the CND symbol is mainly associated with its intended purpose. Most recently, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, the Eifel Tower was incorporated into the traditional symbol as a call for peace...