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Why Did the Nazis Hijack the Swastika?

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Reader Scott from Vermont wrote to ask, “Why did the Nazis adopt the ancient sacred symbol of the swastika as their emblem?”

Before the Nazis started using it and ruined it for everyone, the swastika had a long history throughout the world. Archaeologists have found evidence of the symbol’s use everywhere from Europe to Africa to Asia, going back thousands and thousands of years to the Iron and Bronze Ages. 

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the swastika came back into wide use in Europe in the late 1800s following “extensive archeological work such as that of the famous archeologist Heinrich Schliemann.”

“Schliemann discovered the hooked cross on the site of ancient Troy,” the museum says, and linked it to similar shapes found on German artifacts. He concluded that it was a “significant religious symbol of our remote ancestors.” After those discoveries, the swastika became a common symbol of good luck in Europe and abroad. 

“Pretty soon swastikas were everywhere, rotating both clockwise and counterclockwise,” Sarah Boxer wrote in the New York Times. They popped up in Rudyard Kipling’s signature, on Coca-Cola pendants, Carlsberg beer bottles, American army shoulder patches, and even Boy Scout merit badges. 

At the same time, certain individuals and groups adopted the symbol for less wholesome reasons. German nationalist movements saw the swastika as the Germans’ link to the Aryan “master race” and a “symbol of ‘Aryan identity’ and German nationalist pride,” the Holocaust Museum says, and it soon “became associated with the idea of a racially ‘pure’ state.”

Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the Nazis’ emblem needed to be both a “symbol of our own struggle” and “effective as a large poster,” and the swastika, as the nationalist movements were using it, fit the bill. 

The Nazis officially adopted a red flag with a white circle and black swastika in 1920. Hitler wrote of the flag (emphasis mine), “We National Socialists regarded our flag as being the embodiment of our party programme. The red expressed the social thought underlying the movement. White the national thought. And the swastika signified the mission allotted to us—the struggle for the victory of Aryan mankind and at the same time the triumph of the ideal of creative work which is in itself and always will be anti-Semitic.”

After millions of people were systematically killed under swastika flags by men wearing swastikas on their uniforms, the symbol become one of genocide, fascism, and racism, and any other connotations it might have had were lost in the West. Like the Chaplin-esque toothbrush mustache that Hitler wore, the swastika is pretty much off limits, though some people are trying to rehabilitate it. 

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Big Questions
Why Won't Team USA Dip the Flag at the Opening Ceremonies?
Harry How, Getty Images
Harry How, Getty Images

For the last 110 years, Olympic spirit has come with an asterisk for the United States, as we're the only country that refuses to dip its flag when passing the host country during the Opening Ceremonies.

Let's back up: During the Opening Ceremonies, every nation’s team parades in behind one member who holds the country’s flag. In the stands sit the governing officials of the host country. As the team marches past this section, the flag bearer lowers the flag as a sign of respect. Every country does the dip, except for the United States. The small move of respect has been a thorn in the sides of host countries since the U.S. first snubbed the tradition at the 1908 London Games.

The story goes that the 1908 U.S. flag bearer, shotputter Ralph Rose, kept the flag erect as an act of nationalism, proclaiming, "This flag dips to no earthly king.” However, according to Penn State professor Mark Dyreson, that story may not be exactly true. In 2012, Dyreson—who studies the Olympics—told the Los Angeles Times that America's refusal to participate in the flag-dipping tradition is a bit more complicated.

Rather than being a matter of good old American pride, Dyreson said that the Irish-American athlete’s actions were more about disdain for the British. In that era, Irish athletes riled at competing under the Union Jack. And there's no hard evidence the "no earthly king" quip was ever even muttered.

Until 1936, the practice to dip or not to dip flip-flopped. King Gustav V received a dipped flag in the 1912 Games, but 1936 was an easy call: The U.S. nearly didn’t participate in the Berlin Summer Olympics, let alone dip a flag in respect to Adolf Hitler. The decision to not dip was announced beforehand, and the U.S. was joined in protest by Bulgaria, Iceland, and India, according to contemporary media reports. The move wasn't even the athlete's decision—it was a top-down call from the United States Olympic Committee and, as traditions often begin, it just stuck. (In the 1940s, the tradition was formalized in the flag code, which reads “the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing.”)

So when we don't dip our flag, it's not pride. It's not hubris. It's not nationalism. It's just a big middle finger to Hitler.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Who Betrayed Anne Frank? A New Investigation Reopens the Case
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

The tale of Anne Frank’s years spent hiding with her family in the secret annex above her father’s warehouse is known around the world. Yet despite years of research by Otto Frank (Anne's father and the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust) and scholars, we still don’t know exactly what circumstances led to Anne and her family’s discovery. A new investigation is reopening the cold case in the hopes of finally finding out the truth, The Guardian reports.

The long-accepted theory of the Franks’ discovery and subsequent arrest is that an anonymous tip to the Sicherheitsdienst, the Nazi intelligence agency, gave their hiding place away. The 30 potential suspects identified over the years have included a warehouse worker, a housekeeper, and a man possibly blackmailing Otto Frank. In December 2016, researchers at the Anne Frank House floated a new theory: The discovery was incidental, the result of a police raid looking for proof of ration fraud at Otto Frank’s factory, in which police just happened to uncover two Jewish families living in secret. However, none of these theories has been proven definitively.

Now, a team of investigators led by a former FBI agent is taking on the cold case, reviewing the archives of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, examining newly declassified material in the U.S. National Archives, and using data analysis to find a conclusive answer to the decades-old mystery.

“This investigation is different from all previous attempts to find the truth,” according to the Cold Case Diary website. “It will be conducted using modern law enforcement investigative techniques. The research team is multidisciplinary, using methods of cold case detectives, historians, but also psychologists, profilers, data analysts, forensic scientists and criminologists.” Thijs Bayens and Pieter Van Twisk, a Dutch filmmaker and journalist, respectively, came up with the idea for the project, and recruited the lead investigator, retired FBI agent Vince Pankoke. Pankoke has previously worked on cases involving Colombian drug cartels.

The new Anne Frank case will focus on investigative techniques that have only become available in the last decade, like big data analysis. Already, the investigators have uncovered new information, such as a German list of informants and the names of Jews that had been arrested and betrayed in Amsterdam during the war, found in the U.S. National Archives.

The investigators hope to provide answers in time for the 75th anniversary of the Frank family’s arrest in August 2019.

[h/t The Guardian]

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