Why Did the Nazis Hijack the Swastika?

Getty Images
Getty Images

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. 

Why Do We Eat Pumpkin Pie at Thanksgiving?

gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images
gjohnstonphoto/iStock via Getty Images

While it’s possible—even probable—that pumpkins were served at the 1621 harvest festival that’s now considered the predecessor to Thanksgiving, attendees definitely didn’t dine on pumpkin pie (there was no butter or wheat flour to make crust).

The earliest known recipes for pumpkin pie actually come from 17th-century Europe. Pumpkins, like potatoes and tomatoes, were first introduced to Europe in the Columbian Exchange, but Europeans were more comfortable cooking with pumpkins because they were similar to their native gourds.

By the 18th century, however, Europeans on the whole lost interest in pumpkin pie. According to HowStuffWorks, Europeans began to prefer apple, pear, and quince pies, which they perceived as more sophisticated. But at the same time pumpkin pie was losing favor in Europe, it was gaining true staple status in America.

In 1796, Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first cookbook written and published in the New World colonies. Simmons included two recipes for “pompkin pudding” cooked in pastry crust. Simmons’s recipes call for “stewed and strained” pumpkin, combined with a mixture of nutmeg, allspice, and ginger (yes, it seems our pumpkin spice obsession dates back to at least the 1500s).

But how did pumpkin pie become so irrevocably tied with the Thanksgiving holiday? That has everything to do with Sarah Josepha Hale, a New Hampshire-born writer and editor who is often called the “Godmother of Thanksgiving.” In her 1827 abolitionist novel Northwood, Hale described a Thanksgiving meal complete with “fried chicken floating in gravy,” broiled ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and—of course—pumpkin pie. For more than 30 years, Hale advocated for Thanksgiving to become a national holiday, writing regular editorials and sending letters to five American presidents. Thanksgiving was a symbol for unity in an increasingly divided country, she argued [PDF].

Abraham Lincoln eventually declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 (to near-immediate outcry from Southerners, who viewed the holiday as an attempt to enforce Yankee values). Southern governors reluctantly complied with the presidential proclamation, but cooks in the South developed their own unique regional traditions. In the South, sweet potato pie quickly became more popular than New England’s pumpkin pie (mostly because sweet potatoes were easier to come by than pumpkins). Now, pumpkin pie reigns supreme as the most popular holiday pie across most of the United States, although the Northeast prefers apple and the South is split between apple and pecan, another Southern staple.

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

Anthony Blunt: The Art Historian/Russian Spy Who Worked at Buckingham Palace

Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Samuel West portrays Anthony Blunt in The Crown.
Des Willie, Netflix

*Mild spoilers for season 3 of The Crown on Netflix ahead.

Viewers of the third season of The Crown on Netflix will likely have their curiosity piqued by Anthony Blunt, the art historian who is revealed to be a spy for the Russians during his 19 years of service to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Instead of getting the boot once he was discovered, however, Blunt went on to remain under Her Majesty's employ for eight more years—until his official retirement. While treason never looks good on a resume, the royal class had good reason to keep him on.

Blunt, who was born and raised in England, visited the Soviet Union in 1933 and was indoctrinated as a spy after being convinced of the benefits of Communism in fighting fascism. He began recruiting his university classmates at Cambridge before serving during World War II and leaking information about the Germans to the KGB. Blunt was one of five Cambridge graduates under Soviet direction. Two of them, diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, relocated to the Soviet Union in 1951. Another, Kim Philby, went undetected until 1961. John Cairncross escaped notice, too, but was eventually outed.

However, it was Blunt who had a post at Buckingham Palace. After being tipped off by American intelligence, MI5 interrogated Blunt. He confessed to his treachery in 1964 and was granted immunity from prosecution. Why was he able to remain employed? One theory has it that British intelligence was so embarrassed by Blunt's ability to circulate in the upper levels of the monarchy that firing him would have raised too many questions. Another thought has Blunt having knowledge of some bizarrely congenial wartime correspondence between Adolf Hitler and the Duke of Windsor (a.k.a. King Edward VIII, whose abdication led to Elizabeth's eventual ascension to the throne).

Whatever the case, the Queen was advised by MI5 to keep Blunt around. In his role as art curator, he had no access to classified information. Blunt was at the Palace through 1972 and spent another seven years roaming London giving lectures. His actions remained a tightly guarded secret until Margaret Thatcher disclosed his treason in 1979.

As for that speech seen in The Crown, where Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth makes some not-so-subtle digs at Blunt at the opening of a new exhibition, there's no record of such a takedown ever happening. While the two reportedly kept their distance from each other in private, according to Miranda Carter's Anthony Blunt: His Lives:

“Blunt continued to meet the Queen at official events. She came to the opening of the Courtauld’s new galleries in 1968, and in 1972 she personally congratulated Blunt on his retirement, when the Lord Chamberlain, knowing nothing of his disgrace, offered him the honorary post of Adviser on the Queen’s pictures—inadvertently continuing his association with the Palace for another six years.”

Stripped of his knighthood as a result of the truth about his actions being made known, Blunt became a recluse and died of a heart attack in 1983. His memoirs, which were made public by the British Library in 2009, indicated his regret, calling his spy work "the biggest mistake of my life."

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