The Swastika in Latvia

This post has been coming for a long time, but I never really knew exactly how to approach it. I don't know when I first noticed the swastika; it probably was in some sort of pattern on mittens or socks or a restaurant menu or something of the kind. In Latvia the swastika is called the Ugunskrusts or Pērkonkrusts (Fire Cross and Thunder Cross, depending on if it is rotating clockwise or counterclockwise.)

Today in "Culture History" class we spent an hour copying down Latvian folk symbols and what they meant. Despite the fact that I knew the swastika was an ancient folk symbol, when it appeared on the board and remained there for the entire period I literally felt sick.

Yes, it's just a folk symbol. Yes, it's part of pagan Latvian culture. Yes, it originally had nothing to do with Nazi Germany, antisemitism, etc. But the fact is that Latvia has a pretty sketchy record when it comes to do with both of those things. The majority of the country welcomed the Nazis with open arms, as they seemed to be the better alternative to the Soviets; Latvia was home to approximately 85,000 Jews before World War II, and over 70,000 were killed during the Holocaust. According to these figures, which are on the lower end of the reliable estimates, that means that 82% of Latvian Jews were massacred. And yet, the Holocaust isn't something that is discussed here. It's not exactly ignored, but the general opinion seems to be "We suffered too," i.e., Soviet deportations, the Gulag, etc. Surely, Latvia and Latvians suffered. Yes, their population was also heavily depleted. But the majority survived, even if they were forced to leave. There is honestly no comparison.

As I sat in class today and copied the swastika into my notebook as I was supposed to, I asked a classmate why nobody found it offensive. The response? "It's no big deal. It just isn't bad." When I pressed, the response was, "Maybe if I were Jewish." I have not met a single Jewish person in Latvia; I have not met a Latvian who knows a Jewish person. When you are in a country that has a problem with skinheads and neo-Nazism, when each year former members of the Latvian Legion - a formation of the Waffen SS - march through Riga, when things like this happen in the middle of the capital city... There really is no way this is an entirely harmless symbol. I'm not saying people mean to do harm, but denying what the swastika symbolizes is dangerously close to denying the Holocaust, particularly in a country like Latvia.

A screencap of a live TV broadcast of a folk dance event:
the dancers form a swastika in the middle.

Pattern on a placemat
The swastika over Māra's cross, another national symbol.
A pattern common on souvenir mittens
The Jewish cemetery defaced:
Riga, December 8, 2010.

10 Response to "The Swastika in Latvia"

  1. Ms. G Says:

    that's so horrible. Makes me sick just thinking about it, even though it isn't meant as a bad thing.

  2. Mama Kangaroo Says:

    Very thoughtful post. Perhaps someone you meet now will stop and think a little more next time they see this offensive and tragic symbol; whether its roots were once benign is pretty much irrelevant after it was used for so much pure evil and horror. Maybe Latvia should switch to a new folk symbol, like the Happy Face? :)

  3. Brett Says:

    Hey allie, its brett. I actually have Jewish heritage and kind of struggled with that throughout my year in Latvia. They dont really think the holocaust was a big deal since the Latvians were dealing with being deported/murdered themselves. I can reccomend taking the train to Darzini, near Salaspils. From there, get off the train, and keep walking in the direction the train went for about 10 minutes until you get to a cross road, turn left and follow it. Youll be at the Kurtenhof Concentration Camp, which has been turned into a small and hidden memorial. Its worth a trip in winter if you are wondering about Latvia's Jewish past

  4. Mama Kangaroo Says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.
  5. Silvija Avota Says:

    Hi Allie. Like you I have different feelings when I see swastika. Good thing is - Hitler choosed wrong symbol for him. Meaning of swastika is "The word "swastika" comes from the Sanskrit svastika - "su" meaning "good," "asti" meaning "to be," and "ka" as a suffix". We will never know what would happen if he took another symbol. Swastika leads to truth.

  6. mairitasfilmas Says:

    Swastika can be a cross of death or cross of life - depending on the direction it is drawn. The swastika Germans used is cross of death (if you turn it clockwise, it cuts), the one latvians uses a lot of times is another symbol - cross of life, which kind of is patting if you turn it clockwise.

  7. Yana Way Says:

    Yes, the Nazi swastika faces the opposite direction. To Latvians, this is NOT a swastika. They do not use that word for it. The dance toe looks like the solar image...Which is not the swastika either. This pattern is huge in Latvia. Swastikas are something a fringe group of crazies use. You cannot label Latvians as bad because ALL their ancient designs practically include something you think is a swastika. When, in fact, it is not. Not intended that way or used that way. Or even ever considered as such.

  8. Jon Latvis Says:

    It was a sacred symbol before that idiot, Hitler, bastardised it and turned it into a symbol of hate. Before that, it was used as a positive symbol in the west as well. Boy scouts used to have patches with Swastikas sewn on their uniforms.

  9. Unknown Says:

    It's not a swastika dumbass, latvian fire cross which was stolen and ''culturaly apropriated'' by germans! Latvians have all rights to use their own cultural symbols!!!

  10. Laura Ray Says:

    So we are supposed to give up symbols from our religion? From our gods because it offends people? It's not offensive for you to even suggest that? Black people were burned on the cross during slavery don't see anyone telling the Christians to take down the crosses in their church and put up happy faces... you people are calling them folk symbols these are the last thing that remains of our gods after the brutal Christianization of Europe and the Soviet Union quite frankly how dare you

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