Kipling’s Swastika

by zunguzungu

It’s not that I’m totally startled to find this as the manner in which that great Anglo-Indian, Rudyard Kipling represents himself on the title page of the 1922 printing of Kim:

But there is still a certain interesting shock in coming across it. In one sense, as we know, the swastika took on a whole other meaning after the Nazi party made it their icon, a usage which drowned out most of the other usages of the symbol (or close variations) in the West. It ceased to signify in terms of what had made it meaningful for the people who had deployed it; now it just means “Nazi.” Like the name “Adolf,” an arbitrary sign has been made to bear the burden of historical atrocity.

Yet traces like this — which Kipling took steps to erase after the Nazis “defiled beyond redemption” a symbol that had been his trademark for decades — help bring into focus the legibility of the Nazi party and idea in its own time. Which is exactly why that symbolic resonance had to be erased: Kipling and Hitler were playing versions of the same game, establishing a lineage of whiteness that could imagine into existence the pure Indo-European ancestor that Heinrich Schliemann was to have found, with the Swastika, in the ruins of Troy. Kipling had used the swastika as his moniker because it invested him — icon of the British Raj  — with the authenticity of an antiquarian Orientalism, articulating his whiteness not in opposition to, but by means of, the connection to an Indo-European original. That was a powerful move; it allowed the British in India, for example, to pose not as barbaric newcomers who had conquered and sacked a civilization far older and more advanced than them, but as the true heirs of its oldest primogenitor. But after Hitler, I wonder if more than the symbol was tainted for Kipling. Did he give the meaning the icon had for him? Did he gave up the things it had stood for? Amnesia is almost the opposite of confession, so one never knows (which is precisely the point).