The Semiotics Of The Third Reich.

7 min readMay 22, 2020


The horrifying symbols of the Nazi regime, and why they must be remembered.

There are few more infamous and devastating moments in history like that of the Third Reich and the premiership of Adolf Hitler. His rise to power in 1933 and his immediate domination of Germany was something that can be seen in retrospect as a hugely important and impressive feat. But it also brought with it a grave warning, and Hitler’s intentions were made clear from the beginning. His immediate hyper-mobilisation of Germany in six short years meant that by the 1st September 1939, Germany was a living, breathing war machine, the likes of which not seen before. And hopefully never again.

The Nazi regime was a well-oiled machine that, if not for the fatal Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia), would have likely overpowered the United Kingdom and the entirety of Europe, hanging from every flagpole the national flag of the Third Reich. Indeed since 1945, the Swastika, or Hakenkreuz, has come to represent the racial supremacism that the Nazis so fervently advocated.

The Swastika (Hakenkreuz).

The Swastika itself (unlike the Nazis) has existed for thousands of years and used by nearly every culture and religion. The earliest depiction of the Swastika was found in Ukraine and dates back to around 10,000 BC. It is believed that it was utilised in that age as a fertility symbol. Since then, the meaning of the Swastika has centred in most cultures around power, prosperity, creation, and the principle of the universe in the formation of the world. Depictions have been found on almost every continent, and in almost every religion. Indeed, the Swastika is an adaptation of the Christian cross which is still used by such religions as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Hindu Swastika (left) and Sauvastika (right).

The swastika has been designed in many ways by many cultures and religions, with the 45-degree interpretation by Hitler being one of many such designs. In Hinduism, the Swastika is not at an angle but horizontally flat. They have two representations, either with its arms facing clockwise (Swastika) or counterclockwise (Sauvastika).

Top left to Bottom right: Celtic Tetraskelion, Basque Lauburu, Japanese Manji.

Other cultures have designed alternatives, such as a Tetraskelion (Celtic), a Lauburu (Basque people), or a Manji (Japanese). These symbols have been used for thousands of years, but none are as famous, or rather infamous, than the representation depicted by Hitler.

The Hakenkreuz, or ‘hooked cross” was formally adopted by the Nazi party in 1920, depicted in black and at a 45-degree angle. It was placed in a white circle on a red background. Each of the colours was deliberately chosen by Hitler. The red background symbolised Socialism. The white circle symbolised nationalism. And the Hakenkreuz itself symbolised the mission of the Aryan Race to dominate the world.

The Nazi Hakenkreuz on its red and white background.

After thousands of years of peaceful interpretation, the Swastika now came to represent the most brutal and evil regime ever known.

Other Nazi symbols.

Alongside the Hakenkreuz, and perhaps less well-known, were other symbols that represented the Third Reich.

An eagle was commonly used alongside the Swastika, usually with the Eagle sitting atop the symbol. There were two interpretations of this, namely the ‘Parteiadler’ and the ‘Reichsadler’. The eagle has been intrinsically linked to Germany since the existence of the Holy Roman Empire, when the eagle was used to represent the imperial power of the Emperor. From that, the Holy Roman Empire has its roots in the Ancient Roman Empire, where the eagle was also used. The eagle has come to represent man’s connection to the divine, stamina, courage, and leadership.

The German Eagle atop the Hakenkreuz.

Incorporating the eagle with the Hakenkreuz meant that the Nazis could conjure the nostalgia of the German people by using the eagle, and slowly begin to transfer that sense of pride and nationalism from the eagle to the Hakenkreuz, until the swastika alone could evoke such emotions as the eagle.

Another symbol used extensively was ‘Death’s head’. This symbol was used most by SS troops who operated the concentration and death camps, who were in turn under the control of Heinrich Himmler. Himmler was the most powerful Nazi official in Germany, with only the exception of Hitler himself. Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution, argued that ‘Death’s head’ acted as a constant reminder to troops that they should always be willing to sacrifice their life for the betterment of Germany.

The Death’s Head symbol used by the SS and Panzer forces.

The symbol was also used by the ‘Panzer’ forces; tank battalions who were crucial in the ‘Blitzkrieg’ operation that led to the German occupation of France.

Other symbols used by the Nazis were based on Norse mythology and the old Nordic language. The SS bolts that were sown on to the black SS uniforms, were a symbol of victory. They were adapted to become the emblem of the SS by the artist and SS officer, Karl Diebitsch, and graphic designer, Walter Heck. The design was based off of the Armanen Sig rune, which in turn was based on the Norse ‘Sowilo’ rune which represented the sun.

The Odal rune became the emblem of ethnically pure Germans and was used by the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen. The symbol translates to ‘heritage’ and ‘estate’, hence the Nazi interpretation of the symbol to represent the ethnic purity that they were striving for. The symbol has since been used by the neo-Nazi ‘National Socialist Movement’ in the USA, the neo-fascist ‘National Vanguard’ in Italy, and the far-right ‘White Liberation Movement’ in South Africa, where it has again been used to represent ethnic purity and supremacism.

The Algiz rune became the ‘life rune’ (correct way up) or the ‘death rune’ (depicted upside down). It was used on gravestones in place of the star and cross in Germany under the Nazi regime since the Nazis rejected the Judaeo-Christian interpretation of Christianity. It became a part of Nazi occultism after it was adopted and modified by Karl Wiligut, an Austrian occultist who later became a member of the SS.

Wiligut also modified and introduced the Tiwaz rune into Nazi culture. It came to represent war and honour and was sown onto various SS uniforms. The symbol itself originally represented the Norse God Tyr, the one-armed god of War.

The Wolfsangel was used by many Nazi divisions and was seen as a magical symbol. It also came to represent ‘Werwolf’, a Nazi resistance force created in 1944 to disrupt the Allied forces as they advanced across Europe towards Germany. The force itself never came into full fruition; the propaganda far outweighing the actual power of the resistance.

The Black Sun was a symbol most infamously exhibited in Wewelsburg castle, the residence of Himmler. The cult symbol represented the sun as it moved through the twelve months of the year and came to represent Satanism. Inspired by Merovingian disks from the European Iron Age, the symbol represented Nazi mysticism and had its origins in Norse mythology.

From top left going clockwise: SS bolts, Tiwaz rune, Wolsangel, Black Sun, Odal rune, Algiz (Life and Death) rune.

The symbolism of the Third Reich is both incredibly interesting and ultimately horrifying. Their collective meanings revolve around power, ethnic supremacy, and war. In hindsight therefore, it seems remarkably easy to predict the intentions of the Nazi regime as they began to mobilise a nation with these symbols at the forefront of their propaganda machine. The existence of the Third Reich is a deep scar on the world that will never fade. What the regime believed and committed will always be seen as one of the most horrifying acts of humankind in our collective history. The symbols that represented these acts and beliefs will share the same fate.

In the case of the Hakenkreuz in particular, this will be difficult to comprehend for many people who still view it as a token of fortune and creation. A symbol that has existed for tens of thousands of years was completely destroyed in all but 25 years of hate and destruction.

We cannot however forget the semiotics of these symbols; they need to be recorded and studied for the benefit of future civilisation. Symbols have historical cycles of significance, and it is certain that these symbols in particular will resurface at some point in the future. We need to be ready for when they do, which is why a study of them is so crucial. Symbols are pre-emptive of the actions they will come to represent.

Words by William Cooper.




William Cooper - Philosophy undergraduate