Some antique books are very rare. Some are worth thousands of dollars. Others, we run across at practically every book fair and shop, like the early-20th century copies of Rudyard Kipling’s novels and poetry. They’re a great, inexpensive collector’s item and practically everyone has one. They usually have a nice, bright red cover with gilded lettering so they’re even a perfect photography prop for the creatives among us. But these lovely antique books come with what the modern reader sees as a nasty little surprise: a swastika embossed on the front cover and sometimes printed on the title page. But Kipling was decidedly not a Nazi, quite the contrary. In fact, he spoke at great length during his lifetime, warning the British and Europeans about the Nazi threat, calling Hitler’s followers “Hitlerites” and accurately predicting the breadth of their influence, though he died in 1936 before he could see exactly how right he was.
So why the swastika? In fact, the symbol is native to India where Kipling was born and spent many years of his life. In Southeast Asia, the swastika is an ancient symbol of good luck and well-being. One might see it on jewelry or painted on elephants. Kipling adopted it as his personal seal, often incorporating an elephant, fairly early in his career and it appeared on every edition of his books for decades. When the Nazi party took hold in the 1920s, Kipling had his publishers remove the symbol from everything printed from then on. He insisted that the symbol had been “defiled beyond redemption.” Though Kipling bears his share of controversy nonetheless, due to his involvement in the severe colonialism of the pre-war period, claims that he was a Nazi sympathizer are not just greatly exaggerated, but dead wrong.
Interested in Kipling? Check out the Strawberry Moon Pre-1940 section for some great examples!