Steven Heller | Essays

The Magic of the Peace Symbol

Antiwar rally in Heroes' Square, Budapest, Hungary, March 20, 2005. Photo by Zsolt Szigetvary.

The symbol for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament is 50 years old this year, and despite all the wars fought since its birth, none of them have been a nuclear war. Perhaps it was the dramatic specter of the mushroom cloud and all it symbolizes that has helped deter the unthinkable.

But just maybe there is some magic in the peace symbol. There was probably no more galvanizing nor polarizing emblem during the 1960s than the upside-down, three-pronged, fork-like mark in a circle that came to symbolize the anxiety and anger of the Vietnam era. And perhaps few symbols have had origins surrounded in as much mystery and controversy.

Although the basic form had roots in antiquity, the peace symbol was popularized during the period in the mid-1950s when H-bomb testing prevailed. It was designed in 1958 by a British textile designer named Gerald Holtom for use by England’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Also known as the “Peace Action Symbol," it was used at the first annual Aldermaston Easter Peace Walk to promote world disarmament. It debuted in the United States in 1961 on protest signs in the cautionary science-fiction film about the tragic ill-effects of nuclear testing, The Day The Earth Caught Fire. Soon it was universally adopted for use as an anti-war insignia.

The symbol is a composite semaphore signal for the letters N and D which, of course, stand for “nuclear disarmament,” but its basic form also derives from an ancient runic symbol which casts some doubt on whether the ND/semaphore rationale might have been an afterthought. According to an article in a 1969 issue of WIN (Workshop in Non-Violence) magazine sponsored by the War Resisters League (one of the 1960s foremost anti-Vietnam war activist groups), the peace sign derived from an initial iteration of a white circle on a black square. This was followed by various versions of Christian crosses drawn within the white sphere, which in turn evolved into the ND form. Referring to the Aldermaston march, WIN asserted that for subsequent demonstrations an ND badge was “devised and made by Eric Austen,” whose researches into the origins of symbolism underscored that the basic fork-like symbol — what he called the “gesture of despair” motif — was associated throughout ancient history with the “death of man,” and the circle with the “unborn child.” The reason for calling the upside down fork a “gesture of despair,” derives in turn from the story of St. Peter who was crucified upside down in 67 AD Rome on a cross designed by Emperor Nero, known thereafter as the “Nero Cross” or the “sign of the broken Jew.”

Before Gerald Holtom and Eric Austen, however, there was a still earlier precedent for the symbol. During the 1930s, decades prior to the nuclear disarmament and anti-Vietnam war movements, but on the precipice of fascist dominance in Europe, a strikingly similar emblem was devised by the English philosopher and socialist Bertrand Russell as an attempt “to depict the universal convergence of peoples in an upward movement of cooperation.” During the late 1950s Russell was the chairman for the CND and present at numerous disarmament demonstrations and protests against English involvement in NATO, at the very time when the symbol was adopted as the CND emblem. It is therefore probable that Russell introduced the basic sign to the organization from which Holton created his final design.

Russell was a former member of the Fabian Society (a fellowship of English socialists), which prompted a right-wing journal, American Opinion, to link the peace symbol, like the anti-war movement in general, to a broad Communist conspiracy of world domination, “It is not at all surprising that the Communists would turn to Russell to design their ‘peace sign,” states a 1970 article in this journal, which continues: “A Marxist from his earliest youth, he greeted the Russian Revolution with the declaration: ‘The world is damnable. Lenin and Trotsky are the only bright spots...’” The journal further describes Russell as an active anti-Christian who was well aware that he had chosen an “anti-Christian design long associated with Satanism.” In fact, the basic form, which appears both right-side up and upside down as a character in pre-Christian alphabets, was afforded mystical properties and is in evidence in some pagan rituals. Rightside up I represents “man,” while upside down it is the fallen-man. Referred to in Rudolf Koch’s Book of Signs as “the Crow’s foot” or “witch’s foot” it was apparently adopted by Satanists during the Middle Ages.

The Nazis routinely adopted runic forms for their official iconography, such as the SS runes, the insignia of Hitler’s personal bodyguard. Indeed the Nazi iconography calls the “crow’s foot” the todesrune or death rune. Paradoxically, in a rightside-up position it was frequently used on death notices, gravestones of SS officers, and badges given to their widows. Not unlike the Swastika itself, the direction of this runic symbol has positive and negative implications. The downward version might be interpreted as death and infertility, while the upward version symbolized growth and fertility.

The meaning of signs and symbols are easily transformed into good and evil depending on how they are sanctioned and applied over time — and who accepts said usage. Whatever Satanic associations the “crow’s foot” may have had when Bertrand Russell “designed” this symbol, he imbued it with more positive virtues of life and cooperation. Once adopted by the CND, and later by scores of other anti-war, ecology, civil rights, and peace and freedom groups, its meaning was forever changed to that of a sign of protest in the service of humanity. Magic had nothing to do with it.

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Comments [13]

Well done Steve. Remember as a kid seeing a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament for the first time and thinking, "Hey, ... a 'peace' car." Ha!

Joe Moran

Cool article. Great photo. I remember standing on Hero's Square and being amazed at the size.

So, I guess it was appropriate when I sewed a peace sign onto my (shortened) witch costume for Halloween in the 60s?
Michelle French

Though Koch does use the crow's foot in his book, I've always felt that the symbol could have been derived from the eloquent sequence of signs "illustrating the vicissitudes of family life" which appear in " The Book of Signs". I raised this possibility with Bill Drenttel when the peace symbol anniversary notice appeared in DO a few months ago, and he provided this link to a site on Koch's work: http://www.moorstation.org/Koch_Memorial/index.htm wherein it appears that "Das Zeichenbuch" was published in 1923, early enough to be seen by Russell and any other interested participants in the development of the symbol. In Koch's series, the symbol can be constructed from the symbol for "the man dies" and "the unborn child", both more powerfully resonant than N & D.
Michael Hentges

Nice article Steven. Not sure if you have seen it, CBS Sunday Morning featured a story on the peace symbol. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/03/23/sunday/main3960390.shtml. Ann Scott an artist, Holtom's daughter, also spoke about a Goya painting as an inspiration. It was an interesting piece. http://www.mega.nu/ampp/rummel/wf5.goya.jpg
Rocco Piscatello

“symbols are easily transformed”...“its meaning was forever changed”...
Is this the same Heller who wrote; the Swastika “as long as it embodies even an iota of evil...will never be redeemed”. There appears to be a conflict in your position-one led by your subjective desires rather than critical inquiry.

No MLA, there is no conflict - the meaning of the swastika had been fairly open throughout history, and continues to be in places not affected by the West. However, post-WWII, the meaning of the swastika has become sedimented and relatively fixed for a large Western audience, and it would be difficult to reactivate alternative meanings of the swastika.

Similarly, the peace 'signifier' had held different meanings throughout history, and probably continues to do so in certain enclaves in the world. However, post-CND the meaning of this signifier has become sedimented and relatively fixed for a large Western audience, and it would be difficult to reactivate alternative meanings of it for that audience.

Ralphy, I find myself in agreement with your assessment, but (in this instance) I am not so concerned with the socially constructed understanding of signs, but much more with a shift in Heller's argument.

Firstly, we should make note of your own divergence from Heller's position.
For Heller the swastika is deemed to be ‘beyond redemption’, it is consigned to be forever associated with the politics of the far right (the horrors of Nazi Germany in particular) and can “never” be reinterpreted.
That is a very different argument to the one made by others (including yourself, and, in a roundabout manner, by Heller in this post) that despite being very “difficult”, it is nonetheless possible to “reactivate alternative meanings” for any sign or symbol.

Secondly, where Heller usually forecloses in a distinctly binary fashion (usually any symbol that at some point was associated with fascism), here he remains open to transformative possibilities. How does he account for this apparent reversal? (This was the main concern of my former comment).

Finally, Heller often seeks to utilises his authoritative knowledge as a way to determine, and thus restrict alternative readings (witness Heller's book on the swastika which after so much thoughtful and fascinating research comes crashing down around a personal opinion about the rights and wrongs of its use).

I think it is important that these issues be raised, and Heller clearly has an opportunity to reply.

Is the swastika beyond redemption? The title of my book ends with a question mark. The conclusion, however, is indeed a subjectively resounding "yes" in terms of what it symbolizes in the Western context.

I have always called my book a polemic history given my critical (indeed subjective) conclusion regarding this one sign. In the book I argue that because we put so much weight on signs and symbols, one should forever represent Nazi crimes. Sure, this applies to other mark from Nazi iconography, but few of them are as powerful as the usurped swastika.

As for the peace sign's checkered past, in the modern context it was ostensibly benign (even when used by the Nazis). In fact, its appropriation (and re-invention) as the ND symbol effectively rid it of its past meaning. That said, it is considered a symbol of the "left" and, therefore, not favored by the "right," so everything is subject to interpretation.

BTW, the passage of time has a way of altering meaning. In 100 years (or maybe less) its quite possible - even probable - the swastika will return to his earlier historical standing.
steve heller

As always, I find your efforts on the subject both thorough and fascinating.

As a child who came up at the tail end of the Vietnam dialogue here, I got my information about the "peace symbol" on the streets. I think it was an older cousin who convinced me that the circle and its bisecting lines comprised the letters "BTB", (with the second B reversed) standing for "ban the bomb". Forgive me for asking, but did this turn up in any of your research? Thank you very much!

Looks amazing! are they holding candles?
Go Media

Not candles, they torches :)
I know it, I was there. Because I'm Hungarian :))

I posted some speculation about the symbol the same day as Steven on my blog: http://diaphania.blogspirit.com/archive/2008/03/20/ancient-symbolism-at-the-cnd.html I thought Koch's book a strong contender for the original inspiration. It's available on Google Books, also.
David Woodward

Thanks Steven, but your two conflicting statements make for a
confusing response;

1. The swastika is beyond redemption.
2. The swastika will return to it's earlier historical standing.

Am I to take the former as your subjective desire and the latter for
your historical understanding?

Jobs | July 18