If you weren’t aware that the symbol posted by Pete Evans is functionally equivalent to a swastika, that’s because part of its attraction to contemporary neo-Nazis is its slight obfuscation of the true nature of their movement.
It’s also because it has been more widely adopted as a symbol for the racist politics of fascism as the focus of that movement has changed its emphasis from ultranationalism to a transnational focus on supposed dangers to the white race, wherever they may be.
But it may also have something to do with the pervasive, uncanny amnesia that has been imposed on Australians in the scant 18 months since the worst overseas terrorist attack carried out by one of its citizens.
The symbol Evans deployed was the sonnenrad, the “sunwheel swastika”, or black sun. It has its origins as a pictographic representation of the sun in ancient Norse paganism.
Similar symbols can be found in other cultures, ancient and modern. Certain versions of the Celtic cross contain similar pictographs. The swastika itself arose independently in a range of cultures, and in some also represents the sun. In modern times, pagans with no connection to neo-Nazism – who may not have any particular secular political engagement at all – may employ the sunwheel or other ancient symbols in a benign manner.
In a video posted to Facebook, Evans denied he was a racist and said he had to “Google the meaning of neo-Nazi”.
“The mainstream media have come out and labelled me a racist and a Neo-Nazi … but it is a load of garbage,” he said.
Nevertheless the sunwheel, with the swastika, is one of a number of ancient symbols that were appropriated by the Nazis in the interwar period to signal their belief that they were destroying the German and European status quo in order to facilitate the glorious rebirth of Aryan civilisation which they thought had been corrupted and stymied by its racial enemies.
But as with everything the Nazis did, the emphasis in reviving these symbols was less on faithful historical accuracy and more on facilitating further racist myth-making.
When Heinrich Himmler, the head of Hitler’s SS, ordered a sonnenrad floor mosaic to be installed in the castle at Wewelsburg when he was remodelling it to serve as an organisational and spiritual headquarters of the Nazi paramilitary group, he and the craftsman involved may have taken some Merovingian coins as a model.
But they were careful to include the so-called “Sig” rune as the rays of the sun, thus reproducing the SS’s existing insignia in a symbol intended to create a false ethnic continuity between modern Germans and the ancient Norse, the prospect of racial revival through cleansing violence, and also to invoke the occult in a way that nazism adopted from long-standing German “volkisch” racial cults.
After the Nazis brought Germany to ruin, the remnant true believers incorporated the “black sun” and eventually the sonnenrad symbol into a loose assortment of occult beliefs that, together, must rate as one of the most elaborate coping strategies in modern history.
A former SS man Wilhelm Landig coined the occult idea of a “black sun” that supposedly gave its energy to the ancient Aryans when they inhabited “Hyperborea” in the polar regions. “Esoteric nazism”, which gathered pace in the far right in the last quarter of the 20th century, incorporated a grab bag of nonsense from earlier European esoteric traditions (including specifically racialist groups like the Thule and Vril societies), and sometimes posited outlandish theories of extraterrestrial origins for the supposed Aryan race, Nazi UFOs, or a hollow earth.
According to Nicholas Clarke, whose book Black Sun offers an authoritative history of esoteric nazism, the first connection between the occult “black sun” concept and the symbology of the Wewelsburg mosaic happened in 1991, in a pseudonymously written pulp thriller. Thus transformed into a symbol of a (false) history of a mythical Aryan race, and a future racial renewal, it has been “an esoteric symbol among younger neo-Nazis … since the 1990s”, according to Clarke.
Part of its attraction was that while displaying the Nazi swastika is taboo, or even illegal in some territories, the sonnenrad is not so instantly recognisable as a hate symbol. But in Australia, in particular, it should be more widely reviled.
Its most prominent recent deployment was as a cover image for the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who massacred 51 worshippers at two Auckland mosques in May 2019. In the context of Tarrant’s mass murder, according to the eminent historian of fascism, Roger Griffin, the sonnenrad is “the logo of ‘universal’ nazism” which “is now the ideology not of the rebirth of Germany, but of the mythical white ‘Aryan’ race fighting the alleged ethnic and ideological enemies of its ‘purity’ all over the world”.
For Nazis like Tarrant, Griffin argues, “multiculturalism and Islam, which were not issues for the Third Reich, are the central symptoms of societal decline to be eliminated”. In Tarrant’s manifesto and his actions in response to this belief “lies the obsessive theme of all genuine fascism: the status quo must be destroyed for ‘the nation’ [in this case not a nation state but an entire ethnic category] to be reborn”.
The meme Evans shared, which straightforwardly depicts the transition from Trumpian American nationalism to a Tarrant-style worldview, symbolised by the black sun, is an alarming indication of the extent to which the symbol has been disseminated.
We should consider why and how this has happened.
The significant overlap – past and present – between far right conspiracism and occultism, and “new age” esotericism – is something that has been considered too little in thinking about how people are exposed to racist extremist material online and are radicalised.
At the same time, Evans’ apparent ignorance about the true weight of the symbol and his surprise at the pushback he received may indicate a broader problem.
At the time of Tarrant’s massacre, there was some hopeful speculation that there would be a reckoning in Australian culture, including its media, about hate speech, Islamophobia, and anti-multicultural rhetoric.
Rather than soul-searching, however, the parts of Australia’s media which are most responsible for attacks on multiculturalism, migrants and anti-racists have chosen to continue as before, and simply to deny or ignore Tarrant’s position as an Australian racist, and to only sparingly mention him.
The hate symbol that Tarrant ordained his killing spree with should be instantly recognisable to Australians as a marker of danger, shame, and the white supremacy our society needs to confront.
That it still needs explaining is an indictment on the poverty of our debates on race.