May 21, 2019

Why White Supremacists Love the Classics

“IN 1924, as a secretary and propaganda assistant for the young Nazi Party, Heinrich Himmler was spending a great deal of time on a train as he traveled Bavaria promoting his party. He had with him a small treatise on the German race called de Origine et Situ Germanorum, or On the Origin and Situation of the Germans. The treatise was written in 98 CE by a Roman senator named Tacitus, and Himmler read it avidly, finding in it eloquent evidence of the superiority and purity of the German race. In Tacitus’s description of the tall, blond, rather savage northern tribes, Himmler saw the superior Aryan stock whose preservation and dominance motivated the Nazis. “We will return to being what we were,” he wrote in his diary, and he vowed to rediscover the “nobility of our ancestors.”

The Germania, as the treatise is commonly known, remained an important source of ideology and pride for the Nazis. Nor was it an isolated use of ancient authority: Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy both proudly and explicitly connected themselves with the ancient Romans and borrowed many of their symbols — the very name “Fascist” refers to an important Roman status marker, and the Nazi Imperial Eagle is derived from the Roman standard.

Himmler’s reading of antiquity, on that train in 1924, was extreme, but it was also the natural extension of the discipline’s origins; earlier classicists had simply been more genteel, or perhaps less proactive, in their application of white supremacy to antiquity. After World War II, classicists were all too happy to denounce explicitly racist appropriations like Himmler’s as abuses perpetrated by extremist ideologues, to sweep them under a rug in an upper chamber, and to return to what they saw as their unbiased, unspoiled, and objective engagement with antiquity. The mainstream of the field continued to do this for decades, leaving the uglier aspects of the discipline’s history largely unexamined, assuming that our dry analyses of the distant past were safely contained in our responsible hands.”

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