From the Greeks to the Vikings, far right and alt-right groups are twisting historical truths to justify racism, bigotry, and misogyny, and they’re managing to convince their devotees and the public alike that their lies are true.
Historical appropriation is not a new phenomenon. It happened in Icelandic 13th-century prose, and the Nazis appropriated Norse symbols. The Nazis even corrupted the swastika, which existed for thousands of years as a sacred symbol.
However, the instances of history being manipulated to support the aims of a particular group have increased, and they’re reaching a wide and relatively captive audience thanks to the internet and AIs. The examples of these modern thefts of history are numerous. One of the most well-known might be the use of the term Anglo-Saxon to represent European and Germanic racial purity. But that purity is a myth.
Anglo-Saxon Europe inherited much of the social landscape of the Roman Europe that preceded it, and Roman Europe was a very diverse place.
Not to say that prejudice (and antisemitism) didn’t exist, but the issues of race that so trouble our society were almost irrelevant then.
Rome had a black emperor — a North African man called Septimius Severus — and the colour of his skin seems to have been entirely unimportant to his contemporaries.
The diversity of the Roman Empire included Roman Britain; people from the Mediterranean and North Africa spent their lives in London as archaeological evidence has proven. When Rome fell and Britain was no longer under Roman control, multiculturalism continued.
Many historians are now convinced that the Anglo-Saxon invasions never happened.
Instead, Germanic peoples gradually migrated into Britain over the course of hundreds of years to live alongside native populations. There was no population replacement; there was no pure Anglo-Saxon race in Britain because native and migrating populations eventually mixed.
The term Anglo-Saxon — relatively recent in its current linguistic incarnation — is so bound up with white supremacy that some historians feel it can never be reclaimed.
This is especially the case in America. From the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) to the America First Caucus claiming in April 2021 that they’d launch a platform to respect “Anglo-Saxon political traditions”, the term has a long history of racism and exclusion.
Even as far back as 1875, “Anglo-Saxon” was being used to place white people as superior to black people.
This continued into the 1920s and was picked up by the Ku Klux Klan.
The supposed purity of Germanic peoples also prompts the alt-right’s fascination with the Vikings.
Whether it’s their use of Vinland — a brief, failed Viking colony in North America — as proof of their primacy in America or their obsession with Norse symbology, the right gets it wrong.
Vikings are held as a pinnacle of male superiority, yet Viking communities gave women rights and status beyond the rest of medieval Europe. A multicultural and multiracial group of what we might call pirates, the Vikings sailed and traded across much of the known world. Arabic dirhams (coins) have been found by archaeologists throughout the Viking world, and the Vikings were known to have deep contacts within Islamic societies.
However, a white supremacist in Oregon posted “Hail Vinland!!! Hail Victory!!!” on social media before killing two men and seriously injuring another who were protecting a Muslim girl and her friend from his threats. Likewise, the terrorist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand had also spoken of the Vikings.
While medieval Europe is often the subject of the alt-right’s misrepresentation of history, as in the case of man born and raised in California who attacked a synagogue, called himself a “European man”, and said that, “The blood that runs through my veins is the same that ran through the English, Nordic, and Irish men of old,” the white supremacist larceny of fact extends back much further.
While Stoicism was originally the pursuit of virtue, a quest for a true understanding of emotions and self-realisation, it’s been corrupted by the alt-right’s Red Pill community to mean the suppression and control of emotion.
It is used to evidence the dominance of men — white men — because, allegedly, only they can remain in total control of themselves at all times.
Anyone who’s seen footage of the right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia or the January 6th US Capitol riots might question that definition of control.
The alt-right and far right’s misplaced love of the ancient world continues with the Roman poet Ovid. They believe that modern society is organized specifically to disenfranchise (white) men, and they hold extremely misogynist views. They refer to Ovid’s work as if it were a seduction manual and use it as grounds for what is actually sexual assault.
The alt-right also loves the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. The Spartan policy of xenelasia (expulsion of foreigners) finds approval with white supremacists, but they’re also extremely fond of the phrase molon labe, or “come and take them”.
This is what Spartan king Leonidas supposedly said to Persian king Xerxes when the Greeks were asked to surrender and throw down their weapons. Molon labe is a favourite cry of the right; even Ted Cruz has used it.
The right seems to overlook though that Xerxes did go and take them; Leonidas and his men were killed. They’re also unaware that historical evidence for molon labe ever being said is tenuous at best; it probably never happened.
Still, Sparta in general is used as a rallying point for the far right, from the Greek Golden Dawn party and Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale to right-wing Conservative MPs during Brexit.
While schools and universities are slashing humanities funding and removing history from their curricula, historical truths are being warped to support and further hatred.
To fight these lies and their terrible consequences, from terror attacks and murder to assault and rape, we must teach the truth, stop stigmatising knowledge, and learn from the past: the real past.