A typical feature of most neo-fascist groups is the salute performed by extending the right arm in the air with a straightened hand. In order to provide it with a historical justification the fascists called this Nazi salute “Roman”, whereas the domestic fascists (TN: in Greece) vindicate its “Greek nature” by renaming it “Dorian”. Research shows that the pseudo-archaic salute is simply an artistic invention that emerged along with the first national states (1784). It was first extensively used by the Americans (1892) in a period that racism was at its peak and a witch-hunt against the workers movement was carried out. The salute was spread through some epic films of the early twentieth century, which proclaim the then imminent fascism. The Nazi-salute phenomenon can only be understood in connection with the political rituals and myths used to justify the existence of the national state regardless of its political form or the (historical) period.
The concept of nation that prevails in the last two centuries was previously unknown in the Western world. Its germination relates primarily to the transition from the feudal to the modern industrial and commercial economy (1). At a political level, the contemporary concept of nation was influenced by the French revolution and the following centralized Napoleonic national state. The latter’s efficiency as a mechanism of recruitment, policing, taxing and administration prompted its establishment as a model to be copied even by the then enemies of France. At the same time, with the transition from the regional-agricultural society of the village to the new, anonymous, industrialized and urban environment emerged the need for a new collective identity and the sense of belonging to some kind of national community (2). In a world that was becoming all the more secular the national myths and rituals simply complemented the metaphysical approach offered by religions (3). The new national narrative incorporated archaeological, historical and ethnological references in order to be validated. It was then transmitted through the educational system, which was controlled by the state (4), the printing (that imposed state-wide one official dialect thus excluding all the rest), and the art (e.g. national romanticism, a.k.a. romantic nationalism). The cinema was also used later on as a means of propaganda that enabled the spectacular representation (6) of historicity defined by the goals of the ruling classes.
The conception-invention and the gradual diffusion of the aforementioned pseudo-archaic salute can be understood within this framework of ethnic fiction. There is no Roman or Greek text or other piece of art that presents or refers to that salute (7). It first appeared in 1784 on the painting “Oath of the Horatii” by the French neoclassical artist Jacques-Louis David. Although it refers to a real historical event, the scene of the oath is the artist’s invention. It was thence used not only by the artist in another two of his works, namely in Le serment du Jeu de paume” (1792-French Revolution) and in “La Distribution des Aigles” (1810-Napoleon), but also by some of his pupils. An analysis of the paintings’ symbols and their propagandistic role can reveal the existence of various subtle messages such as a) the union and submission of the powerful men to the authority of the father-state as opposed to the frightened women, b) the importance of men’s collective self-sacrifice for the sake of their country, and c) the value of the glory gained in the battle fields and through the sacrifice for the emperor’s sake (9).
The first massive use of the invented “Roman salute” to the father-state-nation-emperor was not put forth by the fascists in the inter-war Europe, but it rather appeared in American schools in 1892. J. Upham and F. Bellamy came up with the idea of a campaign, which incorporated the aforementioned salute, in order to promote the sale of flags to schools for the 400th anniversary of America’s discovery by Columbus. The ritual included the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and the corresponding salute of the pupils to the flag (10). The salute was thence named after Bellamy (Bellamy Salute) and was later on copied by the military units of the USA. It’s worth mentioning that its initiator was a Christian Socialist with strong anti-anarchist, anti-immigrant and racist views in a period that racism against black people was at its peak (post-reconstruction era) and the authorities of the USA were fighting against the anarchist movement (formed mainly by European immigrants) on the pretext of the Chicago events in 1886 (Labour Day). Bellamy’s salute was then modified when the USA entered the WW II.
“Bellamy’s salute” will make its first cinematographic appearance as the “Roman salute” in the American epic film Ben-Hur (1898), will then cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1908 and appear in the Italian film “Nerone”, whereas during the inter-war it will be included in various films of the time (11). This salute became all the more known and was connected to the emerging fascism through the colossal for its time epic film “Cabiria” (1914) directed by G. Pastrone. The script was written by G. D’ Annunzio also known as the first “Duce”, the precursor of fascism and the instigator of its rituals (12). The film describes the contradiction between the aristocratic Roman spirit and the monstrous nature of the Carthaginians (13). “Cabiria” was listed among the films that promoted the expansionist spirit of the time and anticipated the political rituals of fascism (14).
For the fascists cinema was a means for the propagation of the pseudo-Roman salute as well as of the rest pseudo-archaic rituals and the distortion of history. The first film of misrepresentation was D.W. Griffith’s film “The birth of a nation” that appeared in 1915 in the USA. Indeed, in its second part Griffith’s film glorifies the paramilitary action of the Ku Klux Klan and presents black people as mentally inferior and with a tendency to rape white women. Note that this clearly racist film was the only film ever projected in the White House (15). Griffith’s film was innovative in terms of its visual effects that were further developed by third Reich’s cinematic disseminator L.Riefenstahl. The latter made a film about the Congress of the Nazi Party in Nuremberg (Triumph of the Will, 1934) where she proved the indoctrinating value of the aforementioned salute, while in her film about the Summer Olympics of 1936 in Berlin she intended to identify Hitler’s Germany with the ideals of antiquity (16).
The cinematic salute was first used in a political sense in Europe at the occupation of Rijeka by D’Annuzio, reflecting thus the neo-imperialistic spirit of the time. With the seizure of power by the fascists started also the dissemination of the new salute, now named Roman by Mussolini, in schools. The Vice-Secretary of the fascist party, A. Starace classified the salute as healthier and more elegant than the bourgeois handshake and imposed its compulsory use. In 1938 the fascist regime forbade the handshake in theatres and cinemas, as well as its publication in photos in order to promote the supposed Roman salute, a movement that shows not only the decisive spirit of the party but also the recognition and acceptance of the hierarchic structure of the fascist regime (17).
In the beginning the Nazi movement in Germany used that specific salute only occasionally, following thus the example of their Italian counterparts. In 1926 this salute was called “Hitler salute” (Hitlergruß) and was made compulsory within the National Socialist Party. However, some members of the Nazi Party criticized this salute as non-Germanic, which forced the Führer to come up with a Germanic “historic tradition” which would back up the supposed Germanic origin of the Nazi salute. According to this invented historicity, the aforementioned salute was ascribed to Luther and the way in which the old German nobility greeted the vassals. Hitler turned it gradually into the obligatory salute for the entire German society (18). At the same time, this salute was adopted by other fascist movements (e.g. the French patriotic assault divisions that used it along with the greeting “dictatorship”) or similar regimes of the interwar period (e.g. the Greek 4th of August regime, also known as Metaxas regime).
National states need their national myths. In the same line, all fascist movements, which are nothing more than the excessive expression of the national state, have always been consistent and inspired mythmakers. During the interwar period the Nazis, in order to presume on a supposed great historical past of the Germanic tribes, invented a whole pseudo-archaeology based on absurd references to a master race which had its origins on Atlantis. This story was practically the continuation of the romantic and national myths that first appeared during the creation of the Germanic state. Similarly, their ideological pupils adopt nowadays the aforementioned salute following their own national myths. Some people in Greece, for example, based on a text published by the New Age organisation “New Acropolis”, reached the conclusion that the Nazi salute leads to “superior mental conditions and levels”!!! (20). Inconsistent allegations, unsupported both historically and archeologically, that meet the frenzy of the nascent Greek neo-fascism with its narratives about the El, the Andromeda, the Marble King and the myths about the “chosen Greek people”.
The pseudo-archaic salute is one of the principal characteristics of Golden Dawn and other neo-fascist groups. A close look at their gatherings and their political rituals proves Hobson’s words currently relevant: “[…] each man feeds his passion from the common sewer, draining the poisonous vapours which degrade his intellect and inflame the latent lusts of animalism […]” (21). Although Hobson was not writing about Nazi Germany, but about the manipulation of the working and middle classes in the huge gatherings short before the imperialist expedition to South Africa by a liberal Great Britain…
Dionysus the Free the Rider of Panthers
1&4. Gelner, E, (1983) Nations and Nationalism.
2. Hobsawm, E (1990) Nations and Nationalisms since 1870.
3&5. Anderson, B (1991) Imagined Communities.
6. Debord, G (1967) La Société du Spectacle.
7,8 &11. Winkler, M (2009) The Roman Salute.
9. Boime, A (1987) Art in an age of revolution,1750–1800.
10. Kubal, T (2008) Cultural Movements and Collective Memory.
12. Whittam, J (1998) Mussolini and the Cult of the Leader.
13. Solomon, J (2001) The ancient world in the cinema
14. Gian Piero, B & Parzen, J (2009). The History of Italian Cinema.
15. Stokes, M (2007) D.W. Griffth’s The Birth of a Nation.
16&19. Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών (http://www.efsyn.gr/?p=12850).
17. Zamponi, F (2000) Fascist Spectacle.
18. Tilman, A (2009) The Hitler Salute.
21. Hobson, J (1901) The Psychology of Jingoism.