Alt-right’s co-opting of classical Greco-Roman imagery unsurprisingly hearkens to Nazi origins

Idealizing classical era fuels racism

Lilyanne Hamacher, Staff Writer

Reported distribution of white supremacist propaganda hit a high last year, and college campuses in particular have been a main target for advertisement. 

Groups like the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Europa) distribute and display flyers and posters promoting the establishment of a white ethnostate. The imagery used by these groups often features classical Greek and Roman architecture and statues, while the messages warn against a loss of Western culture.

a graphic of a greco-roman statue with a sign that reads "property of the alt-right"

Illustration by Chloe Guillot

The Alternative Right, more commonly referred to as the alt-right, is defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “set of far-right ideologies, groups and individuals whose core belief is that ‘white identity’ is under attack by multicultural forces using ‘political correctness’ and ‘social justice’ to undermine white people and ‘their’ civilization.” 

It was reported in 2014 that only 2% of professional academics in the classics field were minorities, and this may not come as a surprise to some. Europe has historically heralded the classical era as the origins, if not the peak, of Western civilization.

The idealization of Greek and Roman sculptures and architecture is not a new phenomenon — the genre has been historically assumed to be the pinnacle of Western art. Essentially, white supremacist movements have attached themselves to classical antiquity rather than other traditional forms of European art because of the widespread acceptance that this period was the pinnacle of Western and, to them, white civilization.

Poignantly, Adolf Hitler’s preference for Greco-Roman art styles were institutionally enforced during the Third Reich. All forms of architecture, sculpture and painting were required to demonstrate this particular aesthetic style.

Hitler and the Nazi movement were disgusted by the modern art of the times, which we now refer to as Cubism, Dadaism and Surrealism. While these styles are now considered to be a deep and symbolic expression of the warped realities during and after the first world war, many Europeans of the time considered them a form of degeneracy.

A failed artist himself, Hitler craved a return to formalist art styles, art that he believed had not yet been “corrupted” by the Jewish people. 

Rather than instilling a return to traditional Nordic art, the cultures of Greece and Rome were interpreted by German historians of the time as a form of Nordic history. Nordicism holds the origins of Hitler’s racist thought, that the Nordic peoples were of racial superiority to all other races. 

Nazi theories upheld this idea, which stated that the Nordic race came from an area of Europe which no longer exists, thought possibly to be the lost city of Atlantis. These original Nordic Europeans migrated throughout Europe, Iran and India. Hitler eventually abandoned this ideology, replaced by an ethnonationalist theory with Germany at its center.

Sarah Bond, Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, has sparked conversation around the white marble of ancient statues and its connections with idealization of racial whiteness as the truly beautiful. 

In response to American Identity Movement propaganda, she felt it important to remind the world that the now marble-white statues of antiquity were once painted with color, as was their world. While the Greeks and Romans did not conceive of race in the same modern notions we have, the reality of diverse skin tones was not ignored, and much art from the period of antiquity represented clearly varied ethnic groups.

The hatred and invective [she] I received from this post was more than anything [she had] ever received to date”, Bond stated.

In addition to the usage of Greco-Roman art forms, symbols used by the Roman government have been used by many different movements and institutions throughout history.

The fasces, a bundle of wooden rods surrounding an axe, serves as a symbol of strength achieved through unity and an excellent example of co-opted Roman imagery. The symbol was used by French revolutionaries to identify each other, and signal to others their group solidarity. 

The United States has also used the fasces extensively as a political symbol: it can be found in many official capacities, such as the official seal of the United States Senate, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. And yet, the Anti-Defamation League now has the fasces marked officially as a hate symbol. 

Since its time being used by Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy, the fasces is now seen by some hate groups as a more publicly acceptable way to identify themselves than a swastika.

The alt-right appropriation of classical imagery, borrowed from fascist groups before, is ideologically inconsistent as well as being a well-worn and ratty red flag. 

White supremacists cling to classical antiquity because Europe has clung to classical antiquity as its cultural legacy, while picking and choosing what aspects of this culture to misinterpret or idealize and which aspects to entirely sweep under the rug.