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Doing Justice to the Classics

Nazi leader “re-brands” the Nazi salute as “Roman salute”

Jeff Schoep is the “commander” of the National Socialist Movement, one of the founding organizations of the Nationalist Front coalition of neo-Nazi groups. At a rally in Georgia on April 21st, 2018, reporter Christopher Mathias asked Schoep, “can we talk about the Nazi salutes your friends are giving on the stage?” In a video of the exchange taken by Mathias, Schoep disputed the term “Nazi salute” and said it was, instead, a “Roman salute.”

In the video Mathias asks Schoep: “Can we talk about the Nazi salutes your friends are giving on the stage? What’s that?”
Schoep’s reply, after a pause, was “it’s a Roman salute.”
Mathias: “That’s a Roman salute? I mean, that’s really what you’re calling it?”
Schoep: “In the United States, if you look back, into the 1920s, around that time…”
Mathias [interrupting]: “You know that’s not what that means. You know what people think that means.”
At this point Schoep threatens to have Mathias removed from the rally for being “disrespectful.”

Schoep’s "correction" of Mathias’ use of "Nazi salute" is part of NSM’s effort to "re-brand" their movement

Schoep is far from the first person to call this gesture of allegiance the “Roman salute,” which has been exhaustively studied by Martin Winkler in his 2009 book The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology. Winkler shows that the gesture is not found in any ancient Roman art or literature, and traces the origins of the gesture back to the pose taken by the brothers Horatii in Jacque-Louis David’s 1784 painting The Oath of the Horatii, which seems to have been the first representation of the gesture in connection to an ancient Roman context, and to early films about ancient Rome, which associated the gesture with Rome in the public imagination. The Fascist party in Italy, taking inspiration from its use by the prominent Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio, adopted the gesture as a way of connecting their movement to the Roman past, followed by the Nazis who required their adherents to use the gesture beginning in 1926. Before that time the salute was used in many other contexts, including in America during the recitation of the pledge of allegiance, which is probably what Schoep was going to refer to in defense of the gesture before Mathias interrupted him. A fuller account of Winkler’s research is widely available.

Schoep’s “correction” of Mathias’ use of “Nazi salute” is part of NSM’s effort, announced in November 2016, to “re-brand” their movement and “launch [the] party into the mainstream” by abandoning the use of various Nazi symbols. They have replaced the Swastika with the Odal Rune, which is visible on the flag in the image above and which is a less well-known Nazi symbol, and have stopped wearing “brown shirt” uniforms that imitate Hitler’s paramilitary supporters. Using the term “Roman salute” should be understood as part of this “re-branding:” the change of name attempts to conceal the genocidal and totalitarian history of the gesture by giving it a history stretching back to ancient times and appropriating the authority of the classical past to the neo-Nazi movement. Winkler cites a similar example of a neo-fascist movement adjusting its language while (incorrectly) claiming an ancient origin for the gesture from the now defunct American Falangist Party’s website, which had an article titled “The Roman Salute”: “anyone who has seen old movies where the Roman Centurian [sic] would come into the room give this salute and say “Hail Cesear!” [sic] knows that this salute was around a long time ago. Yes the Nazis and Fascists use it, but so do a lot of other people…[we] discourage Party members from using this salute too much in public until people become more informed.”

As Winkler shows, the terminology these movements use for their salute has no ancient authority; the gesture is a product of artists’ and, especially, film-makers’ unhistorical representations of ancient Rome. Yet the kinds of totalitarian, exclusive, and oppressive political systems that neo-Nazis advocate do in fact resemble the violent and repressive aspects of the Roman Empire which are often ignored or minimized in traditional accounts of the history of Rome, which tend to see its imperial project as a “civilizing” one. These movements’ constant recurrence to ancient precedents can help remind us of the distortions in that often-repeated version of history.

"National Socialism is basically the rebirth of the ancient spirit of our most ancient of Ancestors—Ancestors that once gave birth to extraordinary feats of civilization such as that of Greece and Rome."

The webpage of Schoep’s National Socialist Movement contains several other references to antiquity:

  • Schoep’s “Open Letter to American Patriots and Our Friends Around the World” introduces his organization to those “seeking knowledge about our struggle for White Rights here in America” and warns that “Just as Sodom, Gomorrah, ancient Babylon, and ancient Rome were destroyed by decadence and corruption, we are now witnessing the same fate befalling our Nation.” The letter attributes this, among other things, to the “occupation of our Nation” by a “rabid cabal of International Zionists, the same clique that Henry Ford (founder of Ford Motor Company) warned us about in his famous book ‘The International Jew’.” “All the other Races have their own advocate groups for their own people;” asserts the letter. “We are the representatives for White people” (as long as, according to NSM’s “about” page, they are “non-Semitic heterosexuals of European descent”).
  • The organization provides a series of flyers saying “Love Your Race. Stop White Genocide. Join the NSM.” One of these flyers bears an image of the colossal statue of the Nile River now in the Vatican museums. The sculpture, like those on posters distributed on college campuses by the white supremacist organization Identity Evropa, is supposed to create a link between the NSM and the supposedly white, European past. This sculpture, representing as it does a geographical feature of a deeply multicultural region of the Roman empire outside the traditional boundaries of Europe, seems to undercut the racists’ intended effect.
  • A press release on the NSM’s site compares a confrontation between the group and “200 violent Jews, Illegal Aliens, and Homosexual Rights Activists” who counter-protested an NSM demonstration to “Leonidas and the battle of Thermopylae” where  “7,000 Greeks battled millions of Xerxes soldiers during the second Persian invasion of Greece.” Pharos has previously documented white nationalists’ appropriations of Spartan history.
  • Back issues of the NSM’s newsletter include statements such as “National Socialism is basically the rebirth of the ancient spirit of our most ancient of Ancestors—Ancestors that once gave birth to extraordinary feats of civilization such as that of Greece and Rome.”

The video of Schoep calling the Nazi salute a “Roman salute” may also be found in Mathias’ report on the rally for the Huffington Post.

We have linked above to an archived version of the National Socialist Movement’s webpage to avoid generating traffic for them. Their actual site may be visited here.

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