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Doing Justice to the Classics

Ancient Greece a Symbol to Rally Neo-Nazis

As the worldwide coronavirus pandemic has spread, so have xenophobic and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories blaming the spread of the virus on immigrants or Muslims or calling it a Jewish plot. One of the proponents of these conspiracy theories is Martin Sellner, whom the BBC called “the new face of the far right in Europe” for the influence he has achieved as a leader of the Austrian branch of the white nationalist Identitarian Movement which in some respects is a European predecessor to the alt-right in the United States. Unlike some other white supremacists whom Pharos has documented, Sellner has not invoked Greco-Roman antiquity in his promotion of coronavirus conspiracy theories, but in the weeks before the pandemic struck Europe, he used the Classical past — and his reach to almost 40,000 people on social media — to promote violent xenophobia against some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

The opening image of Sellner’s video from his YouTube page, which 40,000 people follow

When at the end of February Turkey stopped restricting the passage of Syrian refugees across its borders, Sellner made headlines first in Greece, and later in the United States, for urging his followers either to travel to Greece to “defend” the Greek/Turkish border or to send money to Greek neo-Nazi groups such as Golden Dawn that were already doing so. In his message he claimed that he himself and some supporters were already on their way to Greece, but the photos he posted — showing a small group with a sign reading “No Way! You Will Not Make Europe Your Home!” — seem to have been taken in his native Austria and it seems unlikely Sellner ever went to Greece.

Nevertheless the stunt provided Sellner an opportunity to traffic in probably the most familiar Classical trope for white supremacist groups: Classical Sparta as a model for both racial purity and military supremacy. The video in which Sellner attempted to rally his xenophobic supporters to Greece began with an image of a armed Spartan hoplite and the caption “Solidarität mit Griechenland” (“Solidarity with Greece”); the video’s title calls for “Verteidigung der Thermopylen” (“Defense of Thermopylae”). Thus Sellner likens neo-Nazis at the Greek border to ancient Spartans fighting a Persian invasion at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, which, especially since the release of the film 300, many white supremacists — including members of Golden Dawn that have held rallies at the site of the battle — regard as the archetypal example of supposedly white Europeans taking a stand against the existential threat posed to their civilization by invasion from the East. Those who answer Sellner’s call are thus invited to see themselves as hyper-masculine, racially pure, defenders of “Western Civilization.”

Sellner isn’t concerned with historical accuracy: he’s concerned with the white supremacist understanding of ancient Greece as as a symbol of the superiority of European civilization over all others

Sellner’s Identitarian Movement has always fetishized Classical Sparta. The movement’s symbol is a shield featuring the Greek letter lambda, which may have been emblazoned on the Spartan’s shields in ancient times (although the earliest direct evidence for this come from a Byzantine encyclopedia written almost 1,500 years after the battle of Thermopylae). Sellner’s Austrian branch runs an online merchandise platform called “Phalanx Europa,” a reference to the military formation used by most Classical Greek armies but with (supposedly) special effectiveness and discipline by the Spartans. While promoting his video Sellner himself updated his Twitter profile to feature himself with a modern Greek flag and a banner featuring the statue from modern Sparta of the ancient general Leonidas with a silhouette of the Parthenon behind him. Sellner’s followers are the hoplites; Sellner presents himself as their leader.

Sellner customized his Twitter Profile for the release of his video

Such a mashup of Spartan and Athenian imagery is dissonant, if not downright bizarre (considering that in the generation following the Greco-Persian Wars the Spartans and Athenians fought a devastating multi-decade war), until one remembers that the Parthenon, no less than Classical Sparta, has been adopted as a symbol of white supremacy. But Sellner isn’t concerned with historical accuracy: he’s concerned with the white supremacist understanding of ancient Greece — stripped of any historical complexity and distilled to an origin of whiteness — as as a symbol of the superiority of European civilization over all others.

In making the modern nation-state of Greece into a symbol that transcends time and historical specificity, Sellner is not alone. It’s something even people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as white supremacists can be guilty of, as Johanna Hanink has shown in her analysis of how invocations of ancient Greece in the moden nation’s debt crisis perpetuated a colonialist view of that country. So it’s nothing new that Sellner invokes Sparta as his inspiration, but it’s also nothing new that this attitude toward Greece as a symbol of European superiority in need of defense against outsiders is not “just” symbolic but has real world consequences for refugees who have already been made pawns in a geopolitical conflict.

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