[The following essay was meant to be presented digitally at the 2021 International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (ComFaS) conference in Vienna. For technical reasons, I was unable to present it, so I’m posting it here for public consumption.]
In their search for symbols that might be useful for recruiting purposes or for motivating or justifying action, twenty-first century far right actors have frequently turned to antiquity for source material. More specifically, they have often attempted to co-opt select, often decontextualized images, symbols, and narratives drawn from the European Middle Ages, the Roman Empire and ancient Greece. One story modern far-right activists have seized upon is the Battle of Thermopylae. As recorded by Herodotus, it fits many of their needs: its protagonist is a virile male warrior, it can easily be read in nationalist terms (specifically as a tale of Europeans versus outsiders), and it ends in noble martyrdom that promises greater victory for the nation thereafter. It’s a story steeped in bloody violence, but blood also represents another kind of added value for the Western far right. Because the protagonists originate on the European continent and are interpreted as representatives of “Europeanness,” far-right actors have long chosen to view themselves not only as carrying forth the Spartan legacy, but even as the actual descendants of Sparta and inheritors of its supposed virtues.
To briefly summarize: the historical Battle of Thermopylae took place in 480 BCE during the second Persian invasion of Greece. Persia’s King Xerxes had assembled enormous land and sea forces and easily claimed a great deal of Greek territory — often with no resistance from the terrified Greeks — before being forced to slow down at a narrow coastal pass called Thermopylae, or “the hot gates.” Seizing on the vulnerability the pass created, some 7,000 Greeks under Spartan leadership initially halted the Persian advance. Advised by the Persians that they were woefully outnumbered, they were told to hand over their weapons, to which Sparta’s King Leonidas cavalierly replied: “μολὼν λαβέ” (written and pronounced in English: molon labe), or “come and take them.”
Eventually, a Greek man named Ephialtes showed the Persians a path that they could use to send soldiers to attack the Greeks from behind. Realizing that this meant that defeat was imminent, Leonidas sent most of the soldiers home, remaining with 300 of his own Spartans (or Lacadaemonians) and hundreds of other Greeks as well as helots, for a total force somewhere in the area of 2,000 men. Of these, almost all were killed. Nonetheless, the Greek fighters had diminished the Persian forces to such an extent that a subsequent Athenian victory over Xerxes’ navy was sufficient to ultimately doom the Persian campaign altogether.
We can abstract a few basic, crucial elements that make the story of Thermopylae particularly useful to modern Western nativist movements:
- a large army of outsiders invades “Europe” (or some other territory assumed to be the province of white people)
- a comparatively small band of heroic, self-sacrificing men (often synecdochically embodied by a single, charismatic man) fight the invaders off, where others capitulated
- a traitorous villain sides with the invaders and brings about a calamitous ending for the protagonist(s).
Specific elements of the story of Thermopylae have frequently been adopted to invoke the battle. For one, the phrase “molon labe,” translated into English, was famously used during the Battle of Gonzales, which precipitated the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 in what is now the State of Texas; it continues to be used by modern day militias and gun rights advocates in the United States, both in the form of reproductions of the Gonzales flag and in connection with ostensibly Spartan-looking helmets, shields, spears, or swords. For another obvious example, the identitarian movement adopted the Spartan “lambda shield” as its logo. (The Greek letter lambda, in the form of a chevron in the middle of the shield, represents the word “Lacadaemonia.”) In the image to the left, the identitarians have made their own shields, dressing themselves in the accoutrements of the cinematic Spartan warriors they admire. US-based Neo-Nazi Billy Roper’s Shield Wall Network did the same, while far-right publishers Arktos Media and Jungeuropa Verlag both also borrow the Greek lambda in their logos.
However, such explicit references to Thermopylae are not needed to invoke the central elements of the story. Those elements — the invading army, the self-sacrificing defenders, and the villainous traitor — are also recurring themes throughout many contemporary far-right literary and theoretical texts. Notably, Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints centers around a large group of Indians who embark on a perilous sea journey in a flotilla of dilapidated ships that ultimately run ashore on France’s Mediterranean coast. Throughout the novel, left-wing journalists, hippies, a nationwide network of immigrant fifth columnists, and even the more progressive elements of the Catholic church are clearly marked as traitors to France, Europe, and all of Western civilization.
The novel’s final climactic pages are dominated by a Col. Constantine Dragasès, named after the last Byzantine emperor, who died in 1453 when Constantinople was seized by the invading Ottoman Empire. Col. Dragasès travels to the French coast to confront the unarmed migrants with military force, however he also acknowledges that he is fighting a losing battle against what Raspail presents as a nameless, faceless, zombified pile of brown-skinned arms and legs that reek of feces. Recognizing that France has somehow crumbled almost overnight in the face of such hardened opposition, Dragasès watches his own troops desert until he is left with only a dozen, noting that “in war, the real enemy is always behind the lines.” In the end, the book’s domestic traitor element is so heavy-handed that Raspail has the Colonel and his troop killed not by migrants or even hippies, but by French military planes.
Like the Battle of Thermopylae, The Camp of the Saints has become a constant reference point in far right circles, particularly any time Western politicians prove to be insufficiently ruthless toward undocumented migrants. This applies whether the migrants arrive in Greece after fleeing war in Syria or in Texas after fleeing poverty in Honduras. The two stories do certainly differ greatly in their endings: while they both invoke glorified martyrdom, the Spartans ultimately brought about a victory for an ostensibly unified European nation (despite the fact that that unity was, historically, short lived). By contrast, The Camp of the Saints has a far more cynical and, from a nationalist perspective, pessimistic ending in which the traitors are successful and Western civilization is doomed. Nonetheless, the two stories are ultimately two sides of the same coin: Thermopylae allows radical nationalists to envision what victory might look like, while The Camp of the Saints functions as a cautionary tale about the consequences of failing to sufficiently combat “invaders” or subdue the enemy behind the lines.
One important function of widely shared narratives like these is that they create a kind of lingua franca that allows far right actors to easily convey real-world events in a way that makes sense — when stripped of nuance and specificity — to other fellow travelers around the globe. For instance, when British-American far right internet personality Milo Yiannopoulos wrote simply “Camp of the Saints is happening, now” in August 2019, it was re-posted by German conspiracy theorist Oliver Janich. Yiannopoulos, Janich, and presumably most readers of both accounts could quickly understand the implications when that sentence is linked to an article about migration from Sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, a March 2020 attack on NGO-run refugee facilities on the Greek island of Lesvos is subject to instant interpretation by far-right French website Polémia through the lens of Thermopylae.
Another benefit of shared narratives is that they provide a kind of script for far right actors to follow, in which they are able to present themselves to each other and to outside observers as courageous, self-sacrificing warriors while justifying violence and intimidation toward others. As Chip Berlet once noted, “heroes know which villains to kill.”
The events preceding the attacks on the refugee facilities on Lesvos are illustrative of how the scripting function of invasion narratives works. When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unilaterally declared he was “opening the doors” of the Turkish border with Greece and Bulgaria in late February 2020, a chaotic scene ensued involving thousands of migrants and a Greek border crackdown. The international far right response came swiftly, as German, Austrian, Belgian and French far right activists all mobilized to travel to eastern Greece within a few days to confront these new “invaders.”
In a YouTube video titled “Gigantische Flüchtlingswelle bedroht Europa” (“Gigantic Wave of Refugees Threatens Europe”) that was posted by the German Identitarian Movement’s account on March 10, 2020, activist Till-Lucas Wessels begins by saying that he and a small group of Identitarian activists decided to go to Greece “to support the Greeks in their heroic defensive battle.” At the end of the video, he declares that “We sill not stay on the sidelines while the European Union is thrown in the dust and blackmailed by Europe’s enemies. Our model is not Ephialtes. Our model is Leonidas.”
Dries Van Langenhove, a Belgian parliamentarian with the far-right Vlaams Belang party and founder of the Identitarian-affiliated group Schild en Vrienden, also went to the Greek border region on what he called a “fact-finding mission.” He did not cite existing narratives as overtly as Wessels did, however his statements were no less inflammatory and fit the model nonetheless. While still in Greece, he told a right wing Flemish news outlet that “The people here are really in a state of war. … The Greeks feel that this is an organized invasion.” Upon returning to Belgium, he tweeted that, “These are NOT refugees. … They are violent men. It is NOT a spontaneous flow of migration. It is an invasion organized by Erdogan.”
France’s Terre et Peuple, a group founded by French New Right leader Pierre Vials, echoed this last sentence. Its official Facebook account posted a photo in March 2020, presumably shot on the Greek coast, along with text labeling Turkey “the eternal enemy of Europe” and calling for others to support “the Greek resistance against the migrant invasion organized by Erdogan.” French neo-Nazi website Democratie participative went a step further on March 5, 2020, condemning an “Islamic invasion” of “sub-humans” and declaring “I hope there will be carnage” under an image of an attacking Spartan warrior.
Meanwhile, in the United States, on March 9, 2020, white nationalist website VDARE published an article by paleoconservative Pat Buchanan with the title “Is this how Europe ends, with a Syrian CAMP OF THE SAINTS?” It is worth noting that, when he published the article on his own website and elsewhere, Buchanan titled it only “Is This How Europe Ends?” with no mention of The Camp of the Saints in the title or anywhere in the essay. Nonetheless, he has been using the book as an allegory for immigration into Europe and the United States for years and the fact that VDARE’s editors understood it as implicit in his warning about what was happening at the Greek-Turkish border only emphasizes the story’s resonance among far right actors.
Invasion narratives are not the exclusive property of the far right. Thermopylae, for one, has been applied in anti-colonial contexts for well over a century, as when the 1899 Battle of Tirad Pass during the Phillippine-American War has been referred to as the “Filipino Thermopylae” or the Battle of Mount Street Bridge during the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin has been described as the “Irish Thermopylae.” However, these have tended to be retroactively applied epithets used to describe actual battles, whereas the contemporary far-right application tends to be part of an ongoing quest for self-mythologizing and an incitement to future action.
Nor are invasion narratives the only kind of narratives that create this kind of shared transnational self-mythologizing. In my research, I have also looked at what I’ve called resistance narratives, in which the invaders or some other usurpers have already illegitimately taken power and the protagonists believe that reclaiming their lost territory through violence is their only option (e.g., the Reconquista as an allegory or The Turner Diaries), as well as expansion or irredentist narratives, in which the antagonists have illegitimately taken power somewhere outside the protagonists’ terrain and the protagonists decide they have a right and a responsibility to take it back (e.g., the Crusades as an allegory, Lebensraum rhetoric, or fantasies about reclaiming “Rhodesia”). The particular dynamics and the kinds of action prescribed are different in each of these cases, however the vocabulary and the symbolic menagerie that they produce likewise constitute a kind of shared vocabulary that enables ideologically, geographically, and linguistically divergent groups to recognize each other and communicate, when necessary, in pursuit of their common interests for purposes of recruitment, mobilization, or justification of their own actions.