[Image: Copyright Christchurch City Council [Fair Use]
by Andy Brockman
Archaeologists, real and fictional have an honourable cultural tradition of fighting the fake history and racial theory of fascism.
Moments before he slips into the film noir mist of a railway station on the Swiss frontier on the eve of World War Two, Cambridge Professor Horatio Smith [Leslie Howard], the archaeologist hero of the 1941 British comedy thriller Pimpernel Smith, tells Gestapo General Von Graum [Francis Sullivan] that a shattered pot proves among other things “… the complete nonexistence of an early Aryan civilization in this country.”
In another, perhaps more well known, cinematic appearance, Professor Smith’s spiritual, if somewhat more proactively physical, successor, Dr Indiana Jones famously observed,
“Nazi’s, I hate these guys.”
Indeed, in a delicious mash up between fiction and contemporary political fact, Dr Jones two fisted attempts to prevent the Third Reich from ruling the world using ancient Hebrew and Grail lore became an internet Meme after white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched on camera during an anti Donald Trump protest in January 2017.
In the real world of archaeology there is also an honourable list of archaeologists who put their lives on the line, putting on uniforms and taking their expertise and field experience into the physical fight against Fascism during World War Two.
A few honourable mentions.
The pioneer of the study of the Roman Army, Professor Eric Burley worked in British Army intelligence reconstructing the order of battle of the Legions of Hitler and Mussolini rather than those of the Caesars and Lt Colonel Mortimer Wheeler Royal Artillery also attempted to conserve the Roman monuments of Libya from the depredations of the Axis [and Allied] soldiers.
In a direct application of an archaeological technique trowel blazer Dorothy Garrod WAAF, the Disney Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge from 1939 to 1952, was a section officer and photo interpreter at RAF Medmenham, and also working at Medmenham was one Wing Commander Glyn Daniel.
While high on the roll of Honour is the former curator of Knossos and director of excavations at Tell el-Armana, Captain John Pendlebury, killed during the battle of Crete while acting as a liaison officer between the British Army and Cretan forces.
However, by paying that tribute I must add that it is important not to perpetuate the outdated nationalist tropes about “the War” beloved of a certain corner of mainstream English politics called “Little England”. However, we must recognise also that our colleagues in the 1930’s and 1940’s did face a military machine operating in the name of a racist totalitarian ideology, which was based in part on a deliberately skewed view of history, Nazi and Italian Fascism.
Today the confrontation with the white exceptionalist iteration of Fascist ideology and its Jihadist mirror image, is not so overtly military in terms of the ability to put formations of troops in the field, but it does still kill people and its proponents do propagate versions of history designed to gather recruits and to drive at least some of those recruits to direct action.
Proof of this lies in the growing roll call of terrorist murderers citing an ideology underpinned by various tropes drawn from historical events. Most recently, in an attempt to justify his action, the terrorist murderer of fifty one people at two Christchurch mosques, cited a poisonous and outdated view of an early medieval battle and views of northern European mythology which belong better in a Marvel comic.
This public and deadly coming together of misunderstanding, misrepresentation and sheer fantasy means that archaeologists and historians now have a civic duty to understand how and why the killer came to hold those views and then to use that knowledge to do their part in trying to prevent similar atrocities in future.
This response is doubly necessary because in a world of 24/7 Social media commentary, much of it unsourced and with a dangerous proportion of this content the malicious result of the efforts of activists and bot farms, false interpretations and faked stories can travel as fast as a post on Facebook or Twitter and fact checking, while it has arguably never been more important, has equally arguably never been less practiced.
In that context, faced with the terrorist murders of [at latest count] seventy two people innocent people in Christchurch and El Paso, taking part in two of the most peaceful practices known to humanity, attending a mainstream place of worship or standing in line at a supermarket check out, it is incumbent on anyone venturing to talk about such an enormity not to fan the flames with speculation about what drove the alleged perpetrators of those horror to act as they did.
And, of course, it is equally important also to state clearly that the immediate cause of the Christchurch and El Paso tragedies has nothing to do with archaeologists and historians directly.
Those men women and children died and many more were injured, not because archaeological and historical evidence was either misunderstood, or cherry picked by people deliberately falsifying that history to drive their “culture war”; nor even because individuals are alleged to have self radicalized and associated themselves with an international Far Right ideology. None of those things would have mattered nearly so much if these self radicalising self identifying “soldiers” had not done so in an environment where it was possible to obtain legally multiple high powered firearms and high capacity ammunition magazines. Weapons of the kind which can turn perverted dreams of murder on behalf of the cause into a horrific reality.
It follows that, if archaeologists and historians are to become involved here, it must be first as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. As such we might wish to support campaigns for tighter gun controls and to take part in efforts to oppose crude identity driven ideologies and instead seek bring communities together by supporting parties, organisations and programmes, which are reaching out across perceived and home grown barriers of religion, culture and language.
Some of us might even choose to step into the overtly political realm and, for example, pass comment on the hypocrisy of the kind of politician and commentator, like the newly re-elected UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who apparently thinks nothing of daubing more dark slogans on the backcloth of Islamaphobia by authoring an article in a national newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, which was seen to demean Muslim women wearing certain modes of traditional dress by writing that they look like letter boxes or bank robbers, and then, in the wake of the Christchurch murders tweet that this was,
“a sickening and cowardly terrorist attack that was driven by nothing but hatred. We will always stand together against those who are intent on terror and hate”
Tears without responsibility is a generous way of describing Mr Johnson’s response.
However, that kind of political engagement is a matter of choice and many archaeologists and for certain the organisations which represent them, will choose not to engage so visibly and directly in such criticism of individuals and particularly criticism of Prime Ministers and Presidents.
Academics too might wish to retain the role of the objective outsider, or to take a historical analogy that of the enslaved attendant, who whispered in the ear of the triumphant Roman general,
“Remember you are mortal.”
Although to be fair, given the current crop of politicians in the UK and USA the role of the Court Jester with their licence to question through ridicule the high and the mighty, might be more appropriate.
However, the deliberate falsification of archaeological data, and misrepresentation of historical events with complex contexts and causalities, as part of the propaganda produced to promote the self radicalization process by Far Right influencers worldwide, is a different matter. By any standard, once this kind of material is in play engagement with the issue has become one of upholding professional ethics.
In that light, and returning to the specific event of the atrocities committed at the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, enough is known now to draw some preliminary conclusions about the environment which created the alleged terrorist, and for the traditionally objective world of mainstream archaeology and academic history those conclusions are challenging.
The first conclusion is that, like it or not, simply by reason of what we do in researching and publishing views of the past, historians and archaeologists are an unwitting part of the global ecology of extremism which created this latest mass murderer.
As an indication of the reach of the international Far Right, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was reported by Reuters as confirming that in 2018 the Christchurch killer supported Martin Sellner ‘s Austrian branch of the Generation Identity movement
[Identitäre Bewegung (IB)], to the tune of a donation of 1500 Euros.
However, financial support in the present for a cause, however controversial, or to many reprehensible, is a political choice. What should concern archaeologists and historians is the context of that choice.
When a terrorist, as the alleged Christchurch perpetrator did, cites historical events in their so called manifesto, publishes images of his arsenal of firearms on Social Media which include the name and date of an eighth century battle in central France and signs off a social media post signposting the attack by saying that,
“if I don’t survive the attack, goodbye, godbless and I will see you all in Valhalla.”
it is clear that they are immersed and invested intellectually and emotionally in a particular cultural/historical view of both the past and the present.
Of course it is easy to deconstruct even that one sentence and see in it a warped worldview constructed in fetid swamp of identitarian theory piled with the rotten timbers of pseudo history and cultural cliches.
These ideas are then packaged around the cherry pickings of a comic book fantasy of a Viking past, twinned with a view of the Knights Templar which make Dan Brown’s take on the medieval order in the Da Vinci Code look like a PhD Thesis with Distinction and bells on.
However, it is necessary to point out that the same incoherent pick and mix of Judeo Christian, Medieval and Nordic cultural memes has its own dark history.
For example similar ideas appear also in the ideology and iconography of the pin up boys of many on the Far Right, the Nazi Party’s military arm, the Waffen SS.
This was an organisation which employed the most modern military technology while also adopting happily both the heritage, and largely 19th century image, of the Germanic/Norse warrior. Piled on top of this was a fetishisation of the Medieval Knights of the real life Tutonic order and of the fictional Round Table and Grail legends, personified in Wagner’s Parsifal, all filtered through, and reinforced by, the pseudo archaeology of the SS scientists and archaeologists of the Ahenerbe.
Not for nothing did Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein depict the Tutonic Knights as the personification of Germanic militarism in his classic propaganda epic “Alexander Nevski .” And not for nothing was the film removed from circulation in August 1939 at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and only re-released after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
This junction of history, symbolism and contemporary political activism is the point where historians should feel duty bound to intervene between an Alt-Right meme and the target audience of that meme who has embarked on a journey following links in the Alt-Right world and who has just googled the “Battle of Tours 732”.
For example, whisper this quietly on Far Right anti Muslim message boards on 8chan [or where ever the denizens of the Politically Incorrect /pol/ board on 8 Chan have decamped to in order to avoid being shut down], but whisper it for certain, because the lost kids and angry incels need to know that the Nazi regime created the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar (1st Croatian) with the intention that it would be recruited entirely from Bosnian Muslims. While no less a true blooded Aryan than the Reichsfuhrer SS himself, Heinrich Himmler, held reputedly a cliched romantic ideal of the Muslim male as a soldier.
Our new, and unaccustomed, audience must also hear the remarks of the Fuhrer himself, as reported by Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer.
According to Speer, Adolf Hitler would tell dinner guests during one of his interminable rambles down the highways of Germanic “history”,
“You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”
Picking up this theme, it is too easy perhaps also to mock the failure of the true believers in Fake History on the Far Right by pointing out that modern scholarship downgrades the Battle of Tours [aka Poitiers] which took place in CE732, from a world changing collision of cultures which saved the “Christian Europe” [that is the significant bits of it that were not still pagan like Scandinavia], to a raid in force in search of plunder, by an army which had already massively overextended its line of supply.
In fact all the alleged Christchurch murderer got right about Tours was the date, because, as the famous Lebanese American scholar who held tenures at Harvard and Princeton, Philip Khuri Hitti, concluded some time ago,
“In reality nothing was decided on the battlefield of Tours. The Moslem wave, already a thousand miles from its starting point in Gibraltar – to say nothing about its base in al-Qayrawan – had already spent itself and reached a natural limit.”
In other words, if the Battle of Tours was anything it was the
Umayyad Caliphate’s equivalent of Hitlers advance on Moscow, and in the eighth century reality was probably not even that significant.
In the wake of Christchurch archaeologists and historians who know these things need also to recognise that such views do not take over their host fully formed, but instead take over slowly like an addiction, or grow and metastasise like a cancer.
In those terms it can be suggested that one gateway drug to the Alt-Right fantasy history addiction is the scripted story telling masquerading as historical documentary in series such as “The Curse of Oak Island,” and “Pirate Island of the Knights Templar” [Yes them again, can’t think why- oh wait a minute, silly me- to a certain core audience of white male conspiracy wonks they are white Christian “warriors” who fought Muslims].
Users might then move on to the easily debunked misrepresentations and implicit white/western cultural supremacist agenda, of Ancient Aliens where “Ancient Astronaut theorists” [aka cynics, fantasists, fools and convicted fraudsters] opine that these primitive [usually brown or black skinned] people cannot possibly have built those fantastic monuments without assistance from “the Gods”, and introduces the idea that mainstream scholarship is actually a government controlled conspiracy to hide “the truth” [“the truth” that is, as defined by those same cynics, fantasists, fools and convicted fraudsters].
More politically dangerous potentially is the fake history of programmes like “Hunting Hitler” where a well attested historical narrative with contemporary political impact is continually misrepresented, while “investigations” are faked to serve a fictional story line of the kind which can pull in an audience and advertising dollars for as long as the pretence can be maintained.
The pretence lasted three series in the case of “Hunting Hitler”.
As with “Ancient Aliens”, central to conspiracy theory TV is the portrayal of mainstream scholarship as either the victim of, or worse, a willing part of a darker conspiracy by Governments and their “deep state” agencies like the CIA and MI6, to hide “the truth” from “the people”. While to make the whole enterprise still more pernicious the whole package is wrapped in a disguise of apparently high tech scientific methodology and faux academic word salad, building a narrative where unevidenced assertions and uncorroborated “witnesses” become “evidence” by way of repetition and because the programme’s talking heads speak as if it is evidence.
Of course “Hunting Hitler” is not neo-Nazi propaganda, and its makers and presenters are not Nazi sympathisers. It is just profoundly dishonest as TV “history”. But anyone who has watched “Hunting Hitler” and wants to know about the background to the three series of unsuccessful Hitler hunting, will soon come across the kind of author to whose espousal of such ideas are somewhat more suspect politically.
Among them is the prolific American author and internet broadcaster Harry Cooper.
While Cooper did not take part in the “Hunting Hitler” TV series [and mightily annoyed about that he was too, it is alleged] as thePipeLine has pointed out in a series of articles by Roger Clark, his “research” is central to the creation and propagation of the myth that Hitler escaped Berlin in May 1945.
But that is of less concern than the fact that, while he denies he is a Nazi sympathiser, Mr Cooper has an unfortunate track record of proven and disturbing links with US Far Right, and anti Semitic internet radio and runs an annual tour of wartime German sites for Nazi groupies with a higher than average chance of meeting veterans of the Waffen SS.
Having been thoroughly immersed in these open access fake history sources, the by now hard core fake history junkie can then move deeper online to explore the reheated racist ideas of White identitarians like Mr Sellner to whose organisation the Christchurch killer made his donation and perhaps to the “manifesto” of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, the self styled modern Knight Templar. Both men are proponents of the idea that there is a “white genocide” in progress in the USA and Europe which will lead to what the Far Right term as “The Great Replacement”.
This is an ideology the EL Paso perpetrator appeared also to endorse in a “manifesto” sent minutes before he attacked the check out line in Walmart.
And that is where the Battle of Tours comes in again.
In the Far Right, Islamophobic worldview the Battle of Tours is part of a continuum of conflict between what is defined as Christian European culture and Islam.
As President Trump put it during an interview in March 2016 with CNN’s Anderson Cooper,
“I think Islam hates us. There’s something there that — there’s a tremendous hatred there. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There’s an unbelievable hatred of us.”
These fears are also stoked by other right wing politicians such as the UK’s Nigel Farage; he of the infamous “Breaking Point” poster which was accused of employing a Nazi inspired image to whip up fear of Muslim immigration during the 2016 EU referendum.
The poster was unveiled just hours before the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox by another self radicalized white, male, Far Right terrorist, Thomas Mair.
Underlying this political view is the theory that “Christian west is engaged in an existential conflict with Islam. This view is espoused by, among others, an associate of both Nigel Farage and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon.
In 2014 Mr Bannon told the conference of right wing Catholic Institute for Human Dignity, in the Vatican,
“We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, and people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs against but to fight for our beliefs this this new barbarity that’s starting, uh that we will literally eradicate everything we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000 and 2,500 years.”
Whether or not the Christchurch terrorist was inspired directly by Mr Bannon’s ideas, and there is no direct evidence at the moment that he was, he stated clearly in his seventy four page “manifesto” that, in his view, President Trump was a,
“symbol of renewed white identity,”
and his was certainly an action designed to inspire copycat attacks and provoke a counter reaction as part of the brutal and bloody conflict which Bannon foresaw.
The manifesto of the alleged El Paso perpetrator also stated that the attack was designed to generate copycats.
Neither is this misuse of history and archaeology to promote political identities a purely American phenomenon, although the it is noticeable that the ground zero of proponents and presenters of much of this material are white American men, often funded by other, very rich, white American men, such as the billionaire hedge fund manager and founder of the Mercer Family Foundation Robert Mercer.
The day before the terrorist struck in Christchurch, the British archaeological Twittersphere was having a great deal of righteously angry fun at the expense of an article in the right leaning British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, which was published in response to the release of a piece of cutting edge research.
The research report by a team of leading pre-historians and archaeological scientists, and which was published in the journal Science Advances, suggests that people, and their pigs, came from across what is now England, Scotland and Wales to Salisbury Plain in the Neolithic period to take part in great communal celebrations. So far so reasonable a thesis based on scientific evidence.
The Telegraph then went several mighty steps further choosing to equate this feasting with a proto “British” national identity and most contentious of all, drawing a parallel with the current all consuming national controversy in the UK, Brexit, Britain’s attempt to leave the European Union.
Running with this theme the Telegraph article [Paywall], bylined by Sarah Knapton, opened with this breathtaking statement,
“The birth of British identity began 5,000 years ago when the country found itself secluded from the continent in a ‘late Neolithic Brexit’ archaeologists believe.”
However, many archaeologists pointed out swiftly that the article suffered from what academics call, “The Blackadder Fallacy.”
Named for the popular philosopher and television character Captain E Blackadder, who famously analysed the pre-World War One network of defensive alliances in three words, the Blackadder Fallacy states that the only problem with the thesis the Telegraph was putting forward is that “it was bollocks.”
Apart from anything else the pulled, from across the British landmass, pork feasting at Stonehenge took place three millennia before the idea of any nation state called “England” was even a thing.
Worse, as this article was being prepared one of the archaeologists whose work the Telegraph was supposedly citing, Dr Richard Magwick of the
School of History, Archaeology and Religion at Cardiff University, took to Twitter for the first time ever to claim that the Telegraph had actually misrepresented the work of the team.
In a series of Tweets Dr Madgwick claimed that in more than forty interviews with media outlets, only the Telegraph had taken the line about Brexit, and that he did not want that fact to blight the work of a whole team of skilled and experienced researchers.
Ultimately the lesson of the horror of the murders at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques and almost certainly of EL Paso too, is that the cynical misrepresentation and deliberate falsification of history, cut to fit a political or cultural agenda, which we see regularly on so called documentary channels and in articles such as the Telegraph’s fake take on a Neolithic hog roast, is not some, ultimately harmless, post modern cultural construct where nothing is real.
Neither is such misrepresentation merely an interesting topic for a theoretical debate about cultural equivalence and free speech.
Nor will such views simply go away if we ignore them, because they never did in the past; as the fact that the Christchurch Terrorist claims he is an “eco Fascist” in the style of Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist leader from the 1930’s, attests.
However, the most important lesson of the Christchurch murders, the lesson which should be whispered in the ear of every archaeologist and historian, is that in extreme cases like Christchurch history, misrepresented in the name of an ideology, can end up killing real men women and children in our shared world today.
It must also be said that this is not just an issue for the former colonial powers of Europe and of the United States. The same issues are in play in the misuse of history by militant Islam, for example in presenting contemporary Westerners as “Crusaders”, in the misrepresentation of the history of the Rohingya people of Myanmar [Burma] by Buddhist nationalists, in the Hindu identitarian policies of the Modi government in India and in the attempts of the Chinese government to write centuries old Tibetan and Muslim culture and cultural sites out of the national story.
Indeed, it has to be said that as Ariel Koch points out in a paper for the journal “Perspectives on Terrorism”, there is something of a symbiosis between the self styled modern day Knights Templar of the Far Right and some Salafi-Jihadis.
The suggestion is that neither the Salafist, nor the White Supremacist would find it as easy to exist, or to attract recruits, without the other.
But how to live with that responsibility and move from responsibility to action?
In the 1990’s this author attended an anti-racism event in East London at a time when the corpse of Oswald Moseley’s British Union of Fascists, was twitching once again, at that time in the guise of the British National Party.
In the course of the event a veteran of the first anti fascist struggle against Moseley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930’s told the assembled audience of well meaning local activists and politicians that in his experience,
“The only way to defeat Fascism is on the streets.”
While that view might be simplistic, other methods of confronting extremism are available, it is certainly the case that today those streets begin on the highways of the Satellite and Cable TV, the byways of Social Media on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Reddit and Instagram, and from there they stretch into the darker alleys of 4chan, 8chan and the so called Dark Web.
Thus it is vital that traditional academics and archaeologists realise that the vast proportion of those who walk these routes cannot be reached by way of debate in the increasingly expensive bubble of an academic conference, by overpriced academic books and certainly not by learned articles in pay walled journals, however well researched and well intentioned those articles are.
After all, as the Christchurch shooter claimed, his views were formed on the Internet because,
‘You will not find the truth anywhere else’.
It follows that if the fight against such a pernicious enemy is to have any chance of success Archaeologists and historians need first to understand that this is a culture war [there is no choice about this terminology as the alt-Right have defined it as such] and it follows that culture wars must have strategy, tactics, officers and foot soldiers.
It is also vital to understand that good intelligence properly interpreted is key.
The first engagement is set out to delegitimise Ancient Astronaut and conspiracy theory TV and Internet and push it as far up the dead end alleyway where they belong as is possible.
We must do this because, some at least of the audience for what can be so easily and so unwisely, dismissed as occasionally entertaining nonsense, will also be the racists, Islamophobes, homophobes, Antisemites, misogynist incels and cultural supremacists in whose developing world view may lie the dark seeds of future terrorist atrocities.
Of course such cyber street fighting is not what academic archaeologists and historians are usually accustomed to and taking the next step to take on the more hard core politically driven fakery of the kind so prevalent on the alt-Right is even more difficult. Principally because such engagement can be both ugly and dangerous, leading to the ugliest of trolling and even intimidation and threats of physical harm.
This element of genuine risk means it is essential to develop effective networks of training and support. The next essential step is to develop those networks to work collaboratively across academic sectors as well as outside with Government, with policing bodies and with third sector activist organisations with expertise in this area.
Archaeology has to learn how to do this effectively, because in this area of archaeological practice at least, it is time to think less like the author of a paper in a peer reviewed journal and more like a researcher for an activist organisation operating in the wider world such as Hope Not Hate.
With that done and archaeologists and historians are brave enough to step up and take the fight against the faking of history in the name of extreme ideologies onto the streets of cyber space, then the hope must be that there might be less blood on the real streets of our real communities.
If that fight is not taken up then the ultimate consequences do not bear thinking about.