Yesterday, we all watched the horrible images of Notre Dame de Paris burning, and it is a terrible loss to history that will take years to undo, if at all. The cathedral had survived the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian War, and two World Wars, but saw its worst damage from renovation work. It was another sad event in what seems to have been an endless cycle of bizarre and unprecedented events. If history is any judge, every generation feels that way.
That same day, Time magazine ran an article discussing how white nationalists have attempted to use Vikings as symbols of white power. The article specifically cited the History Channel series Vikings as a key source used by white nationalists to create a visual iconography of white action heroes, and the article describes the racist use Viking imagery as the “weaponization” of history.
Time’s Dorothy Kim traces the history of white supremacist appropriation of medieval Norse and Germanic imagery from the nineteenth century through the Nazis and down to today in ways that will not surprise any of the readers of this blog. As Europeans spread over the world and needed to justify European military, economic, and cultural dominance over the rest of the world, scholars developed an ideology of white supremacy in service of their imperial masters. This ideology tried to justify itself through history and therefore intentionally revised and rewrote the past in the image of the ideological present.
Today, these ideologies have been pushed from the scholarly mainstream, but they continue to animate groups like the Odinists and various extremist organizations.
Nor is this use of Old Norse and Viking “history” limited to specific alt-right subgroups. In fact, it is a generalized social fixture in these circles. For example, when researcher Patrik Hermansson went undercover among the denizens of this world, he attended “gatherings where extremists drank mead from a traditional Viking horn and prayed to the Norse god Odin.” The Viking past contributes to a medieval toolkit of language, allusion and symbolism used to transmit white supremacist messages.
Kim writes that academics and journalists have not been effective in countering the racist misuse of Viking history, but Kim suggests that the subversive narratives of the Marvel Universe provide a multicultural narrative and a more positive vision of Norse mythology that isn’t tied to racial supremacy. I’m not entirely sure that reimagining the Norse gods as ancient space aliens is really worth celebrating as a rival vision to white supremacy, but I take the point.
It’s great to see that Time is taking seriously the connection between racist extremism and distortions of history. We should hope that more publications make these connections explicit to their readers.
This also helps to reinforce the problem I had with the Science Channel program America Lost Vikings’s which similarly played into the narrative of a “white” Viking America, similar to that of the Odinists in the Time article. Even if cable networks do not intend to, by not actively addressing and countering the misuse of history for these narratives, or even acknowledging them, they play into the culture of white nationalism.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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