You may have noticed that I have been blogging less on my personal site. This certainly is a product of a busy summer with much travel and other publications to address, but I am afraid that–in part–I must admit that it was a reaction to receiving messages and tweets suggesting that certain white supremacist groups and individuals who objected to the statues pieces were “keeping an eye” on me here in Iowa and online.
However, the events in Charlottesville this past weekend pushed me to say something. Apathy is a choice and it is also an ideological position that can speak volumes. The University of Virginia is my alma mater and for many years, Charlottesville was my home. It is a place I still hold dear. Well beyond that, I wanted to make a statement condemning the actions of the white nationalist groups that gathered in Charlottesville. My Forbes column this week thus explored the history of using torches as symbols of intimidation and racial superiority. I hear duplicate it in full:
“In Charlottesville, Virginia this week, a number of white nationalist action groups came together at a “Unite The Right” rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Marching on the campus of the University of Virginia on the night before the planned rally, protesters carried tiki-torches and chanted “You will not replace us.”
The carrying of torches to suggest power and project intimidation has a long and sordid history.
Fire was a constant hazard in the ancient world. Property owners, apartment dwellers, city magistrates, and emperors lived in fear of the potential damage caused by unchecked fires in urban areas in particular. Torches could be used to light weddings (as they frequently were), but could also be used by soldiers as weapons particularly during siege warfare. They were also carried by rioters wishing to brandish a dangerous weapon which, in Latin, was called a ‘fax .’
Following the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE, the citizens in Rome who gathered in the Forum to hear Antony’s eulogy grabbed pieces of wood and furniture in the area in order to make an ad hoc pyre upon which to burn the dictator’s body. Many present at the cremation then grabbed pieces of flaming wood as torches from the pyre. As the historian Plutarch noted, “people rushed up from all sides, snatched up half-burnt brands, and ran round to the houses of Caesar’s slayers to set them on fire.”
Fire provided light in a world without electricity, but torches were never devoid of the potential to cause harm. They also signaled at least the potential for violence to break out. In the gospels, we see the threatening use of the torch as well. When Judas finds Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the book of John (18:3), it notes: “So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.” Romans regularly used small ceramic oil lamps to light their way in houses and while walking at night, but here the aggressive detachment sent to arrest Jesus is emphatically described by John as brandishing “torches, lanterns, and weapons” (‘φανῶν καὶ λαμπάδων καὶ ὅπλων’).”
If we look to modern history to understand how torches became a symbol of not only intimidation but specifically racial intimidation, we must look both to America in the aftermath of the Civil War and to Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 40s. In response to the rights given to African-Americans following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in the late 1860s. The group took their nomenclature from the Greek word κύκλος, which means “circle”; a word often used in antiquity to refer to how hunters encircled their game. Torches became a consistently described part of the Klan’s early parades and use of visual intimidation. They would continue to be a terrifying feature of the organization when it reemerged in the early 20th century.
Torches used as statements of power and racial superiority were even more prominent in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On August 1, 1936, a new tradition was introduced to the modern Olympic Games: the use of a torch relay wherein individual runners brought the Olympic flame from Greece to Berlin–connecting the ancient world to Germany. The ancient Greeks had indeed used torches in athletics, but the Nazis appropriated the torch as a symbol of both athletic and racial supremacy.
For more insight on the use of the torch in Nazi Germany, I spoke with Professor Waitman Beorn, a Holocaust historian who currently teaches in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and serves as a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “For the Nazis, the torches were meant to evoke avolkisch (racial) connection between a pseudo-historical German race and modern Germans. In addition, it enhanced the pageantry and spectacle of Nazi events, made famous at the Nuremberg rallies and in Leni Riefenstahl’s powerful film, Triumph of the Will.” Beorn notes Hitler’s attachment to the torch as a symbol: “In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to another Nazi symbol, the swastika, as having ‘an effect like that of a flaming torch.’ He also described racial purity as ‘the fuel for the torch of human culture.'”
Beorn was there this weekend as white supremacists and Nazis descended on the town of Charlottesville. Many of them had gone to the local Wal-Mart the night before in order to buy tiki-torches, as they had for another rally there earlier in the summer. Beorn’s reaction to this weekend’s outbreak of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups that came together to “Unite the Right” in this southern college town underscores the potency of their adopting such symbols: “For the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who descended on my town this weekend, the torch likely is an imitation of the Nazi rallies just as American racists imitate much [Nazi] regalia. However, in the context of modern white supremacy, the torch also likely echoes the burning crosses and torches of the Klan.” The use of cheap tiki-torches put up at pool parties and stored in suburban garages may at first seem laughable, but the visual message of hate and intimidation advertised by these torch-wielding individuals has a long and terrible history of violence.”
A special thanks in particular to Professor Waitman Beorn, a history colleague from UNC-Chapel Hill who is also a native Virginian that now teaches at the University of Virginia. To read more from him on this issue, please see his work on the Nazi chants recited in Lee Park in Charlottesvile back in May.
— Dr. Waitman W. Beorn (@waitmanb) August 12, 2017