Interview: The Far Right and the Middle Ages

Prof. Henrike Lähnemann on Emden Tower, St. Edmund Hall, Oxford in 2015.
Photographer John Cairns.

Prof. Henrike Lähnemann holds the Chair of Medieval German Literature and Linguistics at Oxford University. In this interview, we discuss the Middle Ages as imagined by the far right and how academics can counteract their misappropriation. 

Our discussion today is about the Middle Ages and their relationship with the far right. Is there something we should be aware of in approaching this topic? 

First we should define what we mean by ‘Middle Ages’. The Middle Ages which are evoked by the far right are quite removed from what is at the center of scholarly attention. The far right tends to focus on the early Middle Ages, which are portrayed as a supposedly heroic, pre-Christian Germanic past. This period conveniently offers very few written sources which might contradict such generalisations. This discussion has also been going on for much longer in Germany than in America or the UK. Starting with denazification, there has been a need to tackle the fabricated German past the National Socialists tried to create.

Many people locate a transition between the Middle Ages and the Early Modern around the 15th century. Does the far right draw on these periods in different ways?

Early Modern Germany was a very literate society, giving rise to a deluge of evidence that is almost impossible to ignore or misrepresent. One can hardly misappropriate an event like the Thirty Years War for purposes of self-glorification. The same is true of literature in this period: Von Grimmelshausen’s Der Abenteuerliche Simplicissimus begins with a complete destruction of the world. The brutality of the period has too concrete a presence in the source material. The Middle Ages, by contrast, allow you to tell your own story; the border between fact and fiction – for example, between accounts of the courts of Friedrich Barbarossa and King Arthur – is much more vague. Whereas no one would treat accounts of the Anabaptist seizure of Münster as interchangeable with 16th-century comedies.

Has there been a distinction in how more ‘intellectual’ elements in far-right circles appropriate the Middle Ages?

Emanuel Hirsch, a leading philosopher of the 1930s, had a sideline of writing pamphlet for the German Christians, the Hitler-compliant branch of the church. He decoupled his writing on Jesus as Aryan in his pamphlets from his writing about Schleiermacher and Christology in 19th-century philosophy. He was mainly writing about philosophers rediscovering the Holy Roman Christianity of the Middle Ages. This was more of an intellectual appropriation, giving rise to many popular misconceptions.

How were the Nazis able to square their anti-Catholicism with the largely Catholic Middle Ages? 

The Nazis tried to go back to a pre-Christian, Germanic past through such means as a fascist reading of Tacitus’ Germania. At the same time, they also tried to recreate images such as the Bamberg Horseman or Uta of Naumburg as idealized representations of German history. Walther von der Vogelweide became the ‘Singer of the Reich’, a reading traceable to the 19th century.

In general, many images popular among the 20th– and 21st-century far right are more about 19th-century representations of the Middle Ages. Most people living under the Nazis learned about the Nibelungs not through the Nibelungenlied but through the operas of Wagner or the films of Fritz Lang. Similarly, they wouldn’t have read Karl Lachmann’s critical edition of Walther von der Vogelweide, but rather the illustrated school editions. The latter focused on poems like ‘Ir sult sprechen willekomen’, which in turn inspired Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s text to the German national anthem.

National Socialist portrayals of the Nibelung-saga are particularly interesting: a popular image, taken from Lang’s film, shows Siegfried being stabbed in the back by Hagen. Of course, this imagery was also used as a metaphor for the Nazi stab-in-the-back myth. For a long time after the War, the film was only available with English and Russian captions, despite its use of Gothic lettering and dedication to the German ‘Volk’. In fact, it was fed back into the German Neo-Nazi scene through such international channels.

A consistent motif in the far right’s appropriation of the Middle Ages is that of the knight. Is this also the legacy of 19th-century romanticism?

It’s the product of a complex chain of transmission. In my opinion, this chain begins as early as the High Middle Ages with the idealization of a bygone age when knights were knights and maidens were maidens. It’s something which begins in the 14th century, particularly with representative volumes like the Codex Manesse. These images represent the popular imagination of what a knight should look like. They’re not factual depictions, but rather images created 100-150 years after the poetry was written, which is itself a fiction. The illuminators wanted to depict what the ideal should look like.

Another important factor is the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who liked to imagine himself as the ‘last knight’. Every city he visited had to furnish a full set of woodcuts and post them by the city gates before his triumphal entry. These woodcuts depict him clad in armour which never existed in the first place, but that is how he wanted to be seen.

The next stage of the process can be seen in the works of Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, for example in their Zeitung für Einsiedler. In this publication, they rediscover the Middle Ages and make them available in woodcuts and writing. This combines with a rediscovery of medieval poetry in Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Romantic imagery draws on the images created by Maximilian, rather than going back to archaeological evidence. So really, we have a threefold chain of Early Modern, 19th-century and modern far-right representations of the knight.

Are there continuities between medieval antisemitism and far-right antisemitism?

Again, it’s a chain of misperceptions that leads to an appropriation of medieval actions which are motivated by completely different factors. Not that they’re less brutal, but I think it’s hard to overstate the religious structure underlying everyday life. I’ve been discussing with Lyndal Roper, who wrote a biography of Luther, whether it is helpful to label his vicious pamphlet attacking the Jews as antisemitic. Without wanting to exonerate Luther in any way, I would argue that the Nazis, despite using Luther as a source of legitimacy, had completely different motives in their antisemitism, and wouldn’t have wanted to buy into Luther’s causes. So in applying a modern label like ‘antisemitic’ to Luther, one in a sense replicates the Nazis’ inaccuracies.

My own hometown of Nuremberg, chosen by Hitler for his Party Congresses, features a Church of Our Lady built on the site where a synagogue was destroyed during a medieval pogrom. So there was clearly anti-Jewish sentiment in the Middle Ages, but not necessarily of a kind that would align with Nazi antisemitism.

To what extent was there racism in the Middle Ages? Multiculturalism?

Terms like racism might obfuscate the way medieval writers viewed their surroundings. I’m currently working on nuns from a convent dedicated to Saint Maurice, the Moorish patron saint. According to legend, he fought heroically for Christianity as the leader of the Theban legion, a group of soldiers from the African areas of the Roman Empire. However, the legend says nothing about what he looked like. Within the same convent prayer book, we therefore see representations of him as a dark-skinned man with curly hair and a light-skinned man with straight hair. This doesn’t seem to bother the nuns at all. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this colour-blindness, since that is a modern concept, but ‘race’ is certainly not a category the nuns are interested in. Rather, they care that St. Maurice is a powerful soldier who can defend them, irrespective of whether his hair is curly or straight, or his skin white or black.

The revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden, a hugely influential text, present a similar image. Bridget travelled to the Holy Land, where she had visions of St. Mary in Bethlehem. In these visions, the Virgin appeared to her as having long, blonde hair, notwithstanding the fact that Bridget would surely have seen local women with different features. This was not for reasons of ideology or imagined racial superiority, though, but rather because Bridget believed that the vision represented a higher reality and not a realistic depiction.

Is there anything more you would like to share with our readers?

I see my responsibility as a scholar in upholding this kind of complexity and resisting easy answers, while at the same time finding ways which allow a wider public to engage with historical material. It’s crucial for the survival of academic disciplines, but also civil society, that researchers communicate the complexity of their research in ways that counter overly simplistic narratives from the far right, all the while providing easily accessible material that is grounded in fact.

Another way forward is to work with humour and laughter. I think that the most effective way of debunking simplistic images of chivalrous knights, for example, is to use Monty Python to show that most of these chivalric images are mere fantasies.





Two depictions of St. Maurice. The statue on the left, commissioned by the Medingen Abbess, can be found on the open access database of inscriptions on objects in Germany. The illuminated manuscript on the right, which features a marginal illustration of Maurice and his soldiers from the Thebean legion, is held in the in the Cathedral Library at Hildesheim and digitized at the Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel, which is collaborating with the Bodleian Library on digitising manuscripts from the German lands financed by the Polonsky Foundation (#PolonskyGerman).