Skip to main content

Exegetical history: Nazis at the round table


Some might argue that when Nazis fantasize themselves as medieval knights, they debase a beautiful, noble and innocent past. They might insist that this fantasy, which feeds a desire to see the male body as larger than life, this fetishizing of the body as armor and muscle, may be perverse, but the ideal – the chivalrous knight who pledged himself to honor, loyalty and brotherhood – should not be tarnished by that perversion. This essay, however, explores the possibility that there is, in all imaginings of the knight, always the potential for fascist desire. It suggests that there may be an unsavory kinship between the armored warriors of medieval Europe – even the romanticized armored warriors of King Arthur’s court – and the armored divisions of Nazi blitzkrieg. A fascist aesthetic is the darkness at the heart of Arthurian history, especially as it celebrates aggressive hypermasculinity mobilized in the service of a persecuting society intent upon domination.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3


  1. On the relation of fantasy to social reality, see Fradenburg (1996, 206–208), who argues that, far from separating us from reality, fantasies have the power to remake the social realities we live and desire.

  2. The insight that the knight was an assemblage that fused man, horse, armor and weapons into a single ‘identity machine’ is Cohen’s (2003, 46).

  3. The term comes from Burns (2002, 25).

  4. Initiation rituals for the various degrees of Masonry draw heavily upon Old Testament narratives.

  5. In Masonic mythology, Hiram Abif was the stonemason who built the Temple of Solomon.

  6. Literally, since today Wewelsburg is a museum, complete with an exhibition on the castle from 1933–1945; see ‘Wewelsburg District Museum,’

  7. Historians have been uncomfortable with Rauschning’s accuracy as an eyewitness, nervous about the excesses and biases he brings to his historical performance, the possibility that he exaggerated both his friendship with Hitler and his account of Hitler’s conversations. We would argue that it does not matter whether these words belong, finally, to Nazi leader or Nazi stooge; Nazi medievalism was not the fantasy of a single individual, but part of an ideology that pervaded German life. Rauschning’s account, even if it does not tell exactly what Hitler really said, is consistent with – and illuminates – that ideology.

  8. Nazi fear of sexual pollution is reflected in the belief that Jews were the source of syphilitic infection. Novels of the period, such as Zoberlein’s Befehl des Gewissens (‘Conscience Commands’), warn of Judenpest (‘Jewish pox’), a sexually transmitted blood disease – syphilis – that causes sterility; see Theweleit, 1987, 2, 13–15.

  9. For two very different readings of Jews in Grail romances see Fiedler (1991) and Lampert (2007).


  • Benjamin, W. 1986. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn, 217–251. New York: Schocken Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Berenbaum, M. 1993. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boswell, J. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Burns, E.J. 2002. Courtly Love Undressed: Reading Through Clothes in Medieval French Culture. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Cohen, J.J. 2003. Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cohn, N. 1966. Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World-Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: Harper and Row.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fiedler, L. 1991. Why is the Grail Knight Jewish? A Passover Meditation. In Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity, 85–102. Boston, MA: Godine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finke, L.A. and M.B. Shichtman . 2004. King Arthur and the Myth of History. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

    Google Scholar 

  • Finke, L.A. and M.B. Shichtman . 2009. Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fradenburg, L.O. 1996. ‘Fulfild of Fairye’: The Social Meaning of Fantasy in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. In The Wife of Bath: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, ed. P. Beidler, 205–220. Boston, MA: Bedford Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Golomshtok, I. 1990. Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy, and the People’s Republic of China. London: Collins Harvill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Höhne, H. 1972. The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS, trans. R. Barry. London: Pan Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lampert, L. 2007. Why is this Knight Different from All Other Knights?: Jews, Anti-Semitism, and the Old French Grail Narratives. Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106 (2): 224–247.

    Google Scholar 

  • Melzer, R. 2004. In the Eye of a Hurricane: German Freemasonry in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich. In Freemasonry in Context: History, Ritual, Controversy, eds. A. de Hoyos and S. Brent Morris, trans. J. Karnahl, 89–104. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore, R.I. 1987. The Formation of Persecuting Society. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rauschning, H. 1940. The Voice of Destruction. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rhodes, A. 1976. Propaganda. The Art of Persuasion: World War II. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shichtman, M.B. 1992. Wagner and the Arthurian Tradition. In Approaches to Teaching the Arthurian Tradition, eds. M. Fries and J. Watson, 139–142. New York: MLA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sontag, S. 1980. Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    Google Scholar 

  • Theweleit, K. 1987. Male Fantasies, trans. S. Conway. 2 Vols. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wagner, R. [1892] 1966. Richard Wagner’s Prose Works, trans. W.A. Ellis. 6 Vols. New York: Bronde.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiesel, E. [1968] 1995. A Plea for the Dead. In Art from the Ashes. A Holocaust Anthology, ed. L.L. Langer. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Additional information

An earlier version of this essay appeared in King Arthur and the Myth of History (2004). It has been adapted and updated for publication in this volume.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Shichtman, M., Finke, L. Exegetical history: Nazis at the round table. Postmedieval 5, 278–294 (2014).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: