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Exegetical history: Nazis at the round table

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 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. 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. 3.

    The term comes from Burns (2002, 25).

  4. 4.

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

  5. 5.

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

  6. 6.

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

  7. 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. 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. 9.

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

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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.

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Shichtman, M., Finke, L. Exegetical history: Nazis at the round table. Postmedieval 5, 278–294 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/pmed.2014.23

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