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So, where does the fascist ‘Sieg Heil’ salute come from anyway?

Some have traced the gesture’s origins back to Rome, but the truth is murkier than that

Visual language is a major part of the power of fascism — the parades; the films; the salutes. This weekend’s Trump rally in Youngstown, Ohio, where the crowd raised one arm in solidarity and admiration, quickly drew comparisons to the infamous “Heil Hitler” salute, which is also sometimes referred to as the “Roman salute.”

“Mr. Trump delivered a dark address about the decline of America over music that was all but identical to a song called “WWG1WGA” — an abbreviation for the QAnon slogan, ‘Where we go one, we go all,’” The New York Times reported. “As Mr. Trump spoke, scores of people in the crowd raised fingers in the air in an apparent reference to the ‘1’ in what they thought was the song’s title. It was the first time in the memory of some Trump aides that such a display had occurred at one of his rallies.”

Social media responded with scores of side-by-side images, which compared crowds of enthralled Nazis with Trump supporters.

But the salute as a unifier — and as a path to punish those who don’t conform by immediately raising their arms — was present before Hitler came to power.

Audience members put their index fingers up as Donald Trump speaks at an Ohio rally. Photo by Getty Images

On September 18, 1927, exactly 95 years to the day before the Trump rally, The New York Times reported that fascists were being warned to make their salute snappy — or else.

“The Roman salute, as given in Italy, must be made with “a short, snappy motion,” The Times reported, quoting a letter that had been published in Austrian newspapers. “Those who are unwilling to use the Roman salute are to be reminded that not only snow and rain but also sound thrashings can fall from above upon the forgetful ones.” Punishment for nonconformity is, of course, a key aspect of fascism.

Salutes and hand signs are a common feature of hate groups, and have deep American roots in the history of the Ku Klux Klan, as the Anti-Defamation League notes on its website.

“Most of the hand signs and gestures used by the first and second Ku Klux Klans have fallen by the wayside over the years, except for the Klan salute, which dates back to 1915,” according to the ADL. “It resembles a Nazi salute (which some Klan members will also use), except that it is performed with the left arm. Often Klan members will separate the fingers of their hand when making the salute (to represent the 4 K’s of Knights of the Ku Klux Klan).”

But what about the term “il saluto romano” or “the Roman salute”? Like so much of Fascist framing, it’s not exactly true.

Martin M. Winkler’s “The Roman Salute: Cinema, History, Ideology” considers the salute and its effect on world culture. Winkler says there is zero connection between the “Roman salute” and ancient Rome.

“According to the Fascist ideology of the 1920s and in common perceptions still current, this salute was based on an ancient Roman custom, just as the term Fascism itself is associated with the Roman fasces, the bundles of rods with an axe in their middle that were a symbol of the power of office held by higher Roman magistracies and some priests,” Winkler writes.

But, Winkler adds, the term “Roman salute” is a misnomer.

“Not a single Roman work of art — sculpture, coinage, or painting — displays a salute of the kind that is found in Fascism, Nazism, and related ideologies,” Winkler writes. “It is also unknown to Roman literature and is never mentioned by ancient historians of either republican or imperial Rome. The gesture of the raised right arm or hand in Roman and other ancient cultures that is attested in surviving art and literature had a significantly different function and is never identical with the modern straight-arm salute.”

According to Winkler, the origin story of the “Roman salute” dates back to 19th-century toga plays, melodramas that were set in the Roman Empire; some of these wound up becoming movies, which helped to enshrine the salute in the public imagination.

Writing about Winkler’s book in the Bryn Mawr Review, Michelle Borg observes that fascists in Italy and, later, Nazis, appropriated the salute from those plays and movies and “imbued it with symbolism from which it cannot be disentangled.”

While the origins of the 20th-century salute may have been the theater, those who have lived through fascist takeovers of their countries know it is far more dangerous than anything on stage. My grandfather often described to me how one by one, his classmates in Bremen, Germany, came over to him at school and said, “Sorry, Sigmund,” and then “Heil Hitler!”

Soon he was expelled from school altogether.


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