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An Unpleasant Legacy — Tacitus and the Misogyny of White Supremacists

Teresa Mocharitsch

University of Graz

In a world supposedly jeopardized by alienation and decay of morals, white supremacists tend to turn towards earlier times as templates of virtue. While the academic discourse focuses on advocating diversity and challenges its own dynamics, hierarchies and narratives, these ideological movements perceive plurality as threatening. Opposed to progressive gender perceptions, they focus on conservative binary gender roles. When addressing women, the accounts of Tacitus are frequently stressed. The Germania was often a prominent subject of interest for nationalistic readers, as was most recently pointed out by Christopher Krebs’ 2011 A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus's Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich. Since its rediscovery, the interpretations of the Germania were heavily shaped by ideological approaches. Krebs unveiled a line of argumentation, that saw its popularity peaking during the time of the national socialist movement. When dealing with the reception of Germanic people in Alt-Right circles, it is apparent that the same arguments are used to this day.

In their conceptions the female role is clearly defined through chasteness and loyalty to husband and family. Quotes from the Germania are used to underline these qualities with examples of the virtue and morality of Germanic women. The development of the Germania is subject of discussion in some aspects, nevertheless we know who Tacitus’ intended target audience was: Roman readers, far away from Germanic lands. The characteristics of women were therefore almost certainly constructed and represent an idealized concept. When white supremacists reference the Germania, it is often in the context of today’s immoral world which is sometimes compared to the decadent Roman Empire. This also shows the ambiguity in the perception of the Greco-Roman Antiquity - which is admired as well as despised - depending on the current argumentation line.

When depicting women – and in this context often also concepts of families, marriage and sexuality – certain notions are prevalent: Women should be virtuous and familial, the public- school system indoctrinates children which should rather be home-schooled (i.e. by their mothers) and homosexuality is condemned as it opposes traditional marriage as described by Tacitus. Furthermore, they also recourse on the Tacitean accounts for an example of a truly honourable woman: the priestess Veleda, usually with the allusion of her being regarded as divine. Despite the interest for the priestess, the Batavian revolt – with which she is usually connected – is mostly neglected.

Even though the academic approaches have evolved over the last 80 years, popular reception of Germanic people – as described by Tacitus – remains subject to ideological interpretations and is used as a juxtaposition to today ́s world. This talk aims to shed light on white supremacist’s vision of what the role of women in society should be and how specific passages of Tacitus’ work are instrumentalised for validating their arguments.

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Greco-Roman Antiquity and White Supremacy

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