Ten days before the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year, Paul Walsh was telling fellow neo-Nazis how to build and carry shields. “Carrying it like that it will flop around and be a pain in the ass,” Walsh scolded a member of his chat group, who suggested a hands-free shield modification.
How did Walsh know how a shield would work in action? “I do a lot of nerdy LARP [live action role play] shit with shields,” he explained.
He wasn’t kidding. Before Unite the Right, Walsh was an active participant in Dagorhir, a medieval fantasy role-playing game in which players dress as knights or orcs (one of Walsh’s preferred costumes) and bash the hell out of each other with foam swords. Nor was he alone. Since the 19th Century, white supremacists have bought into a fictionalized vision of medieval Europe, which they interpret—incorrectly, according to medieval scholars—as an all-white world. Now, with white supremacist extremism on the rise, those medievalist influences are leaking into the real world, from allegations of neo-Nazism in the LARPing community and the professional sword-fighting realm, to Renaissance Faire-loving bombers and fascist cults who encourage recruits to read Lord of the Rings.
Maybe the other LARPers at the Battle For the Ring VIII didn’t notice the Nazi symbols in the brawl of colorful shields and tunics. But there they were: at least two LARPers carrying shields emblazoned with the Black Sun or Sonnenrad, a wheel with jagged spokes that appears frequently in Nazi and neo-Nazi imagery. The two men and their shields appear in online footage of the January 2016 foam sword fighting event.
Or maybe other LARPers had confronted the pair and been informed that, actually, the symbol was not a Nazi symbol after all, but a variation on a symbol that appeared in Old Norse and Celtic societies. Even a seasoned medievalist would have struggled to prove them wrong.
A member of LARPing scene familiar with one of the men carrying a Black Sun shield told The Daily Beast the man had no known connections to the alt-right, that his costume has a historical Germanic theme, and that, in all likelihood, the man didn't know the Black Sun's Nazi tie-in.
The significant overlap between Nazi fans and European history fans has led to a phenomenon medieval scholar Paul Sturtevant calls “Schrödinger’s Medievalism”: “a piece of medieval culture found in the wild that you know has been appropriated as a symbol by right-wing nationalists or racists ... You can’t tell which is it until you get more information—and sometimes doing so is impossible. So, sometimes you are left in the uncomfortable position of having to treat it as both benign and hostile at the same time.”
White supremacists have good reason to turn to medieval culture for validation, Cord Whitaker, an associate professor of English at Wellesley College, told The Daily Beast.
“Medievalism and a certain idea of the Middle Ages appeals to white supremacists because of our popular image of the Middle Ages,” one which was crafted in 19th-century literature and promoted through fiction, said Whitaker, who studies race in medieval Europe. “It’s one of a Europe that was quintessentially white, in which people of color were either not present at all, or such an aberration that they might have well have not been present.”
The original Nazis were in on the trend, too. The Black Sun was “one of a number of ancient European symbols appropriated by the Nazis in their attempt to invent an idealized ‘Aryan/Norse’ heritage,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
But that Europe didn’t exist outside novels, medievalist Dorothy Kim told The Daily Beast.
“This medieval ‘white utopia’ is entirely false. In fact, the medieval past was multiracial, multifaith, and multicultural,” Kim, an associate professor of English at Brandeis University said, pointing to Indian and African immigration pre-1500, and to recent genetic testing that suggests the earliest known British skeleton had dark skin. “It's rather difficult to find a ‘pure white’ utopia anytime in the pre-modern, let alone ancient historical records,” she said.
None of these findings have done much to deter white supremacists, many of whom still adopt medieval symbols like the Black Sun, which is just historical enough for neo-Nazis to describe it as a Norse symbol when confronted. But come on. When the singer Shakira released a gold necklace with a Black Sun pattern (overlaid with the ahistorical inscription “Shakira El Dorado World Tour”), fans and German news outlets quickly noted its similarity to the Nazi symbol, and Shakira’s promotion company pulled the necklace from its store.
If Shakira fans are already wise to popular Nazi symbols, what excuse do amateur European historians have?
“A lot of these symbols are dog whistles,” Ken Mondschein, a history professor and fencing master, told The Daily Beast. His own area of expertise, Historical European Medieval Arts, has its own admirers on the far-right. “For example, a Thor’s Hammer. Someone could simply like the Marvel character Thor and wear it. They could be a non-racist member of Asatru, a neo-heathen movement. Or they could be a white supremacist.”
In Walsh’s case, the answer was white supremacy.
Walsh, a Michigan man, was a fixture of Dagorhir tournaments, where he LARPed as an orc called Kromkar Da Yooper since at least 2011, the blog Alt-Right Already reported last August. But despite a self-proclaimed love for “painting up” before battles (orc players often paint themselves green), Walsh believed whites were superior. A member of Walsh’s Dagorhir group told Alt-Right Already that members quit over Walsh’s comments defending slavery and white supremacy.
In spring 2017, Walsh joined a different niche social club: the Traditionalist Worker Party, a neo-Nazi movement that imploded less than a year later, after its leader was arrested in a trailer brawl over an intra-family love triangle.
“Going to produce some training videos about basic shield line tactics and organization as well, after the TWP event kicks off,” Walsh wrote in an alt-right chat group in April 2017, according to chat logs leaked by the media nonprofit Unicorn Riot. “I know what I’m doing.”
Elsewhere in the logs, Walsh references his roommate pitching in to plan the TWP’s shield wall. That person’s identity is unclear, although at least one of Walsh’s Michigan LARPing friends was at Unite the Right, according to Alt-Right Already. That LARPer, Anthony Overway, roleplayed as a character called Heinz the Barbarian. A person with the username “Heinz-MI” appears repeatedly in chat logs for the TWP and a Unite the Right planning group, where he gives instructions on building shields and forming a shield wall.
The image could almost be funny—members of the self-proclaimed master race studying shields with a medieval orc LARPer!—if not for the TWP’s actions at Unite the Right. Using hard plastic shields as battering rams, the group charged into a crowd of unarmed counter-protesters, shoving them on the pavement and stabbing them with flagpoles.
A lawsuit against a hoard of far-right groups, including the TWP, accuses them of using their shields like weapons. In order to escape litigation, a number of the groups in the lawsuit have agreed not to return to Charlottesville with weapons, including shields.
Meanwhile, other medievalist communities have also struggled with alt-right incursion—and in the case of the Historical European Medieval Arts (HEMA) community, those unwelcome factions have more deadly weapons.
Mondschein, the history professor and HEMA instructor, said the community is overwhelmingly a tolerant one. But over the past several years, he has catalogued a far-right fascination with the field, which includes fencing and dueling with very real, very sharp swords.
“Is anyones else besides me into [HEMA]?” a person with a swastika avatar asked in Iron March, a now-defunct Nazi forum. Mondschein included the post in a presentation at last year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies, where he gave a talk on white supremacist trends in his sport. He also conducted a survey (which, he stresses, is not peer-reviewed) of more than 300 HEMA participants, in which 10 to 15 percent of respondents indicated that they held far-right views.
Radix Journal, a white supremacist site published by Richard Spencer, has run multiple pieces promoting HEMA, selling it as a more authentic medieval experience than games like Dagorhir. “This ain’t LARPing,” one Radix article reads.
Larry McQuilliams, a Texas man who attempted to destroy Austin’s Mexican Consulate with bullets and bottles of propane in 2014, was described by neighbors as being into “martial arts swords” and Renaissance Faires. McQuilliams, who was killed in a firefight with police after firing more than 100 shots in downtown Austin, was reportedly affiliated with the Phineas Priesthood, a Christian identity hate group that advocates violence against people of color.
And just months ago, the HEMA community erupted in controversy after some of its best-known Swedish fighters were revealed to have liked or shared historical Nazi propaganda, or other racist imagery. In a long statement, the most prominent of the fencers, Axel Pettersson, denounced his old “Nazi jokes” as the product of a dark period in his life, for which he apologized. Pettersson said he was not a white supremacist and had friends of many races, but went on to describe views similar to that of the identitarian movement, warning that immigrants are “replacing” white Swedes, who “have the right to our own country.”
“A lot of people are drawn to HEMA and other medievalist subcultures like the Society for Creative Anachronism because it fits into their overall Identitarian worldview, their ideas of European culture,” Mondschein said of the incident. “Particularly, these people in Sweden who attempted to hide their participation in some white supremacist websites, but if you read their various blogs and writings, you see it that it fits into an overall worldview that romanticizes an imagined homogeneous past.”
In this “imagined past,” as medievalists describe it, historical accuracy often takes a backseat to fantasy.
Neo-Nazis and European nationalists have laid claim to Beowulf, an Old English epic poem about a Norse warrior, which they interpret as a vision of an all-white warrior society. When a charity group produced a low-budget Beowulf adaptation starring a black actor in 2007, they received death threats from self-proclaimed “aryans”. On the recommended reading page of one of its websites, the murderous neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen lists the medievalist fantasy series Lord of the Rings alongside Hitler’s writing and texts that advocate terrorism.
Also on the Atomwaffen-approved reading list are three books by Varg Vikernes, a Norwegian musician who, in between prison and probation stints for murder, church-burning, and inciting racial hatred, has promoted his own brand of pagan white supremacy. Vikernes’ profile picture on his Amazon page shows him wearing a chainmail shirt. He describes himself as being interested in “tabletop role-playing games, HEMA, archaeology, pre-history, pre-Christian European religion and survivalism.”
Historically questionable fiction about medieval Europe has been fueling white supremacist fantasies for the past 150 years, Whitaker, the Wellesley College professor said.
“In the 19th Century, it was largely through medievalizing novels like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which was probably the biggest and most well-known example,” he said. “That novel played a big role in racial politics in the mid-19th Century, before, during, and after the Civil War.”
The result, particularly after the Civil War, was its own brand of LARPing.
“You often had white southerners after the Civil War imagining themselves as characters in Ivanhoe and holding medieval-style tournaments as public recreation,” Whitaker said. “This was a way of recuperating their experience in the American Civil War as the medieval experience of Norman versus Franc. That is one instance of a way in which this narrative of an all-white Middle Ages has been important to white supremacy for a long time.”
Much in the way that would-be Confederates leaned on the “imagined past” of medieval England, modern racists have poured millions into an imagined Confederacy. Most of the Confederate flags and statues that dot the U.S.’s southern states did not appear during or immediately after the Civil War, but a century later, during the Civil Rights Movement. Though the statues’ advocates defend them as a symbol of pride and heritage, the construction of new Confederate sites has spiked during racialized conflicts, the Atlantic previously reported.
That LARPing lineage came full circle at Unite the Right, which was initially described as a rally in defense of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville.
Now, with members of their communities marching among fascists at Charlottesville or sharing Nazi pictures, some anti-racist medievalists are fighting back.
“It is safe to say that there are white supremacists and Nazis who are ACTIVELY using Dag as a personal and organizational training ground to give them an edge in premeditated race riots,” one Dagorhir participant wrote on Facebook after Walsh was revealed to have marched at Unite the Right.
Dagorhir Battle Games, the sport’s organizing body, soon banned Walsh from future competitions. But in HEMA, weeding out white supremacy can be more complicated.
“The difficulty is that this idea of aboriginal European martial arts works very well as a dog whistle,” Mondschein said. “It’s very hard to detoxify that. We have people who are interested in this, and we have overt political statements.”
Debates over the sport’s next steps have led to a “real split. I got challenged to a duel with sharp weapons” over his stance, Mondschein said.
Even medievalist academics are torn on how to address their field’s unwanted fanbase on the far-right. The rift turned bitter ahead of this year’s International Conference on Medieval Studies. Kim, the Brandeis professor, had previously called on her colleagues to condemn white supremacy. Some, including a University of Chicago medievalist who contributes to Breitbart, refused, resulting in a flame war against Kim and colleagues, Inside Higher Ed reported.
Whitaker said the recent tensions in his field haven’t surprised him.
“The field propagated this idea, relevant since the 19th Century, of a homogeneously white Middle Ages and attracted people into the field—obviously not everyone, but some people—who thought ‘okay, I can deal with literature or history and not deal with these knotty modern problems of race,’” he said
Kim told The Daily Beast she’s still calling on colleagues to address their field’s white supremacy problem head-on.
“I think academics must counter academic white supremacy by calling it what it is and resisting it,” she said. “In other words, this is not a both-sides debate, this is about genocidal fascism that wants to harm the most vulnerable bodies in our society—Jews, Muslims, women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA, immigrants, refugees, etc.”
As for the white supremacists LARPing alongside non-Nazis, their medieval enthusiast peers want them to drop the foam swords and step into reality.
“In many ways, it’s a reaction to the current state of the world. This is their answer to it, by going back to the imagined past, which is of course futile, because you can’t turn back the clock,” Mondschein said. “You’ve got to learn to live in the world we’re in.”