The far right has peddled a warped view of history to young people – here’s how we fight back
Many young people crave a sense of their own heritage, an idea of where they have come from
The past is all the far right has. That might seem reductive but it’s important not to forget it. The vast majority of what resurgent far-right movements are predicated on is what has come before. It is one of their main recruiting techniques – and a staggeringly effective one.
You only need to look at Ukip and Britain First, two very different organisations, and the success they have enjoyed when using imagery and rhetoric around the idea of a more glorious, stable past. Even the hardships of the Second World War have been turned into clarifying, defining experiences through their canny use of content on social media.
Similarly, far-right youth movements such as Generation Identity have drawn from the well of European history to appeal to young people, and to impose a sense of lost pride and heritage. Their confused use of Roman and Spartan imagery, their focus on the “clash of civilisations” with Islam and dramatic language all serve to draw people into their narrative of a continent-wide conflict against “transgressors”.
This is all ahistorical nonsense. It is, however, ahistorical nonsense that can hurt and kill.
It was the notion of the crusaders and Knights Templar as warriors of Christ, repelling the Muslim hordes that drove Anders Behring-Breivik towards his murderous spree on Utoya island, back in 2011. But of course, the real history of the crusades was vastly more complex, involving a transference of knowledge, science and cultural practices between the Christian and Islamic worlds that went far beyond a series of wars.
It was an idea of the Romans as the standard-bearer for “western” ideals that drew disaffected young men to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they painted the “fasces” and other symbols on makeshift shields. James Fields Jr, who ran down Heather Heyer, was one of them. In reality, the Roman empire was a vast and changing thing, absorbing cultural mores and practices as it evolved. What it was to be “Roman” changed dramatically over time.
It was a perception of Europe needing another Reconquista – the Christian reclaiming of Spain – that influenced the three young men from Generation Identity who were arrested earlier this month for violent, racist attacks in France. The Reconquista, of course, was a process that took centuries – and often involved Christian nobles fighting with one another for supremacy.
While the past is vastly more complex and nuanced than we can hope to get across in our teaching of history – in schools, universities, heritage sites and elsewhere – the far right have no qualms about twisting it for their own ends.
They understand that many young people crave a sense of their own heritage, an idea of where they have come from. They find a sense of pride, and even security in the idea that they are just the latest soldiers in a centuries-long struggle. It helps bring new recruits on side in a way that promising them other, material things simply can’t.
In this regard, they're no different from Isis, which has employed much the same techniques to bring young jihadis to their banner. While Isis has pushed the idea of a resurgent caliphate, and heaven for martyrs, so the far right holds “Christendom” as some sort of achievable endgame.
If we are to successfully combat the far right at a very fractious time in the UK’s history, we need to fundamentally rethink the way we teach and celebrate our history.
We need to focus on highlighting events and figures that helped to rid their communities of injustice, while epitomising their times.
We need to celebrate those from all backgrounds, who contributed to creating the institutions that protect and nurture our society, while simultaneously imparting that they were only flawed and fragile humans – just like the young people being taught.
Most of all, alongside the rigorous teaching of cause and effect, contributing factors, dates and places, we need to leave room for inspiring, captivating stories that make young people across the country proud of where they come from – not just their country, but their local area.
If we can get in ahead of those who seek the disaffected, the young men searching for an identity, we can give them the pride and joy in their local communities that makes them want to unite them, not divide them.
As I write, the country is in the middle of an identity crisis. It reaches from the halls of Westminster to the most deprived coastal council estates in the country. Among those driven to the extremes are young people, searching for meaning among the the confusion, hurled insults and divisive rhetoric.
It is essential that we get to them with the real, complex, fascinating and inspirational story of their past, before someone with a hateful agenda delivers neatly packaged banalities designed to warp their world view.