If you do a web search for images of "Nazi salute" you find old photos from Germany and recent photos from the United States. But if you search for images of "Bellamy salute" you find countless black-and-white photographs of U.S. children and adults with their right arms raised stiffly out in front of them in what will strike most people as a Nazi salute. From the early 1890s through 1942 the United States used the Bellamy salute to accompany the words written by Francis Bellamy and known as the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1942, the U.S. Congress instructed Americans to instead place their hands over their hearts when swearing allegiance to a flag, so as not to be mistaken for Nazis. [i]
Jacques-Louis David's 1784 painting The Oath of the Horatii is believed to have begun the fashion that lasted for centuries of depicting ancient Romans as making a gesture very similar to the Bellamy or Nazi salute. [ii]
A U.S. stage production of Ben Hur, and a 1907 film version of the same, made use of the gesture. Those using it in U.S. dramatic productions of that period would have been aware of both the Bellamy salute and the tradition of depicting a "Roman salute" in neoclassical art. As far as we know, the "Roman salute" was never actually used by the ancient Romans.
Of course, it's a very simple salute, not hard to think up; there are only so many things humans can do with their arms. But when Italian fascists picked it up, it had neither survived from ancient Rome nor been newly invented. It had been seen in Ben Hur, and in several Italian films set in ancient times, including Cabiria (1914), written by Gabriele D'Annunzio.
From 1919 to 1920 D'Annunzio made himself the dictator of something called the Italian Regency of Carnaro, which was the size of one small city. He instituted many practices that Mussolini would soon appropriate, including the corporate state, public rituals, black-shirted thugs, balcony speeches, and the "Roman salute," which he would have seen in Cabiria.
By 1923, Nazis had picked up the salute for greeting Hitler, presumably copying the Italians. In the 1930s fascist movements in other countries and various governments around the world picked it up. Hitler himself recounted a medieval German origin for the salute, which, as far as we know, is no more real that the ancient Roman origin or half the stuff that comes out of Donald Trump's mouth. [iii] Hitler certainly knew of Mussolini's use of the salute and almost certainly knew of the U.S. use. Whether the U.S. connection inclined him in favor of the salute or not, it seems not to have dissuaded him from adopting the salute.
The official salute of the Olympics is also very similar to these other ones, though rarely used because people don't want to look like Nazis. It was widely used at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and confused a lot of people then and ever since as to who was saluting the Olympics and who was saluting Hitler. Posters from the 1924 Olympics show the salute with the arm almost vertical. A photograph from the 1920 Olympics shows a somewhat different salute.
It seems that a number of people had a similar idea around the same time, perhaps influenced by each other. And it seems that Hitler gave the idea a bad name, leading everybody else to drop, modify, or downplay it from that point forward.
What difference does it make? Hitler could have instituted that salute without the United States existing. Or if he couldn't have, he could have instituted some other salute that would have been no better or worse. Yes, of course. But the problem is not where the arm is placed. The problem is the mandatory ritual of militarism and blind, servile obedience.
It was strictly required in Nazi Germany to give the salute in greeting, accompanied by the words Hail Hitler! or Hail Victory! It was also required when the National Anthem or the Nazi Party Anthem was played. The national anthem celebrated German superiority, machismo, and war. [iv] The Nazi anthem celebrated flags, Hitler, and war. [v]
When Francis Bellamy created the Pledge of Allegiance, it was presented as part of a program for schools that blended religion, patriotism, flags, obedience, ritual, war, and heaps and heaps of exceptionalism. [vi]
Of course, the current version of the pledge is slightly different from above and reads: "I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."[vii]
Nationalism, militarism, religion, exceptionalism, and a ritual oath of loyalty to a piece of cloth: this is quite a mix. Imposing this on children has got to be among the worst ways to prepare them to oppose fascism. Once you've pledged your allegiance to a flag, what are you to do when someone waves that flag and screams that evil foreigners need to be killed? Rare is the U.S. government whistleblower or war veteran peace activist who won't tell you how much time they spent trying to deprogram themselves of all the patriotism that was put into them as children.
Some people who visit the United States from other countries are shocked to see children standing, using the modified salute of hand-on-heart, and robotically reciting a loyalty oath to a "nation under God." It seems that the modification of hand position has not succeeded in preventing them looking like Nazis. [viii]
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