Guests: Bill Bailey, Jack Dee, David Mitchell
Aired: 16th September 2011, BBC Two
The salute which is now indelibly associated with Nazism is widely believed to have been used by the ancient Romans, but there is actually no classical authority for this idea - it isn’t mentioned by any ancient writer or depicted in any work of art. It actually started out as a convention of 18th-century French neo-classical painting; the first depiction of the gesture was in the painter Jacque-Louis David’s work The Oath of the Horatii (1784). Its use became commonplace in depictions of Roman scenes. It seems to have been a Broadway production of Ben Hur which led to its adoption in 1890s USA as the 'Bellamy Salute', the gesture which accompanied Francis Bellamy’s Pledge of Allegiance. There are many photographs of American children saluting the flag in this way until 1942, when its association with fascism led to the adoption of the hand-over-heart gesture in the official Flag Code.
In the 1920s the salute had been adopted by the Italian fascists as a piece of neo-Imperial ritual intended to replace the supposedly bourgeois handshake (in 1938
the Italians banned the publication of photographs of people shaking hands altogether). It was then taken up by the Nazis. Until 1936 it was also the official salute of the Olympic movement. However, the Wehrmacht actually declined to use it as their normal salute until July 1944. Its use has been illegal in Germany and Austria since the war.
The whole story is a rather striking example of the way that popular culture has re-written history. Who would believe that the salute was not used by Roman soldiers or the Wehrmacht, but was used by American children and Olympians?
The further one travels, the less one knows.
If you look like your passport photo, you're too ill to travel.