Heil Churchill: on Nazi Salutes at the Cenotaph

Many guffawed and the combination of Nazi salutes and defence of the Churchill statue but in fact the symbolism is a coherent condensation of a white supremacist worldview.

9 min read

Among the more shocking images from the far right gathering in central London on 13 June was the sight of protestors at the Cenotaph raising their arms in Nazi salutes as they aggressively confronted the police line. Film of the scene was greeted online with astonishment: at the foot of the national memorial to those who died in Britain’s twentieth century conflicts, during a rally that had been called to protect a statue of Winston Churchill, demonstrators were openly displaying one of the most potent symbols of Nazism. In what kind of counterfactual timeline had Hitler salutes come to symbolise allegiance to Churchill’s legacy?

The far right had gathered in central London in the wake of the toppling of a monument slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Their aim was to protect the Churchill monument in Parliament Square, which had been sprayed with graffiti during an earlier London BLM protest. Another BLM demo had been planned for that weekend; far right groups and sundry ‘patriots’ had organised online and shown up mob-handed to defend Ivor Robert-Jones’ 1973 bronze against any harm that might come to it. In light of this, the BLM demo was pulled by the organisers, and the potential for a really large-scale clash was avoided. Relatively small numbers of BLM supporters turned out anyway, but the authorities had in any case boxed in the statue of Churchill, and the BLM marchers were kept to Trafalgar Square. Riot police corralled the statue defenders in Parliament Square and Whitehall. Boozed up and deprived of their main enemy, they rapidly turned on their captors, accusing them of complicity with the BLM movement, and thus of implicit anti-white racial bias; the press were also attacked. Film of an angry crowd bowling toward a line of barriers and riot police, and throwing up Nazi salutes when they got there provided one of the defining images of the day.

To many, it seemed to exemplify the gross stupidity of violent right-wing extremists: had they forgotten that they were ostensibly there in order to protect a statue of Winston Churchill, who defeated the Nazis? But there they were, throwing up the Hitlergruß to defend Churchill’s honour – oh, the irony. It also seemed to confirm that their professed intention of ‘defending statues’ was rubbish about which they cared not one iota, and to prove that many were plainly there with the principle aim of attacking Black Lives Matter protestors (or failing that, the old bill, who the hooligan element also hate with a passion). The photograph of one of the protestors relieving himself on the memorial to PC Keith Palmer, who had died in the line of duty during the 2017 Westminster knife attack, put the tin lid on it. Whether it’s Nazi salutes or actual urine, if you want people to think you care about defending memorials, it’s best not to piss all over them while you’re doing it.

This reading is on the whole correct, of course. The demo was largely an exercise in bad faith, as a good portion of the crowd had clearly shown up for a ruck. And down at boot-level, the lumpen ideology of British far-right nationalism is definitely hateful and confused. Smoke bombs, bottles and fists weren’t being thrown at the police over real concern about public statuary and the teaching of history. In any case there was no practical statue defending to be done, because the statues were hidden and there was nobody in the vicinity trying to pull them down. Rather, recent demonstrations by the BLM movement had been perceived – correctly – as part of an ongoing threat to both the fascist chimera of white identity and the hard realities of white supremacy, and those were the things that the most excitable part of the crowd had in effect shown up to defend. The righteous hot air about ‘defending statues’ was always the scantiest of fig leaves, discarded at the first police barrier that came between them and their enemies. Or when nature called.

As footage from the demo spread online in real time, Twitter exploded with both outrage and some bafflement. Many users wryly observed that the salutes were ironic and stupid because Churchill, like, actually fought the Nazis, yeh? But this response was an error, if an understandable one; it mistook a coherent and concise deployment of political symbolism as an act of foolishness and ignorance. Perhaps there was also some wishful thinking involved – people across the political spectrum are invested to some degree in Churchill’s legacy, and revulsion that the great historic victory against fascism was being besmirched by thugs was surely widely shared. That revulsion has an undeniable legitimacy. But it is also easier and more comforting to blame the scene wholly on stupidity and inchoate hatred, than to consider the alternative: that at this stage in the game, neo-fascism has developed sufficient ideological sophistication to have happily metabolised Churchill alongside neo-Nazi sympathies without finding them in contradiction. It is surely an unpleasant thought, and one that was perhaps put out of mind by guffaws. But all the cards were face up.

It is more comforting to blame the scene wholly on stupidity than to consider the alternative: that neo-fascism has developed sufficient ideological sophistication to have happily metabolised Churchill alongside neo-Nazi sympathies.

The statue defenders were quite certain what the symbolic protection of the statues was really in defence of, and for a good number of them it was clearly not something that open displays of Nazi symbolism contradicted. In the version of British identity and history that was mobilised in Parliament Square, the image of Churchill is a simple shorthand for a wider, muscular nationalist vision of British historical greatness, with its roots in imperial power and the wartime struggle to victory. Tenaciously held onto by the far right and indeed by large sections of the mainstream, that vision is wholly unrepentant about Empire, and it deplores post-war immigration as the dilution of a fundamentally white and Christian island nation by a creeping reverse colonisation. In the streets and on the terraces (and not always so far away from the boardrooms, editors’ offices and Parliament itself), this current of thought has often been drawn toward classical fascism, and has frequently flirted with Nazi imagery and ideology. Renewed by the modern far right, it now embraces all of online neo-fascism’s conspiracies, peccadilloes and violent obsessions: the Islamophobia, the openly held and loudly justified anti-Black racism, the anti-Semitic conspiracies and the fixation with paedophilia, the inflamed and paranoid racial nationalism. Moreover, the degree to which the British Army itself has repeatedly been found to contain organised far right and neo-Nazi cells suggests that, to active and ideological fascists, neo-Nazism is not at all conceptually incompatible with patriotic British militarism and its attendant veneration of Churchill.

Under pressure, this entire worldview – which can be uncontroversially characterised as white supremacist, and would no doubt be happily claimed as such by many of its adherents – can be economically condensed into that universally understood symbol of global white nationalism, the Nazi salute. If you want to defend what Churchill stands for in the far-right’s version of British history, nationhood, and identity – and, to be clear, he stands for England as a proud, isolated, war-like Imperial power, white and Christian, hostile to ‘the inferior races’ – the Hitlergruß is by far the quickest and most provocative way of expressing it.

Messages mean nothing if there is no one to receive them. Who were the salutes for? They were principally for the demonstrators who had turned out as part of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. In this context too, there is no mistaking the logic of the gesture: in defence of a white nationalist vision of British history, and as an ugly provocation to protesters against historic racism, the Nazi salute is simple and unmistakable. In a single movement, it opposed the claims of BLM with all the violence of unashamed white supremacism, and simultaneously articulated it through the most potent and widely celebrated avatar of modern British history – Winston Churchill, and the great host of war dead that he leads.

At a more prosaic level, the Nazi salute is also suffused with vitriolic individual hatred and the explicit and immediate threat of violence. They were there for a fight, after all; why hide it? But as a provocation and taunt, it also signals an avowed alignment with the architects of Holocaust, and so by extension it is also a genocidal threat and a call to race war. The petty violence of the day is thus dignified as something more than just a scrap – it is a battle for Britain, grandly imagined as a skirmish in a final racial confrontation that was linked by the location of the event to the mythology of Britain’s previous existential wars. All this was to take place in the shadow of the most famous of all British war leaders, the widely touted ‘greatest ever Englishman’. Who else but Churchill had famously enjoined Englishmen to fight the invading enemy in the streets?

It is worth noting that many BLM protestors and supporters, like many other protestors in central London before them, share their understanding of Churchill’s statue exactly with that of the right-wing statue defenders ¬– though what the defenders wished to praise, they came to bury. The widespread demand for uncritical devotion to Churchill, and the feeling that to attack him is to strike at the heart of Britishness, is widely recognised as a malign symptom of Britain’s unrepented and unexamined imperial past. As a result, the Parliament Square monument has for some time been a lightning-rod for political tensions centred on British history and national identity. It is easy to see why. Churchill’s established status as a secular national saint rests on his wartime leadership, but elements of his pre-war record as both politician and soldier, and his views on race and Empire, mean that he is no longer viewed from this angle alone (and in this connection, some aspects of his conduct in the war itself – for instance with regard the role of British policy in exacerbating the Bengal Famine – have also been reconsidered). The discourse on these matters has shifted – slowly and insufficiently, but certainly – and as a result he has come to exemplify the great, unresolved conflict that lies at the heart of British self-image. On the one hand, he represents the talismanic victory over the Nazis and the last real moments of Britain’s status as a true world power; on the other, he embodies the unprocessed violence and shame of the colonial empire, and is figurehead to the post-war racial nationalism that emerged from its dissolution. Such powerful tensions demand release, and the statue in Parliament Square has often been its object: it has been repeatedly vandalised during political demonstrations over the past twenty years.

Churchill both represents both the talismanic victory over the Nazis and the last real moments of Britain’s status as a true world power; and embodies the unprocessed violence and shame of the colonial empire.

The young and overwhelmingly left-wing BLM protestors present during those days of protest understood all this perfectly well; it is why the words ‘was a racist’ were sprayed on the plinth beneath Churchill’s name. And they also understood how the Nazi salutes were not an aberration or a dozy mistake, but a distillation of all the forces that they were there to march against, not least because it was clear that the statue-defenders were there specifically to physically fight them; the salutes were meant as the distillation of those forces, just as Churchill was being mobilised as another potent symbol of them. Nazi salutes thrown by an advancing mob who have already spent most of the day attacking the police are not an ambiguous message. Everybody there grasped exactly what was meant, and why it made sense in that place, at that time. The message was understood by the receiver exactly as it was intended by the sender.

And so, far from showing a confusion about history or about what those particular military monuments stand for, the meaning of the Nazi salutes could not have been more exact. They were not a mistake, or a function of ignorance. They concisely expressed the long-standing equation in British far right thought between historic military victories, patriotic nationalism, and white identity, and they showed succinctly how that old nexus dovetails with the concerns of fascisms old and new. There was no irony or contradiction in it at all.


Francis Gooding