The Sword and the Swastika: How a Medieval Warlord Became a Fascist Icon
Editor’s Note: This week, War on the Rocks is featuring some old favorites from the archives. This article was originally published in 2016.
On a fall day in the early 8th century, somewhere between the French cities of Poitiers and Tours, a Muslim army crashed into the serried ranks of a force led by a powerful Frankish noble: Charles, Mayor of the Palace and son of Pippin of Herstal. In the ensuing battle, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi — governor of the Muslim territories in Al-Andalus (Spain) — was slain, and his troops were routed. This confrontation between two Dark Age warlords echoed through the ages and acquired a potent symbolism, all despite the fact that medievalists know relatively little about the principal protagonists and the respective orders of battle, let alone how the fight actually unfolded.
Indeed, the battle of Poitiers (or Tours, as it sometimes known in the English-speaking world), has been framed as one of history’s most decisive military struggles, on par with the battles of Thermopylae or Waterloo. Commentators have presented the victory of Charles — later given the martial cognomen of Martel, or “the hammer” — as a civilizational as well as a military triumph, crediting the Frankish warrior with having stanched the Muslim expansion into Western Europe.
Edward Gibbon famously speculated that, had Abdul Rahman prevailed at Poitiers,
the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.
The French romantic writer Chateaubriand made the equally dramatic claim that, “if it were not for Charles Martel’s valor, we would all be wearing turbans.”
Perhaps most importantly, Charles Martel has become an enduring icon of fascist and far-right movements, in France and other Western states. The Vichy regime, for example, reveled in its warped reading of Charles Martel and of medieval French history more broadly. The francisca, an early Frankish throwing axe, featured prominently in Vichy iconography and propaganda, and Charles Martel was presented alongside Joan of Arc as an embodiment of pre-revolutionary Catholic virtue. Meanwhile, a notorious division of French volunteers to the Nazi SS was named the Division Charlemagne after the great Carolingian Emperor and grandson of Charles Martel. In the years following France’s bitter war in Algeria, a far-right group — the Cercle Charles Martel — conducted a string of terror attacks against Algerians and citizens of North African descent in France. More recently, the founder of the French Front National party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, reacted to the Charlie Hebdo killings by proudly claiming “Je suis Charlie Martel,” in defiance of the more republican and inclusive slogan “Je suis Charlie.” “Je suis Charlie Martel” has since become one of the rallying cries of French far-right activists.
This sinister historical crush extends far beyond France. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian neo-Nazi who slaughtered 77 people in 2011, claimed in his online rants to have “identified” with the figure of Charles Martel. In the United States, a group called the Charles Martel Society funds the publication of a pseudo-intellectual and deeply racist journal, The Occidental Quarterly. Charles de Steuben’s famous 19th-century painting of the Battle of Poitiers flashes through one of Richard Spencer’s slickly edited “alt-right” videos, providing a brief and jarring backdrop to a long stream of nativist gobbledygook.
Right wing extremism’s longstanding obsession with Charles Martel stems from three major preconceptions. The first is that the battle of Poitiers was truly decisive; the second is that it represented a civilizational triumph of Christendom over Islam, and the third is that Martel’s victory provides proof of the innate martial superiority of the West over what Edward Creasy famously termed “the Semitic peoples” in his classic and racially tinged study of the conflict.
Each one of these assumptions is deeply flawed.
A Truly Decisive Battle?
Most modern historians are skeptical of the notion that the battle of Poitiers constituted such a watershed moment. While the defeat of the Andalusian army by a Western European force was certainly significant, it was not unprecedented. Only a few years prior, Odo of Aquitaine crushed another Muslim army outside Toulouse, but this battle never acquired the same mythological symbolism of the battle of Poitiers.
The academic consensus now appears to be that Al Ghafiqi’s foray into what was then referred to as Northern Gaul was a long-distance raid or “razzia” motivated not so much by an ambition for conquest as by a desire for plunder. Indeed, we are told that the prime target of this raid was a wealthy religious sanctuary located at Saint Martin de Tours and filled with gold and precious fabrics. Hugh Kennedy has noted that the defeat seems to have had little resonance in the wider Arabo-Muslim world, and he views it as one symptom of many that marked the steady decline of the Syrian-based Umayyad Caliphate. Others have pointed to the Caliphate’s overextension into Spain and to the growing tensions between local Arab and Berber forces as well as rival tribes and clans.
In the wake of his victory, Charles Martel chose not to press his advantage by invading the Iberian peninsula. Instead, he used the opportunity to temporarily consolidate his influence over the rich Duchy of Aquitaine and over the politically fragmented territories of Provence and Septimania (a territory encompassing part of today’s Languedoc and Roussillon regions). Although the destruction of Al Ghafiqi’s field army depleted the Ummayads’ local reservoir of military strength, Moorish troops lingered in some southern French cities such as Narbonnes for two and a half more decades. Meanwhile, Muslim raiders continued their “ghazawat” across the Pyrenees for at least another a century, long after the fall of the Ummayads.
A Bipolar Confrontation Between Christendom and Islam?
It would be reductive to present the battle of Poitiers as the military manifestation of some age-old existential struggle between Christendom and Islam. Charles Martel’s Europe was a continent of many faiths and philosophies, not a religiously bipolar system. Late Merovingian and early Carolingian rulers spent more time waging savage campaigns against the pagan Danes and Saxons (described in Frankish texts as “being addicted to the worship of demons”) than they did against the Muslims of Andalusia. The Christianity of 8th-century France had yet to acquire the doctrinal rigidity of the later Middle Ages, and co-existed with or incorporated more rustic forms of faith and religious practice. As one detailed study of the Carolingian world stated:
…Self-professed Christians would very probably accept the possibility of eternal life after death for those who believed that God had become man in the person of Jesus. Many might further have accepted that public profession of this belief should be made through the initiation ritual of baptism. Beyond that, though, all was variety. Holy writ—the Bible—was by no means universally known, and there were in any case numerous interpretations of it. In short, there was not one Christianity, but many Christianities, not one Church, but many churches.
Religious differences could cut across tribes, kingdoms, and ethnicities. For example, along the Pyrenees resided the fiercely independent Basques, some of whom were Muslim, some of whom were Christian, and a portion of whom practiced more ancient forms of belief. The “Song of Roland,” a medieval ballad familiar to all products of French middle schools, recounts the cowardly ambush of one of Emperor Charlemagne’s retainers, the noble Roland, by enemy forces in a narrow mountain pass. For centuries, schoolchildren were told that the Carolingian knight had been killed by “Saracens” — Muslim forces based in Spain. It is now believed that Roland — whose prolonged death scene famously inspired Boromir’s in Lord of the Rings — was actually killed by Basques, rather than by Arabs or Berbers. This historical gaffe provides yet another indication of our tendency to overlook the rich tapestry of political and religious actors in early medieval Europe in favor of more binary models.
This reductionism applies equally to our understanding of the era’s geopolitics. Indeed, it is often forgotten that weaker European polities did not hesitate to ally with Muslim rulers against more powerful Christian kingdoms. This was the case in Provence, where local rulers frequently formed temporary partnerships with Moorish war chiefs in an (unsuccessful) attempt to counterbalance northern Frankish military might. One of the best-known and most tragic cases of cross-cultural alliance formation occurred in 731, when Odo of Aquitaine sought to establish a buffer zone across the Pyrenees by marrying off his beautiful daughter to a rebellious Berber leader, Munnuza. The latter subsequently adopted a policy of passive neutrality, refusing to conduct raids into Aquitaine and Southern Gaul. As a result, he soon found himself facing Governor Al Ghafiqi’s ire. Following a bloody siege of his fortress, the Berber warlord was summarily executed by his vengeful Arab overseer. His young bride was then bundled off to Damascus, to join the Caliph’s harem, along with Munnuza’s severed head.
Last but not least, it would be simplistic to view Charles Martel as a saintly champion of Christendom. What little we know of his life would suggest that he was above all a highly effective campaigner — an overachieving, pragmatic, and brutal bastard in the vein of William the Conqueror. One near-contemporary chronicle, the Liber Historiae Francorum, describes him as a “warrior who was uncommonly well educated and effective in battle.” By contrast, there is nothing to suggest that Martel was a religious zealot, although he favored Christianization as a means of cementing political control, a strategy his Carolingian successors would emulate. While some sources paint him as a defender of the faith, 9th-century writings lambast him as a “despoiler of the church,” pointing to his habit of seizing the estates of powerful clergymen who defied him.
A Deeply Contested Military History
Much of the difficulty resides in the paucity of primary sources and clear bias in those which exist. These sourcing problems have exacerbated longstanding and occasionally impassioned disputes between military historians over the details and significance of the battle of Poitiers.
For instance, there is still discord over the actual year of the battle, with some professing it occurred in October 732, while others claim it took place a year later, in October 733. The most important academic debate centers on the relative importance of military technology and shock cavalry. Beginning with the 19th-century German medievalist Heinrich Brunner, historians have claimed that Charles Martel’s victory could be attributed to a superior western way of war, and, most notably, to the effective use of heavy cavalry. In the 1960s, the American historian Lynn White Jr. introduced a “material culture” element to this school of thought, arguing that the battle of Poitiers coincided with the Frankish discovery of the stirrup, which then led to the fielding of the heavily armored shock cavalry so ubiquitous in our depictions of western medieval warfare. Most modern historians take issue with this thesis, which they deem anachronistic. While the speed at which Charles Martel’s forces moved to intercept their Muslim foes points to the extensive use of mounted warriors, European armies do not appear to have fielded shock cavalry until at least the 10th or 11th centuries.
There is no doubt a stirring romanticism to the image of a gleaming line of heavily armored Christian knights charging into the fray to defend flag and faith. In reality, Frankish forces were most likely primarily composed of infantry drawn up into a shield wall, with cavalry acting as scouts, skirmishers, and protectors of the flank. Medieval rulers were avid readers of the Roman military classics, and of Vegetius in particular. Historians such as Bernard Bachrach have gone so far as to claim that early Carolingian tactics were a continuation of Late Antiquity Roman warfare, with a focus on the formation of spear-armed phalanxes and the use of short thrusting swords optimized for the bloody scrum of close-quarters melee. In contrast, early Islamic warfare placed a great deal of emphasis on light cavalry and archery, a domain in which the Ummayad Caliphate possessed a clear technological edge via the widespread use of compound bows.
In short, many of the more traditional artistic renditions of the battle are totally inaccurate. In all likelihood, it was the Franks rather than the Andalusians who “played defense” at Poitiers, absorbing waves of light cavalry raids and dense clouds of arrows before grinding their foes into submission. This interpretation would largely comport with the scant references in 8th-century sources, with one chronicle describing the Franks as having “remained as immobile as a wall, holding together like a glacier.” Moreover, there is no evidence of the battle of Poitiers demonstrating any clear superiority of the so-called “Western way of war,” whether technological, material, or cultural.
As one study has aptly noted, one reason why battles dominate historical narratives is that they have traditionally been interpreted as:
…representative tests for the strength and abilities of competing cultures or polities. That is, battles are not seen as a rare opportunity for chance conditions to wipe out huge discrepancies in resources, thereby enabling, for example, a weaker party to overcome wealthier and stronger opponents. Rather, battles are seen as deterministic Darwinian tests, or as the just judgments of the God of History, demonstrating who was really stronger.… Battles have a wonderful capacity to simplify history.
In this case, Charles Martel’s victory can probably be attributed to his own strategic acumen, to chance, and to the discipline of his troops, who had been hardened in the crucible of a decade-long civil war against rival Frankish factions. Indeed, one of the most common tactics employed against a shield wall or Roman testudo by light cavalry was that of feigned flight. By simulating a movement of disarray, enemy riders could hope to trigger pursuit by hotheaded infantry, opening up breaches in the shield wall. This is what famously occurred at the Battle of Hastings, precipitating the defeat of King Harold at the hands of the Norman invaders. It is reasonable to assume that Al Ghafiqi’s troops employed the same tactic, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Franks.
In short, it was Charles Martel’s caution and levelheadedness combined with the fortuitous demise of his opponent that most likely carried the day — not the innate superiority of one cultural way of war over another.
The Crudeness of Historiography with Fascist Characteristics
To a certain extent, every country is an imagined community, and all national identities are structured around historiographic organizations of the past. As John Lewis Gaddis has observed, we are all naturally limited in our understanding of history. Using as a metaphor Caspar David Friedrich’s famous painting, “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” Gaddis notes that:
…by the time we’ve become aware of what has happened it’s already inaccessible to us: we cannot relieve, retrieve, or rerun it as we might some laboratory experiment or computer simulation. We can only represent it. We can portray the past as a near or distant landscape, much as Friedrich has depicted what his wanderer sees from his lofty church. We can perceive shapes through the fog and mist, we can speculate as to their significance, and sometimes we can even agree among ourselves as to what these are. Barring the invention of a time machine, though, we can never go back there to see for sure.
In sum, intellectual humility is the most important quality for the student of history.
Unfortunately, this character trait has never been prevalent amongst the demagogues and thought leaders of far-right movements. Anti-rationalism, after all, is one of the defining characteristics of right-wing extremism. As Robert Paxton noted in one of his classic studies, “fascists despise thought and reason, abandon intellectual positions casually, and cast aside many intellectual fellow travelers.”
One such example is Benito Mussolini and his lifelong obsession with the concept of “Romanita” and the history of the Roman Empire. The mercurial Italian’s reading of the classics was narrow and partial at best, and it fluctuated in accordance with his own ideological U-turns. During his early political life, when he was a rabidly anti-clerical socialist, ancient history was used as a negative example, with Mussolini pinning Rome’s decay on the corrosive effects of Christianity. Later on, classical antiquity was once again appropriated by El Duce — this time for fascist ends — and presented as the strategic blueprint for Italian expansion into the Mediterranean.
Contemporary French and American far-right leaders may think that they understand our shared history. In reality, their reading of western civilization’s variegated past is crude, intellectually stunted, and most often erroneous.
Iskander Rehman is a Senior Fellow at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University. Prior to joining the Pell Center, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He can be followed on twitter @IskanderRehman