The Appropriation and Weaponisation of the Crusades in the Modern Era

By Dr Jason T. Roche

International Journal of Military History and Historiography: Special Issue, Appropriation and Weaponisation of the Crusades in the Modern Era, guest editor, Jason T. Roche, Volume 41, Issue 2 (2021)

The special issue brings together the work of the Northern Network for the Study of the Crusades and the interests of the History Research Centre’s War, Conflict and Society research group. It seeks a better understanding of the processes of appropriation and weaponisation of the medieval holy wars known as crusades by state actors and would-be state actors in the modern era.

The notion that the act of crusading is a live and potent issue is hard to ignore.  The introductory article proposes the hypothesis, which informed my decision making and editorial work during the compilation of the special issue, that appropriations and weaponisations of the crusades in the modern era rely on culturally embedded master narratives of the past that are often thought to encompass public or cultural memories. Crucially, medievalism (the re-workings and reinventions of the European Middle Ages in post-medieval contexts and constructs), communicated through metonyms, metaphors, symbols and motifs frequently acts as a placeholder instead of the master narratives themselves. That people – from militant Islamist fundamentalists to white, far-right extremists and from George W. Bush through to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – can appeal to master narratives of the crusades via mutable medievalism, which embodies zero-sum, Manichaean-type “clash of civilisations” scenarios, helps explain the continued appeal of the crusades to those who seek to weaponise them.

The crusading present is therefore complex and multifaceted, but it has precedents. In this special issue, Graham Cross first explores the meaning of the “crusading imagery” attached to American soldiers in 1917 and their “righteous crusade” against German tyranny for the cause of world democracy during the First World War. He spotlights the “protean nature” of a “crusading metaphor” shaped in a dialogue between the state and vernacular culture during the following decades that evoked memories of the American Civil War, the European scramble for empire during the colonial era and the language of righteous progressive reformers in the early twentieth century. Importantly, he then traces the alterable nature of the crusading metaphor in American political discourse during the eras of the Great Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War.

Sam Edwards picks up the discussion and likewise notes the shifting nature of “crusading” metaphors. He examines how General Dwight D. Eisenhower and others framed “D-Day” in 1944 as a “Great Crusade” against “the darkness and evil of Nazi rule.” Sam traces the subsequent employment of Eisenhower’s narrative framing, in commemorations and other expressions of cultural memory of D-Day, through to George W. Bush’s press conference outside the White House on 16 September 2001 and his infamous “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is gonna [sic] take a while” quip.

Mercedes Penalba-Sotorrio examines the adoption of a “crusading rhetoric” by the leaders and supporters of the Nationalist rebel army during the Spanish Civil War. She explains how and why the rebels projected their roles as the defenders of Catholicism in Spain, against what was considered to be an international Bolshevik threat to western civilisation in the 1930s. By building on an existing “mythologised national past”, the Francoist regime had forged a master narrative of a new “Spanish Crusade” against the “anti-Spain” other by 1939.

I examine the mutable nature of a “crusader master narrative” in the fourth contribution. Here we see how proponents of “crusading” narratives and medievalism, both captured, stored and presented in the form of emotive metonyms, can employ cultural memories of the crusades against, rather than in support of supposed crusaders. I establish that between 2014 and 2017, the Islamic State militant Islamist group manipulated and combined a culturally embedded awareness of the crusading past with a heady, potent mixture of classical and radical apocalyptic in a brand-new attempt to portray modern so-called “crusaders” and their “crusade” against the group as integral to Islamic sacred history. The group foresaw Armageddon, the ultimate zero-sum conflict between good and evil.

Characters who imagine themselves as players in an invented, perpetual “clash of civilisations” are currently shaping crusader master narratives and moulding cultural memories of the crusades. One hopes this special issue contributes to a better understanding of the ways this has happened in the modern era.

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