The Fall of Rome as “the End of the White World”: Jean Raspail’s “Camp of the Saints”

The Camp of the Saints is a xenophobic novel by Jean Raspail published in French in 1973 and translated into English in 1975. Generally well-received when first published, it imagines a race war in Europe sparked by unchecked immigration. Its author, who died in June 2020, has won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in France, and more recently the book has been praised and promoted in the United States by a Congressional Representative and three senior advisors to the President of the United States, making it one of the most influential white supremacist books ever written, one that Historian and Artist Nell Painter has identified as a key text for understanding “American Whiteness Since Trump.” Unlike other French xenophobic treatises, The Camp of the Saints did not engage much with Greco-Roman Antiquity. Until, that is, it was reprinted 1985 with a new author’s preface.

Cover of the 1977 British edition of “The Camp of the Saints”

The original 1973 edition of The Camp of the Saints featured only a recusatio in place of a preface: “I had wanted to write a lengthy preface…but what good would it do? …we need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000…: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.” And indeed, this is all that was needed to signal the author’s engagement with the most common theme of white supremacy, the threat of “extinction” that white people supposedly face in the contemporary world. Many white supremacists turn to antiquity in order to convey the seriousness of this supposed threat: for example, when Germany decided in 2015 to admit refugees that had been stranded in Hungary, Tim Murray in The Occidental Observer wrote that “Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints nightmare has come to pass” and warned of the “conquest or extinction of his tribe, and the destruction of a legacy that reaches back to ancient Athens.”

White supremacists invoke Greco-Roman antiquity because they believe their readers will understand what it means

By the time a third edition of The Camp of Saints was published in 1985, Raspail was apparently ready to make this connection as well. After some reflections in a new preface on the reception of the book, he declares that “The moment has come to explain why in my book The Camp of the Saints the masses of people came from the distant Ganges…rather than from the shores of the Mediterranean” and their “vanguard of almost four hundred million Maghrebians and Muslims.” His answer reflects the common white supremacist view that the world should be understood in terms of “the West” (as a site of civilization, culture, and humanity) against “the rest” (as a non-white morass of backwardness and primitivism): it does not matter, he writes, where the “invasion” comes from, because “such an impetus could arise in any reservoir of misery and human agglomeration.” He allows, however, that he took other liberties in his narrative, “for The Camp of Saints is only a parable.” The collapse of Europe in the book was sudden, he writes, whereas in reality, he claims, that process will be “more diffuse and probably more bearable.” To indicate what he means, he turns to white supremacists’ favorite model for civilizational collapse as a result of immigration: “The Roman Empire did not fall in any other way.” It’s the same comparison found forty years later on xenophobic and Islamaphobic websites, as well as in the mainstream press (but let’s not give Raspail credit for coming up with the idea).

The Camp of the Saints has quite literally become "Classical" for white supremacists, who compare it to Homer and Virgil

The novel itself does contain a few passing references to the ancient world that, like Raspail’s reference to the Roman Empire in the 1985 preface, serve to make intelligible the threat that immigration supposedly poses to Europe. When the French government establishes a radio call-in show for citizens to ask questions about the “fleet” of immigrants, a character dismisses it as mere “bread and circuses” while wondering whether anyone remembers “Juvenal’s contempt” for such propaganda (32), thus quoting an ancient author whose apocalyptic tirades reflect the white supremacist worldview. The narrator defines Europeans, as opposed to the “invaders,” as “spiritual sons of the Latins and Greeks, of Judeo-Christian monks and Barbarians from the East” (33), which, by assuming the whiteness of ancient Greeks and Romans, erases the diversity of antiquity. “Barbarians from the East” refers to the Goths, whom white supremacists sometimes actually admire because they were ethnically Germanic. Thus, their military success against Rome is claimed to validate a racist narrative of the “Nordic” conqueror overthrowing a Roman Empire that racists believe was irreparably weakened by moral decadence and race-mixing.

And when a ship is sent to examine the “fleet” as it enters the Mediterranean sea, one of the observers reports his shock at seeing “starvation on every face” and “pale, glassy-eyed stares” that prompted his officer to “mutter: ‘Gladiators…a pack of naked gladiators!…like Spartacus!”, a reference to the leader of a slave-revolt in ancient Rome (51). Perhaps because Spartacus was particularly admired by Karl Marx and Communist revolutionaries, Raspail intends for him to represent the same subversive threat to civilization that white supremacists believe progressive and inclusive politicians pose. And he makes this interpretation of Spartacus as a threat to European order even more clear in his 1985 preface. There he predicts that the “petty bourgeoisie…will tremble” when they see the results of the (in his view) self-serving desire to have “millions of servants” that led them to permit so much immigration. “The servants,” Raspail writes, “have innumerable families on both sides of the sea, one starving family that populates the whole earth. Spartacus on a global scale.” Such references, limited though they may be, serve to characterize those who use them in the story, and Raspail himself, as “true” Europeans — they know their Classics, unlike, it is implied, the “invaders” — and to try to convey the severity of the “invasion” to readers who accept well-established (but partial) apocalyptic narratives of the fall of the Roman Empire.

This assumption that Greco-Roman antiquity is not only relevant in the present is repulsive in The Camp of Saints, but it's a rhetorical move that those who love Greco-Roman antiquity have engaged in for a long time

The Camp of the Saints has quite literally become “Classical” for white supremacists. An essay on “The Western Contribution to World History” in The Occidental Quarterly compared The Camp of the Saints (“a modern epic…which should be required reading for all persons of European descent who labor under the pseudo-morality of self-destruction”) to “the great epic literature of the West” including “Homer and Virgil” which “have provided our People with inspiration for future noble deeds.” The same journal reviewed a book entitled The Conservative Bookshelf by the editor of the “paleoconservative” journal that supported Pat Buchanan’s xenophobic U.S. Presidential campaign, which recommends The Camp of the Saints alongside Augustine’s City of God, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero’s De Re Publica.

Many white supremacists discuss Greco-Roman antiquity because they believe it legitimizes their politics. But they also refer to it because they believe their readers will understand what it means. Raspail believes that immigration to Europe will lead to catastrophe and destruction, so he invokes the fall of Rome as a convenient shorthand for the severity of that threat. This assumption that Greco-Roman antiquity is not only relevant, but more importantly intelligible, in the present is repulsive in a work that is being used to vilify and dehumanize. But it’s a rhetorical move that those who love Greco-Roman antiquity have engaged in for a long time, treating the ancient past as a kind of “universal” touchstone capable of revealing deep truths about the human condition. Antiquity, such an approach assumes, has something profound to say to everyone. Raspail, however, isn’t interested in the universal: his racist worldview assumes that “the end of the white world,” as one edition’s cover puts it, will be brought about by people who don’t, and can’t, value the civilization that he does. That is, Raspail believes that when he uses antiquity as a way to understand what he considers to be the truth about human nature, he’s only talking to white people. Do we?

 

Passages from Raspail’s 1985 preface are translated from the German edition of the book. Quotations from the novel itself are taken from the 1975 English translation by Norman Shapiro, whose other translations, such as Poetry of Haitian Independence, Black Poetry from Africa and the Caribbean, and French Women Poets of Nine Centuries, seem at odds with his choice to translate Raspail.

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