Why you should care
Because this is both bigger and smaller than you think it is.
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You can find them on YouTube, if you’re so inclined — in action-packed footage of an angry crowd waving yellow and black flags, with lingering close-ups of young blond men. Hard-driving music accompanies captions in English that flash across the screen, lambasting the media for underreporting the size of the crowd and comparing the European Union to a communist dictatorship. It’s amateurish, but it has a young person’s energy — you might, when you were 15 and angry, have watched the video clip with your headphones on and thought, I’m angry too.
This is Generation Identity, a Europe-wide anti-immigrant movement that recently has made headlines for its ongoing attempt to buy a boat in order to thwart nongovernmental organizations on the Mediterranean trying to rescue migrants making the dangerous sea crossing to Europe. It’s a teeming, grassroots, internet-savvy army of meme-making white nationalists. At least that’s the image they try to project. In reality, some observers say, the movement is far smaller — and more manufactured — than its participants would like the internet audience to believe.
From 2000 to 2014, 94 people were killed in Europe by right-wing terrorists — nearly six times as many as by religiously motivated killers.
“It’s pretty much overblown,” says Stefan Lauer of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which studies and combats right-wing extremism. “A lot of the action and performance stuff they’re doing is for social media. They have their own film teams with them, always. They film everything. But actually a lot of those happenings, if you saw them in town, you might not even know what they’re doing.” He estimates there are, at most, 200 identitarians in Berlin and maybe twice that number in Germany as a whole. Nevertheless, the movement has generated lots of German media attention that focuses more on a few internet-savvy projects and videos and less on the fact that this just isn’t a very influential — or even emergent — movement.
It’s not easy to contact the identitarians. Requesting an interview in English gets me bounced over to the Defend Europe project — that’s the name of the crowdfunded boat to keep refugees off the continent — where a tight-lipped woman named Diane says she won’t talk about their movement, only about the boat, but she has no comment on reports that the boat’s crew had been evacuated in Cyprus. She also categorically denies that the vessel’s crew members would interrupt the work of NGOs or interact with refugees. Their only mission, she says, is to “observe the activity of NGOs in the sea.” This is not the slick messaging one would expect, but the group can be excused for a bit of disarray — their boat project has run into several snags, tarnishing their get-things-done-with-the-power-of-the-people imaging. If your entire brand is based on being cool to attract new followers, it doesn’t help to look incompetent.
You might think that hardcore nationalism with an ever-present threat of violence would be a hard sell in Germany. Fabian Virchow, director of a research unit on right-wing extremism at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf, says the identitarians get around this problem by reaching further back in history — and a bit east. Identitarian groups across Europe have adopted the lambda symbol, which supposedly adorned the shields of the Spartan army in ancient Greece, rather than more recognizable symbols of fascism. But the difference between identitarians and other white nationalist groups, like Pegida, is that their actions “hold an element of confrontation and exceed legal rules, [without] turning into violent action,” Virchow explains. And, of course, they have their own media team to publish videos about any public action they undertake.
To be sure, white supremacist groups across Europe have done real damage. In fact, a London think tank determined that from 2000 to 2014, 94 people were killed in Europe by right-wing terrorists — nearly six times as many as by religiously motivated killers. And Generation Identity and its youth may be a front for something even darker: Virchow explains that there are “older guys in the background,” and Lauer identifies many of the leaders of Generation Identity as former members of the National Democratic Party (NPD), an ultranationalist German party that has been the subject of multiple banning attempts due to its white nationalist views.
Where Generation Identity’s play may actually be abetting white supremacist movements is in cleaning up the far right’s image. “The language and the way they look, they don’t look like old-school neo-Nazis,” says Lauer. “These are younger people who are kind of … normal-looking, and that does work.” Even Facebook invitations to Generation Identity events are designed to make the movement look like an “attractive open youth movement,” Lauer says, which could help soften the public view of the far right. Maybe so, but Generation Identity promoters predicted they’d see a thousand people at a recent march in Berlin — and fewer than 600 showed up.