How white nationalism became trendy—and so even more dangerous

Groups like “Generation Identity” claim to represent a different kind of far-right politics

April 26, 2018
Identitarians gather at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park. Photo: Cecil Bell/CrowdSpark/PA Images
Identitarians gather at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park. Photo: Cecil Bell/CrowdSpark/PA Images

“The west has become pussified,” complained a young man with a neat moustache and a waistcoat that looked like velvet. “We’re letting Islamic State come over here and giving them benefits!”

Tensions were running high at Speaker’s Corner after an attempted rally for Generation Identity (GI) suffered a series of setbacks. First, a conference hall cancelled a planned speech by GI’s Austrian figurehead Martin Sellner. Then Sellner and his girlfriend were arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred. As a final indignity, the hastily-rearranged event in Hyde Park was swarmed by antifascists so that the scheduled programme of talks devolved into a slanging match from either side of a police barrier.

This is standard for far-right demonstrations, part of the ritual that ends with slinking off to a pub muttering threats and vows to own the streets next time. But GI consider themselves distinct from groups such as Britain First and they practise a different culture.

“We want to present ourselves as an attractive and open youth movement,” the group advised in a note to members ahead of the rally, which called for a “well-groomed appearance” and no violence. These wishes were largely respected. The Hyde Park crowd featured more clean-cut graduates and steampunk hipsters than old-school bruisers, although a few of the latter made their presence felt once the opposition arrived.

But if the aesthetics were distant from white power traditions, the political message was not. GI describes its central mission as a battle against the “Great Replacement” of authentic Europeans by immigrants. The group’s call to “Stop Islamisation” is shared across the far-right from the EDL to Pegida. Their demands go beyond ending immigration to “remigration” of settled migrant communities.

The identity doctrine

GI's politics have much in common with white supremacist traditions, and members have ties to proscribed neo-Nazi groups, but the group claims to represent a different ideology.

Instead they call themselves “Identitarians,” arguing that every people—defined by a combination of ethnicity, nationality and culture—should have its own homeland and not have to share. As Sellner puts it: “We want to preserve our national identity in a way that is not chauvinistic or considering others inferior... we make a dividing line between preserving our identity and a supremacist ideology to dominate the world.”

The group has made rapid gains since the first chapter emerged from French nationalist party Bloc Identitaire in 2012. Branches have been established in 14 European countries including the UK, with a dedicated infrastructure of bars, gyms, and meeting spaces. GI is “Europe’s most dynamic far-right youth movement,” according to Hope not Hate, which estimates its membership could exceed 10,000.

Identitarianism has become a rallying point for previously disparate strands of white nationalism across the world. Alt-right leader Richard Spencer identifies as an identitarian, and US groups such as Identity Evropa—part of the Charlottesville rally—are ascendent. The 2017 “Identitarian Ideas” conference in Stockholm was able to assemble many of the most prominent extreme-right personalities in Europe. Influential nationalists with major followings such as Tommy Robinson and Lauren Southern now work with GI.

Leading proponents believe so-called identitarianism can be the vehicle that brings far-right ideas into the mainstream.

“That will happen sooner than you think,” says Daniel Friberg, the Swedish CEO of Arktos Media, a publisher of Identitarian books including Markus Willinger’s foundational text Generation Identity. “Identitarianism offers a more cohesive ideology which will be able to reach people on a deeper level than simple anti-immigration populism...especially when it comes to younger people.”

Propaganda of the deed

GI see their project as metapolitical. Instead of electoral success, the group aims to shift the Overton Window right through cultural infiltration, adopting Breitbart’s spin on Gramsci that “politics is downstream from culture.” A slick marketing operation is central to this ambition.

Sellner’s motto is “action unites and thinking divides” and the group is committed to propaganda of the deed. Sellner led a team to disrupt the work of rescue crews saving refugees from drowning in the Mediterranean. GI stormed an Austrian theatre during a play featuring refugees, dousing the stage in fake blood in “tribute” to the Bataclan terror attack. The group’s activists placed a burka on Vienna’s statue of Maria Theresa, and occupied the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Other actions are more subversive than spectacular. GI Activists recently handed out pork meals to homeless people in London, excluding Muslims. They have distributed stickers carrying messages such as “Constant State of Terror” and “Part and Parcel”—mocking Sadiq Khan’s response to terror attacks in London—and dropped banners in public spaces across European cities.

Every banner and flyer carries the group’s distinctive branding, usually canary yellow with a logo inspired by the shields the Spartan army used to repel Persian invaders. Every action is disseminated online through stylised videos with pulsating soundtracks, which are boosted by influencers such as Robinson and Southern so that they reach every corner of social media and the message boards of 4chan and Discord, in the hope of luring potential supporters off the internet and into the streets.

This quality of marketing distinguishes GI from other far-right groups.

“One reason for their success is that they look great,” says Hope not Hate researcher Joe Mulhall. “They have great graphic design, great websites and imagery...they are clearly well-resourced.”

Shiny happy people

The focus on aesthetics extends to the membership, who are also part of the marketing strategy. The leadership wants young, attractive recruits to project an image of vitality and normality. Promotional videos feature photogenic presenters and members fitting gender archetypes with hypermasculine men at training camps and feminine women appealing for protection from migrant sex criminals.

Such presentation taps into longstanding conventions of the far-right. The regimes of Mussolini and Hitler traded heavily on aspirational depictions of powerful, virile men with women cast as subordinate and vulnerable. But the so-called identitarians are flexible enough to accommodate followers who are not Nietzschean supermen.

“I still see a lot of traditional masculinity... guys with hyperinflated biceps bursting their T-shirts,” says Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a sociologist who studies far-right style and author of The Extreme Gone Mainstream. “But you also see bright colours, a greater range of styles, and a kind of hipster scene.”

Identitarians can also sell their politics as edgy and subversive, a two-finger salute to political correctness, while trading on the identity politics most right-wingers profess to despise. Subversion is a recurrent theme in GI iconography such as its range of “Islamists Not Welcome” stickers and T-shirts—a riff on the popular “Refugees Welcome” motif.

Along with an “emotional appeal to belonging,” rebellion is a defining theme of modern far-right style, says Miller-Idriss. “They use icons and symbols that say ‘F*** you’ to mainstream society and make it seem cool and playful.’”

Such a message is calibrated to appeal to suggestible youths, and both GI and Identity Evropa have focused their canvassing efforts on campuses. The relatively normal look of so-called identitarians allows young people to casually “try on extremism,” says Miller-Idriss, without the commitment and risk involved with joining a skinhead gang.

A rising tide?

There are powerful currents working in GI’s favour.

Mulhall points to growing brand recognition built up over a series of heavily-publicised actions in multiple countries. He believes the group benefits from unease over the ongoing migrant crisis and terror attacks in Europe—issues that mainstream politicians are struggling to address. He adds that globalisation and diminishing job prospects have contributed to pervasive alienation and discontent that could make people susceptible to radicalisation, and that has “fostered a sense of an out of touch left-wing elite.”

Those grievances are well-represented on social media pages and discussion boards used by GI activists, where the threat of invading hordes is hyped to apocalyptic levels and progressive opponents are branded traitors. They were present at Hyde Park where identitarians mocked the supposedly PC tendencies of opponents by shouting about gender studies courses.

What is their ceiling? Sellner fantasises about activating “the silent majority” and an army of millions on the streets for the “reconquista,” the reconquest of European cities with all the threatening implications that entails for migrant communities. Mulhall is skeptical but he believes GI could inspire the seething mass of far-right trolls and propagandists that has become so prominent in the era of Trump and Brexit.

“They have potential in a way that no other movement has to take this mass of online activists offline,” he says. “Nothing else will attract young people on alt-right forums and get them on the streets.”

That is an explicit ambition for Sellner, who has developed the app “Patriot Peer” as a kind of Tinder for nationalists, that will allow members to meet without fear of reprisals and build a powerful network.

GI pose a different challenge for opponents than less sophisticated far-right groups. Mulhall suggests that the answer lies in cutting through the appearance of normality and laying bare the implications of an agenda that amounts to racial segregation and mass deportations, and re-introducing the social costs associated with those extreme politics. Miller-Idriss believes progressive opponents must learn to subvert the subversions, such as in Germany where activists sponsored a far-right march with the proceeds going to an anti-extremism charity.

England is likely to prove a key battleground. GI have invested time and resources to launching their branches here which they see as a gateway to the English-speaking world. The group has planned a series of stunts and rallies across the country in an effort to gain profile and win converts. Antifacists are mobilising to shut them down. The black-clad activists don’t see a difference between the preppy youth group and the skinheads with swastika tattoos they have faced many times before. But the fear is that significant numbers of young and alienated people might.