It is spring 2018. High up on the Col de l’Echelle, a snow-covered mountain pass in the Alps between Italy and France that is frequently used by undocumented immigrants, 100 members of identitarian groups from across Europe are about to carry out a political publicity stunt. Clad in light-blue down jackets with “Defend Europe” logos on the back, they form a human chain along a plastic mesh fence — a symbolic border meant to deter African migrants from traveling north. They unfurl a banner the size of a basketball court reading “Closed border — You will not make Europe home! — No way — Back to your homeland!”
An expensively produced YouTube video about the action by Brittany Pettibone, an American far-right vlogger and conspiracy theorist, has received more than 36,000 views. The tech-savvy identitarians deploy digital communication in highly effective ways to attract an online following.
Pettibone is the fiancée of Martin Sellner, a former neo-Nazi who now leads the Identitarian Movement in Austria. With his sharp haircut and dark-rimmed glasses, he could be a poster boy for what Breitbart calls “hipster right wingers.” Predominantly young, white, and male (only about 20 percent of their members are women), identitarians deliberately distance themselves from more traditional right-wing extremists like white-power skinheads. They want to look conservative rather than fascist, insisting that theirs is a healthy patriotism, not worn racism in new clothing.
Tracing its history to the French New Right of the 1960s, identitarianism first emerged in France in 2012 with the founding of Generation Identity, an offspring of the white-nationalist Bloc Identitaire. The ideology spread quickly across Europe, gaining momentum with the 2015 refugee crisis. Today, this new New Right unites different groups in what is framed as a struggle over European identity. They march under a logo of the Greek letter lambda encased in a circle, a reference to the ancient Lacedaemonians, or Spartans. Like the Greeks fighting the Persians, it insinuates, Europeans must defend themselves against mass immigration from Muslim countries.
Despite the identitarians’ foregrounding of a “pan-European” white identity, they have ideological crossovers with the American “alt-right.” Identity Evropa is a U.S.-based identitarian group that rebranded itself earlier this year after the leftist media collective Unicorn Riot leaked member chat logs full of racist and anti-Semitic statements. In its current iteration as the American Identity Movement, the group has largely discontinued its use of classical Greek imagery in favor of a more straightforward Americana aesthetic. Their central idea remains the same, however. The leaflets the organization distributes on U.S. college campuses read “Keep Your Diversity, We Want Identity.”
Both identitarians and the U.S. alt-right also reject multiculturalism. Drawing on demographic projections that predict white people’s share of the U.S. and European population will decline over the next few decades as a result of low birth rates, ageing, and immigration, they stoke fears of a “great replacement.” That idea first entered the mainstream media after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists led the deadly march with the chant “You will not replace us!” (occasionally altering it to “Jews will not replace us!”)
Despite their pro-white ideology, identitarians insist they do not promote hate for other races, but favor “ethno-pluralism” — diversity in isolation rather than EU-style unity in diversity. They use “cultural purity,” a euphemism for the Nazis’ cultural racism, as a rationale to advocate for zero-tolerance immigration policies and the forced return of immigrants. When Mario Müller, head of the German Identitarian Movement, espouses the ethno-nativist vision that “Germany should remain the country of Germans” his organization claims to speak for white people “connected by over 1,000 years of German and European history.”
Carefully Crafted Language
This language is carefully crafted: By eschewing openly extremist labels, identitarians do not simply seek to appeal to mainstream conservatives. Their goal is to win cultural power and use it to advance their ideas and values. In propagating the belief that white or native European identity is under attack, they are appropriating identity politics as a political tool from people who are racial minorities in the U.S. and Europe.
The Internet is their main political space. While their groups have relatively small memberships (estimated at 300 in Germany and about 30 to 40 core members plus 200 sympathizers in Austria, with no reliable numbers available for the U.S.), social-media algorithms work in their favor. The identitarian presence across online platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram makes these groups look bigger than they are.
As Sellner put it in his fiancée’s video, what makes their actions successful is that “people are talking about us.” Identitarians consistently deploy white identity in a larger narrative of victimization. At the heart of this is a dystopian vision of the reverse colonization of whites by people of color, and sometimes even of “white genocide.” People like Sellner consider themselves “political Robin Hoods,” who fight against an imagined takeover of Europe by migrants.
The killers in the mass shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last March and at a shopping mall near the Mexican border in El Paso, Texas, in August both referred to the “great replacement” in their manifestos. European authorities discovered evidence of an extensive email exchange between the Christchurch shooter and Sellner, who suggested the two of them meet for coffee or beer sometime. The killer also donated 1,500 euros (about $1,670) to the Austrian activist.
Several European governments now consider the identitarians a threat to democracy. Last year, Austrian prosecutors pressed criminal charges against 17 members of Sellner’s group for inciting hate, while three French activists were handed jail time after the stunt in the Alps. Most significantly, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has recently ruled the country’s Identitarian Movement anti-democratic and subject to surveillance by the state, under laws intended to prevent the resurgence of Nazism.
This is an open confession that identitarian storytelling has a dangerous appeal beyond the use of sleek logos and smart branding. By propagating the belief that white or native European identity is under attack, identitarians have managed to appropriate identity politics as a political tool from racialized peoples. Identitarian identity politics is as crude as it is contradictory, however. It sidelines both the history of Euro-American colonialism with its uneven economic and social developments and issues of class. Yet, it is precisely by erasing the legacy of white Europe as one of the root causes for migration that identitarianism has emerged as a seemingly new, deceptively cohesive ideology.
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