Originally founded in 2003 by French radicals as “Le bloc identitaire,” they have since spread to other European countries where they formed various chapters with sometimes different names. Especially in France, Austria and Germany they can today be considered the most influential extra-parliamentary group of the far-right. A look at their historical development suffices to reveal their self-branding as a peaceful and modern youth movement to be a lie.
In France the identitarians were founded over 15 years ago by former members of the “Unité radicale,” which was banned after a failed assassination attempt on then-president Jacques Chirac in 2002. In Austria, the founding of the identitarian movement in 2012 followed the closing down of the neo-Nazi homepage Alpen-Donau.info and the conviction of a key figure of the Austrian neo-Nazi scene, Gottfried Küssel, in 2011. Therefore, the founding of these groups is a direct reaction to the legal prosecution of their predecessors. The extra-parliamentary far-right has since altered its strategy so as to avoid legal prosecution and to gain public support.
For this purpose they have built up an effective political network.
“The group cultivates best contacts to far-right parties such as the AfD or the FPÖ, has numerous regional groups and finds great media and social attention through the regular performance of spectacular campaigns,” explains Judith Götz, political scientist at the University of Vienna and co-editor of a book on the ideology and reception of the identitarians.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that the identitarians are also well-connected to prominent figures of European far-right parties, like the Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache or the leader of the French Rassemblement National Marine Le Pen.
Corresponding to this pattern of cooperation, the various regional chapters of the identitarians have tried to bundle their resources. Therefore, activists from several countries organise summer camps, conferences and protest marches together. Although they are most prominent in German-speaking countries, their network stretches far and includes, for example, the Russian far-right.
Taking advantage of the rising importance of identity politics in recent years, a consequence of the sense of displacement people feel in a globalised world, they have gained considerable publicity through their smart social media strategy and cleverly staged public protests and events.
These actions entail putting up banners on symbolic places such as the Turkish Embassy in Vienna or the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the storming of a play performed by refugees at the University of Vienna, the occupation of mosques in France or staged public executions by Islamic terrorists. With their extensive presence on social media they parade themselves in vlogs, podcasts or flash mobs as the last hope for defending European culture.
Their most prominent international project, promoted under the name “Defend Europe,” included chartering a ship in the Mediterranean in order to block ships with refugees on board from entering Europe. This project ultimately ended in disaster as the ship was abandoned in Spain, where ironically the Sri Lankan crew applied for asylum.
All these staged activities are, however, nothing but an attempt to shake off right-wing extremist stereotypes of bald-headed neo-Nazis in army boots. It is an unmistakable attempt to mask their racism behind their own fashion labels, popular music and a supposedly modern intellectual facade that draws ideologically on the French and German New Right so as to pass themselves off as a conventional grassroots movement with the backing of the populace.
From the identitarian point of view, an ethnic group is not determined by descendance, but by affiliation to a culture, which needs to be protected from everything that is foreign. For this purpose, they substitute negatively connotated terms, such as “race,” with concepts like ethnopluralism in order to mask their true intentions and to legitimise themselves intellectually as a young political movement.
Their military rhetoric, their display of arms on social media as well as the pride in their fighting capabilities, however, reveal their true intentions. The appropriation of popular culture by right-wing extremists is nicely captured by the newly coined name “nipster,” combining the words “nazi” and “hipster.” Many are not aware that their agitprop plays with unmistakably fascist symbolism and ideas. This is even more so due to uncritical media coverage, which only helps them gain public attention and occupy public discourse. But their evocation of a cultural threat posed by Islam and their overall Islamophobia bears great resemblance to national socialist anti-Semitism. In accordance with the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, the identitarians can consequently be labeled as neo-fascists.
Recently, however, they have suffered several setbacks.
“The fact that their political concerns are represented by the FPÖ not only in parliament, but also in the government has already led to a loss of significance of the group. Currently, their actions flop, they have no new ideas and especially in Austria, the media are no longer interested in the phenomenon,” explains Götz.
Nonetheless, the identitarians have clearly achieved some of their aims. As public discourse has been desensitised, the limits of the sayable have been stretched. Additionally, their cadres are a reliable pool of personnel for established parties of the far-right. In this respect, the identitarians are no singular phenomenon, but rather a symptom of the modernised re-formation of nationalism and racism. Simply decoding their symbolism and rhetoric unveils the ugly face behind the mask.
Doing this, one must inevitably realise the threat they pose to any democratic and pluralistic order. Democratic achievements need to be protected if history should not repeat itself. Marginalising their views and reporting their agitprop uncritically only helps their agenda of desensitising public discourse. Instead one needs to recognise their rhetoric and call them by their name: old-fashioned right-wing propaganda that does nothing but stir up hatred.