Fear-Based Identity Crisis
A new breed of activist right-wing extremism is spreading across Europe: Die Identitären
They don’t shave their heads, tote swastikas or glorify the Nazis and the majority are educated. The "Identitären" represent a new right wing phenomenon in Europe. Initiated in France in 2003, it is a young movement that has spread eastwards but also west to the United Kingdom.
On 25 February at Café Tirolerhof, the chairman and co-founder of the Viennese Identitären, Alexander Markovics looked suitably proper in a tailored suit and tie as he spoke about the group’s evolution. "We have read and adopted the ideas of Adorno and Horkheimer, and in February 2012 we decided we couldn’t just read and discuss, we had to put it into practice."
The Vienna members are between 18 and 25 years old, mostly students of Political Science, History, or Philosophy; some are even still in high school. While those attributes seem quite homogeneous, Markovics insists that the group is "relatively diverse," which may or may not tell you much about what diversity means to the Identitären.
But rather than hatred and violence toward foreigners, this group’s agenda seems to revolve around fear. Both fear of the implications of what they call "multiculturalism" and of Austrian society’s inability to retain its authentic identity in a globalised world.
The Viennese Freedom Party (FPÖ) meets the demand for xenophobic politics with a strong voter pool that doubled in 2010, reaching a staggering 27%, which raises the question: What need is the group attempting to meet?
Contradictions and blame
"Of course we feel misunderstood when people call us Nazis, Fascists or Right-wing extremists," Markovics said, as he took a sip of his Melange. "We reject racism, anti-Semitism and especially National Socialism and Fascism, both because of their fetish-like constitutions and the totalitarianism that these systems practiced, but especially because people were divided into superior and inferior categories based on their origins."
It is easy to misunderstand the ideas of the Identitären because explanations seldom match up with the language used to present them. Markovics explained that due to their "ethno-pluralistic principles," the group claims to reject xenophobes. The Identitären "believe in the equality of all people and completely reject that kind of hierarchisation".
A few minutes later, Markovics explained the fears of the movement: "We have a massive amount of immigration, especially from the countries of the so-called political south." He specified this region as Africa and "Asia Minor," a term that hasn’t been used since Kemal Ataturk established the republic of Turkey in 1923, and especially not by a 21-year-old.
"In this incredibly short period of 30 years, 100,000 people from there have come to us, and we see that some of these people reject our society, because they come from other cultural regions and bring completely different perceptions and lifestyles with them." Any listener would have trouble understanding this standpoint as "ethno-pluralistic".
Bernhard Weidinger, a researcher on Right-wing extremism in Europe at the University of Vienna’s Institute for Contemporary History, explained the gap in this reasoning. "They say they have no interest in racism: It’s about culture, or Identity. But you’ll find the content is very similar to the concept of racism." Even the group’s concept of identity is based on origin, and origin never changes. There is no way to integrate yourself out of where you came from.
Markovics was also adamant about the difference between the terms "intercultural" and "multicultural". After describing what they see as Austria’s Habsburg past that forged the intercultural identity they seek to protect, he expressed deep fears about the "Americanisation" or "multiculturalist ideas" being forced on Europeans.
Austria "let it happen"
The Identitären see a distinct threat of "Gegengesellschaften" (counter-societies), a series of "independent Turkish districts growing in Vienna". But he says this is not the only social malady.
Interestingly, the Identitären believe "multiculturalism originated in America" and that it is "a reaction to the fact that the melting pot ideology failed."
Despite this unconventional understanding of recent history, this concept is one of the pillars of their ideology. They fear that this "radical Americanisation of the [European] continent, this mental colonisation" is what is destroying Austria’s identity. "They react by not having children and thereby losing their belief in the future" and that "they abolish themselves by giving way to this giant spectacle of consumer society". The main message the Identitären want to send is that "The reason this mass immigration is happening is simply because the Austrians have let it happen."
Branding and meta-politics
"The Identitären are a brand," explained Andreas Peham, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Documentation Archive of the Austrian Resistance (DÖW). He sees the novelty of this emerging form of the right wing in its lack of violence and in their choice of language.
"By denying racism you normalise it," Peham explained. But he sees them as a symptom of the xenophobic trend. "They are an expression of this movement, more than a motor for it."
The group’s connections to right-wing fraternities (Burschenschaften) have also been verified. Peham received a photograph of the Identitären from Upper Austria and Salzburg that seems to have been taken in the rooms of the Academic Fraternity Armina Czernowitz. These groups "work together formally or informally," explained Peham. The Identitären see their role as connecting the various groups across the continent.
"We want the Identitären movement to be a Europe-wide movement, to make the youth of Europe see that we are the generation that has to deal with Europe’s future," Markovics stressed.
So in order to preserve their "ethno-cultural identity", the "ethnic tensions" that the Identitären see arising must be avoided at all cost.
The Indentitären call their strategy "meta-politics". They "want to function as a civilian group," Markovics said. "Above all, we want to change people’s consciousness. We want to influence the political parties from outside, whatever party takes on our ideas and implements them."
He stressed that generally they are party neutral, but with a laugh, he recounted that they have had strong opposition from the Green Party’s Karl Öllinger. With more pride, he told of the endorsement by the FPÖ who sent "a declaration of solidarity" to the press during their recent occupation of the Votivkirche (see photo above).
Peham is particularly concerned about the fact that two MEPs from the U.K. Independent Party have expressed an interest in accepting the FPÖ into Europe of Freedom and Democracy.
He says one of the strengths of the Identitären is that it is a "brand" that all kinds of groups can use for their purposes.
"We see apocalyptic undertones," Weidinger explained. "They say [things like], ‘This is the last chance. If we don’t succeed now, it’s all over’." He noted that throughout history right-wing extremism has tended to be culturally pessimistic. "The end is near, everything is falling apart."
But is general dissatisfaction not intrinsically part of Austrian identity?
"That could be one of the reasons the far-right is so successful in Austria," Weidinger mused. "And this apocalyptic form does suggest that in such a state of emergency, many things become legitimate."
Indeed Markovics agrees, recalling the 2011 shootings in Olso, saying "This phenomenon of terror is pathological, one that occurs when people don’t feel at home in their own country." He reiterated that the Austrian people have to see that if the "ethnic tensions" persist, Austria will either breed angry psychopaths or face an "open ethnic conflict, like that in Yugoslavia."
As we left the café, Markovics looked both ways before turning to shake my hand. It must be exhausting to go through life with fear as a constant companion.