The extreme-right "Identitarian Movement" has launched a boat into the Mediterranean Sea in order to catch migrants and send them back to Libya. Andreas Peham, an expert on rightwing extremism, evaluates the movement's aims.
The "Identitarian Movement" has managed to raise 150,000 euros for a naval mission against refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. Why did they do this?
Like all things that these Identitarians embark on, this is also all about creating spectacular photo ops to raise public awareness. The Identitarians live in their virtual bubble, which has to be filled with content. So this campaign is, above all, merely symbolically important.
This movement is intrinsically political but relies heavily on its marketing. As seen on the streets of Berlin recently the Identitarians could barely manage to mobilize a noteworthy mass of people. That's why they largely remain in the virtual realm and this space has to be filled it with something. Outside of the internet, they have no influence on the general population.
What kinds of people are typical members of such groups?
Identitarians don't rely on membership but are comprised of elites. Almost 100 percent of Identitarians come from nationalistic organizations, fraternities and similar organizations. They perceive themselves as the elite. That's especially true for us in Austria, which, alongside France, is where the movement started.
One of the reasons for establishing the Identitarian Movement in 2013 was a lack of numbers in recruiting new members to these more traditional nationalistic organizations. So in order to attract young men into these circles, they started a group which didn't present itself in the same terms as all these fraternities and other organizations. But leadership ranks remained very much part of that old establishment.
Their plan seems to have worked, as even young men seem to find a sense of connection within the Identitarian Movement.
Are there no female members?
If you look at pictures from Identitarian protests online - which is something that the media unfortunately also is part of perpetuating - you'll get the impression that nearly half of their members are indeed female. But the number of women among Identitarians is, in fact, much lower. There are almost no females among Identitarians. Part of the reason for this is the rather fraternal nature of rightwing extremism in general. The Identitarians are somewhat of an old boys' club, which is why there is such surplus of men.
This is not to say that women can't espouse far-right ideas, but organized rightwing extremism remains man's business, at least in Austria and in Germany.
Is the "Identitarian Movement" attracting further support with its campaign in the Mediterranean Sea, and what does this campaign say about the future direction of the movement?
The so-called refugee crisis in 2015 was a highlight for the Identitarians. This movement depends on "crises," and they're the first to admit this: Martin Sellner [an Identitarian Activist from Austria] recently wrote about the challenges the movement faces, and said that the refugee crisis of 2015 helped the Identitarians in terms of attracting new members - but failed in establishing a breakthrough for the movement. There was no paradigm shift after the refugee crisis - which is what the Identitarians ultimately want.
They need crises-laden developments, even verging on a state of civil war. That's the kind of scale of events they make up in order to help the rightwing populists political parties gain power. In Austria, that's the FPÖ party, in Germany it's the AfD.
Is it a fair description to refer to the Identitarians as extremists?
Absolutely. Both in Austria and in Germany they are under the watch of domestic intelligence agencies, which is not surprising, as the movement rose out of Neonazism - something which is proven by looking at the kinds of people they are in touch with. For example, among them is a well-known Holocaust denier from Sicily. And if you look at their protests and campaigns you will always spot some Neonazis - the kind that are known to the authorities.
The fact that they manage to reach out to young people in schools and universities to recruit them into their elite circles is a great danger. They want to achieve a major change in public opinion, moving away from attitudes of tolerance towards migrants. The Identitarians want people to look at the refugee influx as proof for what they have coined as the "great exchange" – something we used to simply call "xenophobia" in the past.
[Editor's note: The "great exchange" (Großer Austausch) is an Identitarian theory saying that on account of declining population numbers in Europe, migrants from other parts of the world are deliberately being welcomed as part of a "population swap" - which they believe will eventually lead of an Islamization of the West.]
Andreas Peham is a researcher at the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, in charge of the "Rightwing extremism collection against Antisemitism."