Puppenstube, 2014 © Hiro Matsuoka
“Identitarian ideology is ultimately characterized by ethnic nationalism”
Interview with Prof. Dr. Gudrun Hentges, Professor for Political Science, Educational Policy and Civic Education at the University of Cologne
The identitarian movement has been attempting to make nationalism socially acceptable utilising attributes of youth culture. Even though the group is small in numbers, it has managed to establish itself in the name of progress with spectacular initiatives as the avant-garde of the New Right. Political scientist Prof. Dr Gudrun Hentges illustrates means, goals and the ideological background of the New Right.
Prof. Dr. Hentges – as a political scientist, you are, among other things, particularly concerned with the phenomenon of nationalism. First of all, would you tell us what nationalism means for you?
First of all, I would differentiate between political and ethnic nationalism. Political nationalism expects the inhabitants of a country to identify with its history, its culture, and its respective key principles as well as to assimilate accordingly. By doing so, it eventually offers them the opportunity of citizenship. Ethnic nationalism, by contrast, aspires to align ethnic and territorial borders, assuming that nation states should be ethnically homogenous. Consequently, it seeks to banish elements which do not conform to this homogeneity from its national territory. France and the French Revolution are often called an ideal type of political nationalism, whereas the German notions of “blood and soil”, common descent, and ethnic homogeneity are commonly regarded as the prototype of ethnic nationalism.
How do these two types of nationalism relate to the question of which passport an individual can possess?
Political nationalism offers identification and assimilation. Insofar as individuals agree to that, they are offered citizenship regardless of their respective ethnic background. According to ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, the question of citizenship depends on somebody’s ancestry. We thus draw a distinction between the right of soil (ius soli) and the right of blood (ius sanguinis). These are simplified ideal types, of course. In all of today’s nation states, hybrid forms apply.
In Western democracies, nationalism used to be seen as a position without majority appeal. Recently, however, we have witnessed the rise not only of right-wing populist parties but also of nationalist groups, particularly the so-called Identitarians. What is the Identitarian Movement (IM) and what is this name supposed to tell us?
The concept of identity has been very important to the environment of the Nouvelle Droite or the New Right since the early seventies. With the combination “Identitarian Movement”, ethnic-nationalist activists have created a catchy term that has triumphed in the media and the feuilleton over the last couple of years. It should be noted though that this term is a self-description. The activists who have founded the initiative in France, Germany, and Austria claim to be a movement. By doing so, they deploy a term which has been associated with social movements since the seventies and eighties. The term has a positive connotation since it is commonly assumed that social movements address certain deficiencies and problems in society and mobilize the population in order to develop solutions. With regard to the Identitarian Movement, however, it is questionable whether they actually are a movement or rather a virtual phenomenon: a small group of people who exude social influence by staging spectacular actions.
Where does the Identitarian Movement have its roots?
The IM originated in France. In 2002, a member of the extremist right-wing Unité Radicale attempted to assassinate Jacques Chirac on the French National Day. As a result of this attack, the Unité Radicale was banned. Consequently, several members united to form the Géneration Identitaire, which became the association Bloc Identitaire in 2003, which in turn became a political party in 2009. In Germany, the first identitarian groups were founded in 2012. Back then, a video of the French identitarians circulated in the media, which was titled “déclaration de guerre” and caused a great stir. Subsequently, in 2012 a meeting of identitarian groups from Austria, Italy, France, and Germany occurred in Frankfurt – it was destined to establish a network. The consequences of this transnational cooperation were entirely uncertain at the time. Up until then, the IM was primarily a phenomenon of the Internet and continued to be one until German, French and Austrian groups united approximately two years ago with the intention to carry out greater actions. Arguably the most prominent is the campaign “Defend Europe”…
… in the course of which the IM chartered a ship and advanced into the coastal region of Libya in order to uncover and document alleged cooperations between people smugglers and NGOs specialized in sea rescue. Similarly spectacular was the occupation of the Brandenburg Gate. Flash mobs are also popular, for example the disruption of Elfriede Jelinek’s play Die Schutzbefohlenen in Vienna. The use of ships, the occupation of buildings, and flash mobs are forms of action which we rather associate with left-wing organizations like Greenpeace. How does that fit with the notion of right-wing activism?
Indeed, the IM employs a repertoire of actions that we are familiar with from Greenpeace or the Occupy movement. By doing so, they aim for as much media attention as possible. However, we have to distinguish these kinds of actions from their content: Despite this formal adoption of left-wing protest culture, they strive for closed borders and ethnic homogeneity. They ultimately follow the notion of self-contained ethnic nation states that should regain their supposedly lost sovereignty. It is exactly this tension between form and content – of far-right activists employing left-wing forms of action – that causes irritation and attracts attention.
This frequent presence in the media gives the impression of a numerous group. Is this true?
It is hard to say how large this group actually is. The German IM speaks of 400 supportive members who contribute financially on a regular basis. However, only a small fraction of these 400 is politically active. If we add up the names of the activists, we end up with about 100. These are predominantly male students aged between twenty and thirty. At first glance, that does not seem like a lot. However, we should not underestimate that this small circle of people has a high mobilization potential and that the circle of activists could grow as a result of such spectacular actions as the ones mentioned. With regard to the current political developments in Germany – the presence of the AfD in the Bundestag and in state parliaments – there also exist the structural and financial prerequisites for establishing such activists in the environment of elected representatives.
So far most politicians of the AfD deny any contact with the IM. The question is, of course, whether this is true.
The AfD denies any proximity to the IM since the latter is connected to far-right extremism due to its history. The AfD does not want to be associated with that. However, this does not mean that there is no ideological common ground and no occasional cooperation. It is up to further investigations to reveal this.
In the light of the IM’s historical relation to right-wing extremism, it is astonishing how the group presents itself as harmless. Their preferred actions, their logo, and their corporate identity make them accessible for young people and create the impression of a right-conservative Antifa. At the same time they emphasize their dissociation from traditional National Socialism. If it is not traditional right-wing extremism that the IM relates to, which ideology is it then?
There is a whole range of ideological references. To begin with, there is the Italian CasaPound. Following the Italian example, they frequently relate to the American author Ezra Pound, an anti-Semite and admirer of Italian Fascism. Furthermore, the IM relates strongly and very positively to the representatives of the Conservative Revolutionary Movement: Oswald Spengler, Ernst Jünger, Carl Schmitt, and Armin Mohler. They were the pioneers of the antidemocratic movement in the Weimar Republic and prepared Hitler’s seizure of power with their ethnic-national ideology. Moreover, the IM draws on the pioneers of the French Nouvelle Droite, Alain de Benoist for instance. Henning Eichberg is also extremely important; he did not just coin the term national identity in the context of the New Right but also the term of ethnopluralism, which plays a major role in the intellectualization of the New Right. Additionally, the identitarians draw on the French author and publisher Renaud Camus and his book Le Grand Remplacement, so there is a multitude of political role models.
Ethnopluralism seems to be particularly important for the IM. “Ethnopluralism” – at first that sounds a lot like multiculturalism. What is it really?
Ethnopluralism is based on the assumption that different ethnic groups should inhabit their respective territories while ethnic homogeneity should be established within these territories. The IM is using this term as a magic formula in order to suggest that they are not nationalistic but rather acknowledge the diversity of different coexisting cultures. However, their ideology is ultimately characterized by the ethnic nationalism we have talked about earlier. They thus advocate the reinforcement of national borders and seek to reestablish ethnic homogeneity in the European nation states.
Consequently, the result of ethnopluralism would be a diversity of distinct ethnically homogenous states that coexist next to one another. They just should not dare to mix.
Exactly. Pointedly speaking, one could say that ethnopluralism is apartheid – just phrased nicely. All of this is being connected with the idea of a Europe of fatherlands. Ultimately, those are old catchphrases and slogans, which have been advocated by representatives of the far-right in the European Parliament since the eighties: the rejection of the European Union and the European unification, and the claim that cooperation should only take place within a restored Europe of homogenous nation states.
Talking about restoration, there has to be a prevalent notion that the ethnic homogeneity of the European states is in decline. In this context, the New Right often uses the term “great replacement”. What does that mean?
Like I said, the term “great replacement” was coined by Renaud Camus. Camus claims that the economic and political elites of the western European nation states intend to reduce and eventually to marginalize the native population in favor of immigrants. A closer reading of Camus’ book (Le Grand Remplacement) reveals that this is a sort of conspiracy theory. He believes that the modern migration movements are part of a grand plan; a plan to exterminate the European people. According to him, the tool for this extermination are the immigrants from the former colonies, whom he accuses of craving for revenge for the colonial crimes of the respective countries. Like a postcolonial boomerang, they allegedly return to the former colonial powers to replace the original population.
“Pointedly speaking, one could say that ethnopluralism is apartheid – just phrased nicely. All of this is being connected with the idea of a Europe of fatherlands.”
But isn’t there the possibility of the immigrants assimilating in the sense of political nationalism? Or does Camus advocate ethnic nationalism so that they can never biologically become Europeans?
In his thought there is no case in which people from sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, commit to the French traditions, assimilate, and become a part of the nation. Camus utilizes binary oppositions: the Christian occident and the French people on the one side and Islam and foreigners on the other. This nationalism is racist, even though Camus does not speak of genetic descent in terms of biological racism.
Regarding this division of friend and foe, the friend, in this case Europe, appears to be surprisingly homogenous. Here, the IM seeks to defend European culture and European values. How come they practice a sort of European nationalism and reject European unification at the same time?
With regard to the assumptions of ethnopluralism, this is contradictory, of course. It would be illusionary though to assume that the ideology of the IM is consistent. If we ask the question where the IM’s enthusiasm for Europe comes from, we repeatedly come across a date: 732, the year of the Battle of Tours and Poitiers. At the time, Charles Martel, the great-grandfather of Charlemagne, defeated the Arab and Berber armies approaching from the Iberian Peninsula on Frankish soil, which is part of France today. The IM associates this date with the myth that Charles prevented a Muslim conquest of Europe with his victory. At the same time, this battle is being declared the origin myth of Europe, suggesting that a battle of Christianity against Islam marks its birth. The IM’s positive relation to Europe is ultimately derived from this opposition between friend and foe.
But back then there was no homogenous Europe that could have united to oppose Islam. There weren’t even nation states in today’s sense.
The IM does not care about that, though. Everyone acquainted with history knows that this argumentation is not convincing at all. Nevertheless, the year 732 gets glorified as the year in which Europe was founded – regardless of all historical knowledge.
Besides this date, symbols play an important part. The IM is using a yellow lambda as their logo and as the main component of their corporate identity. What is this about?
The lambda is derived from the Hollywood movie 300, which stages the battle of Spartans against the Persians at Thermopylae (480 BC). The shields of the Spartan army featured the lambda, the eleventh letter of the Greek alphabet. By appropriating this symbol the identitarians want to demonstrate that they relate to the battle of the Greeks against the Persians in a positive and kind of proto-European way. At the same time, they place themselves and their activism in the tradition of the Spartans.
In this light, the title of the campaign “Defend Europe” becomes all the more frightening, since it assigns the role of violent invaders to the refugees who are crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat.
Concerning this campaign, there is also some new information which we should not withhold here. In summer 2017, a rather substantial contact between the identitarian movements of the western European countries and the Alt-Right, the American version of the New Right, was established for the first time. There was even transnational cooperation taking place, namely on form of a crowdfunding campaign. It is likely that the campaign “Defend Europe” could have never been financed if the Alt-Right-Movement and also the extreme right had not joined in. The prominent activist of the far-right and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke has publically called for support for “Defend Europe”. It has become apparent that the IM is also compatible with this area of the political spectrum. Thus, I envision the danger that the originally European phenomenon of the IM could become a transnational phenomenon in the next few years in terms of a cooperation between the IM and the Alt-Right.
Interview & Translation: Jonas Hermann