State of Hate: Far-Right Extremism in Europe is a landmark report exploring the state of far-right extremism across Europe. It is a collaboration between three leading European anti-fascist research organisations – HOPE not hate Charitable Trust (UK), EXPO Foundation (Sweden) and Amadeu Antonio Foundation (Germany).
The report includes contributions from 34 leading scholars, researchers and activists from across the continent and 32 country profiles. The report includes an exclusive survey of 12,000 people across eight major European countries (Sweden, France, Germany, UK, Hungary, Poland and Italy), measuring attitudes toward immigration, minoritised communities, feminism and political disaffection.
The year 2020 will forever be marred by the global pandemic which spread around the world, locking us in our homes, hiding our faces behind masks and tragically taking hundreds of thousands of lives. As we enter 2021 the death toll continues to rise though the arrival of numerous vaccines has provided a much needed glimmer of hope. However, while a thin shard of light has begun to lift the seemingly unending darkness of last year, the ramifications of the pandemic will continue to be felt for years to come; not least the impending economic crisis set to grip the world economy. Yet, it has by no means been all bad news. In the face of such tragedy we have seen communities come together, neighbours and strangers helping one another and examples of heart-breaking sacrifice, love and hope.
2020 was also a year of anger with millions of people around the world hitting the streets to chant “I can’t breathe” in protest against the murder of George Floyd. Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in over 60 countries across all seven continents, including Antarctica, raised the issue of racism and systemic inequality up the political agenda. Statues fell, street names changed and national conversations about racism, imperial and colonial legacies filled column inches and TV screens. In Europe BLM protests have often taken on a domestic inflection, reflecting local issues such as the death of Adama Traoré which became a central element of protests in Paris. What started on the streets of Minneapolis in May birthed a global moment of protest.
Unsurprisingly, for the European far right both the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests were seen as opportunities. Though much of the European far-right has failed to exploit the pandemic as much as they hoped, it has ushered in a new age of conspiracy theories as people seek comfort in simple and monocausal explanations for a world seemingly out of control. Huge anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory demonstrations have been seen across Europe with especially large events in London and Berlin. The long-term effects of this are hard to quantify but there is certainly a danger that conspiracy theory communities online are providing new trajectories of radicalization, especially towards more overtly antisemitic conspiracy theories. When it comes to BLM, the European far-right has erupted in conniptions, rejecting any discussion of racist societies and in some cases, pivoting towards increasingly overt racial politics, a tactic that is unlikely to pay dividends for them in the long term.
Amongst the chaos and tragedy however, there have been moments of genuinely good news. In October, after a trial lasting more than five years, the leadership of the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn were found guiltily of running a criminal organisation. In 2012 shockwaves were felt across the continent as the party secured 18 MPs amidst the turmoil of the financial crisis. However, following the murder of an anti-fascist in 2013 a criminal enquiry began, though many held little hope it would have the huge ramifications it has. Golden Dawn’s leader Nikos Michaloliakos and six senior colleagues were convicted of heading a criminal organisation, Giorgos Roupakias was found guilty of murder and fifteen others were convicted of conspiracy. The trial has decimated one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi organisations on the continent, though the threat of extreme right violence in Greece remains.
November saw more good news as Donald Trump lost the Presidential election to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the highest-ranking female elected official in American history. The result was a major setback for the European far-right, much of which had closely aligned themselves to him, especially the far-right regimes in Poland and Hungary. However, now is not the time for complacency. Over seventy- four million American’s still voted for him in 2020. They voted for him after he called the neo-nazis and fascists at Charlottesville “very fine people”; after he imposed a Muslim travel ban; after he withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change; after he retweeted anti-Muslim videos from the deputy leader of Britain First and after he separated migrant children from their parents. Trump may have lost but there are millions of people in America and around the world that still agree with him. His defeat is a welcome setback and further proof that the rise of the right is not inevitable or undefeatable but across large parts of the globe societies are still moving away from liberal, progressive and democratic norms and towards fragmented, divided and anti-egalitarian societies. The pillars of liberal democracy continue to wobble.
The year came to an end with the United Kingdom finally fulfilling the promise of Brexit by leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market on 31 December 2020. The causes of Brexit were complex and by no means all far-right but anti-immigrant sentiment played a key role and it no doubt buoyed much of the European far-right. In the UK the far-right has already shifted its attention towards anti-migrant and anti-Chinese politics but for much of Europe the far-right will continue to wrestle with their own changing attitudes towards the European Union in the coming years.
It is important to state from the outset that any overview of the European far right will necessarily talk in broad terms. This is especially important to understand when talking about the contemporary online far right. While it remains important to explore trends in traditional far right organisations such as political parties, the modern far-right is currently undergoing a broader and more fundamental shift; namely the emergence of a transnational and post-organisational threat. The European far-right scene today is a mixture of formalised far-right political parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, Vox in Spain, Lega in Italy and the AfD in Germany, and a series of looser, transnational far-right movements comprised of a disparate array of individuals collectively but not formally collaborating.
In the age of the internet we have seen the emergence of disparate movements such as the anti-Muslim ‘counter-jihad’ movement and the international alt-right. While all these groupings have formal organisations within them, they are often post-organisational. Thousands of individuals, all over the world, offer micro-donations of time and sometimes money to collaborate towards common political goals, completely outside traditional organisational structures. These movements lack formal leaders but rather have figureheads, often drawn from an increasing selection of far-right social media ‘influencers’. For most of the post-war period, ‘getting active’ required finding a party, joining, canvassing, knocking on doors, distributing leaflets and attending meetings. Now, from the comfort and safety of their own homes, far-right activists can engage in politics by watching YouTube videos, visiting far right websites, networking on forums, speaking on voice chat services like Discord and trying to convert ‘normies’ on mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The fact that this can all be done anonymously greatly lowers the social cost of activism.
These new movements are best understood as a many-headed hydra. If one prominent activist or leader falls from grace, it is no longer a fatal hammer blow; others will simply emerge and the besmirched are discarded. Of fundamental importance is that these movements are genuinely transnational. While activists will generally be primarily preoccupied with local or national issues, they invariably contextualise them continentally or even globally. Often activists from all over the world come together for short periods to collaborate on certain issues and these loose networks act as synapses passing information around the globe. An Islamophobe in one country outraged by the serving of halal chicken in their
local fast-food restaurant can post on social media and the story will spread through the network. If picked up by a ‘supersharer’ (an especially influential activist with a large social media following) that local story will be picked up by likeminded Islamophobes all over the world and act as more ‘evidence’ and further convince them of the threat of ‘Islamification’.
If we are to truly understand the contemporary far right, we must therefore change our thinking. We live in a shrinking world: be it in our own community, our own country, continent or globe, we are interconnected like never before. Our ability to travel, communicate and cooperate across borders would have been inconceivable just a generation ago and while these opportunities are by no means distributed evenly, they have opened up previously impossible chances for progress and development. Yet greater interconnectivity has also produced new challenges. The tools at our disposal to build a better, fairer, more united and collaborative world are also in the hands of those who are using them to sow division and hatred around the world. If we want to understand the dangers posed by the politics of hatred and division we can no longer just look at our street, our community or even our country, we must think beyond political parties, formal organisations and even national borders. As such, all of the phenomenon discussed in this report should be understood as occurring to different extents in different parts of the European far-right, meaning both formal far-right organisations and post- organisational movements.
Main Far-Right Events in 2020
Key 2020 Trends
The Rise of Conspiracy Theories and QAnon in Europe
Racial Nationalism on the rise
Far-right terrorism – continues to post a threat
Polling: Key Headlines
In a year dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, Europeans are generally supportive of tight lockdown rules, even if they have little trust in their political systems and deep suspicion towards minorities.
These are the findings of an eight-country poll carried out for HOPE not hate by YouGov and DataPraxis at the end of 2020. Over 12,000 people were polled in France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Sweden and the UK.
The far right has had mixed fortunes politically during 2020, with those in Government having a sharp drop in support, while others have benefited from unpopular Government responses to Covid-19 or exploited non-Covid related issues.
In Italy, the far right Brothers of Italy is now at 12% in the polls, double the vote it obtained in the 2018 General Election, while in Sweden, where crime is above health in voters’ concerns, and immigration is the third most salient issue, the far right Swedish Democrats are now on 21%, compared to the 16% it polled in the 2018 election.
In France, our polling shows Marine Le Pen leading President Macron by 2.2% (17.4% v 15.2%), a reversal of the 2018 Presidential vote, when Macron took 18.2% in the first round to Le Pen’s 16.1%. Le Pen is doing especially well amongst those aged between 30 and 50 amongst whom she is polling above 20%, whilst Marcon trails in this age at 11.8%.
Clearly Le Pen is benefiting from the current unpopularity of Macron, both in his handling of the pandemic but also wider economic and political issues. Three out of six French adults think the country is going in the wrong direction, with just 14% believing it is going in the right direction. Two thirds of respondents think the political system is broken, compared to the 25% who think it is working “somewhat well” and just 2% who consider it working “very well”.
It is perhaps unsurprising to see the far right topping the polls in France, given that the first four issues of concern for voters are Terrorism, Health, Economy and Immigration.
The polling also suggests that Macron’s tough response to the recent Islamist attacks have returned little political benefit, and if anything is pushing some of his more liberal voters away.
Far right parties that are in Government however have suffered badly during the pandemic. The ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland is now polling.
18.4%, compared to the 32% it achieved in the 2019 General Election, though Andrzej Duda retained the presidency in July’s election.
Similarly, the Five Star Movement, which is more populist than traditional far right, has seen support slip from 28% in 2018 to just 12% now as a consequence of joining the Government and anger at the Government’s initial handling of the pandemic.
The more hard right Lega Nord has seen its support slip slightly from 19.3% in 2017 to 16% now, but clearly it remains a significant threat and, as an opposition party, could well gain from a post-Covid economic crisis and frustration at the Government. Interestingly, in contrast to Le Pen, support for the Lega is stronger amongst older people. It is polling 22% amongst 60-69 year olds and 20% for over 70s. Conversely, it has just a 7.8% share of support amongst 18-29 year olds.
Support for the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany is at 10.6%, the same share of the vote it received in the last national elections in 2017. Interestingly though, only 61% of those who voted for the AfD in 2017 say that they plan to vote for the party in a new national election, with slightly more voters deserting to parties on the left than parties on the right. However, the new voters it is attracting are more likely to come from parties on the political right. The AfD receives 14% of the male vote, but just 7% of the female vote.
Most voters in our eight polled European countries have rallied around their Governments during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is perhaps understandable given the severity of the virus, the fear it has spread and the general political consensus the lockdowns have created. The one exception is probably with the AfD in Germany, which has aligned itself closer to the anti-lockdown movement than many other far right groups across the continent.
Most people have been supportive of the lockdown measures implemented in their respective countries, with 64% backing Government measures in Germany and just 13% opposing them.
Even in Italy, where the Government was widely criticised for its handling of the pandemic in the initial stages, 59% of people support the latest lockdown policies introduced by the Government and just 20% oppose them. The gap is even bigger in Sweden, where 72% approve of the Government’s lockdown measures, compared to just 12% who are in opposition.
Two thirds of Britons back the lockdown measures, though we know from other polling that almost the same number think the British Government has not handled the pandemic well.
The question though is, how long will this support continue and whether any decline corresponds with an upsurge in anti-Government sentiment.
this statement than those who vote for left wing or centre left parties. In Germany, 19% of AfD voters strongly agreed, while fewer than 2% of Green voters agreed. Conversely, only 14% of AfD strongly disagree, compared to 46% of Green voters.
Attitudes to conspiracy theories vary greatly from country to country, and often depend on whether the issue taps into existing concerns and prejudices. In Hungary, where President Orban has riled against EU interference and the dangers immigration pose to European identity, 45% agree that elites are encouraging immigration to weaken Europe. Likewise in Italy, where there has been political anger at the refusal of the EU to provide greater support for immigration issues, 39% agreed to the same statement.
Age is a key determiner. Half of Italian voters over 70 believe this (compared to 23% of 18-29 year olds), as do 38% of elderly Poles (as opposed to 22% amongst younger Poles). However, in Hungary views are fairly consistent across age groups, with 40% of those over 70 and 38% of 18-29 years believing this. In France, almost twice as many older people believe this compared to younger people, but in Sweden, the situation is reversed, with slightly more young people believing elites are encouraging immigration to weaken Europe than older people.
The vast majority of respondents in all eight countries dismiss the notion that the Covid-19 vaccine will be maliciously used to infect people.
While there might be support for lockdown measures, there is a deep sense of unease in many countries about the state of their political system and the direction of their country is going in. This could point to trouble ahead, especially once the pandemic has been bought under control.
Two-thirds of people in France think that their political system is broken, whilst 59% think the country is going in the wrong direction, with just 14% thinking it is going in a good direction.
The Italians are even more pessimistic about the state of their country, with 79% believing that their political system is broken and only 2.2% thinking it works “very well” and a further 16% who think it works “somewhat well”. Three quarters of respondents in our Italian poll believe things are getting worse in their country, with just 7% thinking they are getting better. Young people are marginally more optimistic than those over 70.
By contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, only 6% of Dutch respondents believed that their political system was completely broken, with a further 20% believing it is “somewhat broken”. Two thirds of Dutch people think the political system works well, with 19% saying it works “very well” and 50% believing it works “fairly well”.
Germany is another country which appears to have a robust and resilient democracy. Seven out of ten voters think the political system works well, with only 26% thinking it is either “completely” or “somewhat” broken. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 60% of those who voted AfD in the last national elections believe that the political system is broken.
With key national elections due this Autumn in Germany, the strength of the country’s democracy means that the far right appears to have little room to really grow.
Attitudes in Poland follow political lines. While 42% of Law and Justice voters think the country is going in the right direction, two and a half times the national average, few who voted for opposition parties think likewise. Only 2% of those who voted for the Civil Coalition, 3% who voted for the Left and 4% who backed Coalition Poland, think the country is going in the right direction.
Attitudes towards minorities are poor across all eight countries surveyed. We asked respondents whether they had positive or negative attitudes towards immigrants, Roma and Muslims and the results were overwhelmingly negative.
Two-thirds of Italians (67%) and 62% of French respondents have negative views towards Roma people, followed by Hungary (49%) and Sweden (41%). Only 6% of French and Italian people have a positive attitude.
Respondents in Poland have the least hostile attitudes, with 19% having a positive view of Roma, but that is still some way behind the 33% who have negative views. Likewise, 17% of Dutch respondents have a positive attitude, while 30% have a negative attitude.
There are strongly negative attitudes towards Roma in Germany, with 40% having a negative attitude and just 7% having a positive attitude.
Almost one in five British respondents did not have a view, which probably reflects the relatively small Roma community in the country. However, of those who did elicit an opinion, 35% had negative views and only 10% positive.
When it comes to attitudes towards immigrants, Hungarians have the least positive views, with 61% having a negative view and only 4% holding positive attitudes. Only 13% of respondents in both France and Germany had positive attitudes to immigrants, with negative views at 47% and 33% respectively.
Sweden has the least hostile attitude to immigrants, with 29% having a negative view and 28% a positive view. Poland, with its relatively low levels of immigration, is also quite balanced, with 30% having negative views and 25% positive views.
When it comes to attitudes towards Muslims, the UK has the most positive and the least negative. Thirty per cent of Britons have a positive attitude compared to 26% who have a negative attitude. A further 40% have neither negative or positive attitudes.
Hungarians (52%) once again have the most negative attitudes, followed by Sweden (47%) and Poland (43%).
In Germany, 39% of people have a negative attitude, compared to just 12% who have a positive view. In Italy the attitudes are 38% and 14% respectively, while in France they are 34% and 19%. Over twice as many Dutch people have negative attitudes to positive attitudes.
While attitudes towards minorities are poor, many people across our eight polled countries have sympathy with the Black Lives Matter protests in highlighting racism and discrimination experienced by minority communities. In Germany (52%), Sweden (51%) and the UK (51%), this sentiment shared by a majority of people, with just 17%, 25% and 30% having little or no sympathy respectively.
The country polled with the least sympathy was Hungary, where just 23% sympathised with the protests. However, 50% of people either did not have an opinion one way or another or didn’t know.
More voters in France, the Netherlands, Poland and Italy sympathised with the BLM protests than did not, but in none of them this went above 50%. It should be noted though that in all countries there were high levels of people who did not have a firm view or said they did not know.
There are some interesting age and gender differences between countries. In Poland, where 42% of people have some degree of sympathy, young people and men are more sympathetic than older people and women. In Germany, there is little difference between age groups or gender, while in Italy, it is younger people and women who are more sympathetic.
We also asked respondents whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement: “It is feminism’s fault that some men feel at the margins of society and demonized.” The results varied dramatically across the eight countries. Italy was the country where fewest people agreed with this statement, with only 4% definitely agreeing and a further 9% tending to agree. By contrast, 45% of people strongly disagreeing and a further 20% somewhat disagreeing. Surprisingly, the country where more people agreed with this statement was Sweden, where 15% of respondents definitely agreed and a further 26% somewhat agreed. Only 22% of people disagreed with the statement.
What’s even more remarkable with the Swedish results are the attitudes of young people. Fifteen percent of 18-29 year olds definitely agreed with
the statement, whilst 14% of the same age group definitely did not. By contrast, only 6.2% of 18-29 year olds definitely agreed with the statement, while 38% definitely did not.
Once again, a large number of people in the polls neither agreed or disagreed, or did not know. In France 39% of people did not have a firm view one way or the other, while in Hungary this figure was 52%.
As a general rule, people who vote for far right and centre right parties are more likely to agree with with poison. However, 22% of Poles, 20% of Hungarians and 16% of Italians do believe this to be the case. Only 48% of Poles believe this claim to be “probably” or “definitely” false. In the UK, by contrast, only 7% believe poison will be infected via the Covid-19 vaccine.
The UK also has the highest proportion of people (79%) who do not believe that the vaccine will be maliciously infected with poison, followed by Sweden (71%) and Germany (68%). Fewer than 50% of people dismiss the notion of poison in both Hungary and Poland.
In most countries there is a clear age difference, with young people more likely to believe in the Covid-vaccine conspiracy theory compared to older people. Of course this is not really a surprise, given that older people are both more likely to be at serious risk from Covid-19 and engage with social media – where these conspiracies are spread – less than younger people.
There is also a clear political slant, with those who voted for far right parties much more likely to believe in the Covid-vaccine conspiracy. One in five AfD voters in Germany believe in the conspiracy, compared to 2% of Greens and 4% of Left voters.
In Sweden, 14% of Swedish Democrats buy into the conspiracy, compared to just 7% of Swedish Democrats. In Italy, where middle-aged people are more likely to believe in to the poison conspiracy than the young or old, the figure is 20% amongst Lega voters, compared to 7% amongst Democratic Party voters.
There is much larger support for the claim that ‘Hollywood’s elite, governments, media and other high officials are covertly involved in large-scale child smuggling and exploitation’, one of the key claims of QAnon followers. A third of respondents in Poland believe this claim to be definitely or probably true, while only 27% think it is false. In Germany, 21% believe this statement to be true, compared to 48% who think it is false.
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed much of the normal political debate to the side-lines across Europe and as a result many far right parties are struggling to cut through on their traditionally strong issues such as immigration, multiculturalism and national identity. However, the negative attitudes towards minorities, coupled with the widespread pessimism and distrust at their political systems, shows that there remains strong potential for far right support once political normality returns.
With the economic consequences from the pandemic likely to see rises in unemployment and reduction in state spending in most European countries, opposition far right parties – with their populist, nationalist and anti-minority message – could well benefit.
A set of questions were asked for Hope Not Hate by Datapraxis and YouGov within a large public opinion poll within 8 European countries in late November and early December 2020. The poll was conducted online in the following countries: Great Britain (n = 2,031), France (n = 1,013), Germany (n = 2,060), Hungary (n=1,001), Italy (n=2,017), Netherlands (n = 1,005), Poland (n = 1,002), and Sweden (n = 1,010).
The samples were constructed to be politically and nationally representative samples. Polling occurred between the 20th of November and the 7th of December. The exact dates for each country are: Great Britain (24-25 Nov), France (25-26 Nov), Germany (25-27 Nov), Hungary
(24 Nov – 2 Dec), Italy (24 Nov – 3 Dec), Netherlands (24 Nov – 2 Dec), Poland (24 Nov – 7 Dec), and Sweden (24-27 Nov).
For Great Britain, the politically and nationally representative sample is representative of the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales. Northern Ireland was not surveyed as a part of the study.
When the Black Death rolled over the continent in the 14th century, it eradicated 30 to 50 per cent of Europe’s population. The social consequence of that plague was blaming certain ethnic groups for creating, spreading or surviving the disease. Since Jews appeared to be dying in fewer numbers, it resulted in them being tortured and killed across Europe for “spreading the disease”. The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news since the start of 2020, exposing cracks in government policies, causing divisions between politicians and re- establishing national borders within Europe. There have been over a 1.5 million covid-related deaths worldwide in 2020, and more than 70 million cases. Europe alone accounts for around 400,000 deaths since the first one was recorded in France on 15 February 2020, with the United Kingdom accounting for one of the highest number of deaths in Europe.
Citizens across the world have grown increasingly worried about the consequences of the coronavirus. The impact of the on-going pandemic is only beginning to show itself, with the full economic devastation predicted ensuring fertile grounds for the far right. Researchers have pointed to a host of catalysts at individual and societal level that contribute to radicalisation. Factors such as personal loss, the psychological burden and
the economic instability created by the pandemic provide ideal grounds for far right recruitment. In a similar but much more widespread fashion than the 14th century plague, different minorities are being blamed and conspiracy theories about the pandemic abound across both the online and offline world.
The first wave of coronavirus proved deadly, catching European leaders unaware after the majority had ignored expert advice that drastic measures had to be taken. In fact, after the WHO declared a public health emergency, only four countries reported they might lack the protective equipment needed. European nations failed to act in a coordinated manner, hoarding essential equipment, chaotically closing borders leaving stranded citizens abroad and failing to expand their medical capacities in the initial weeks and months after the virus emerged in China. The urgency only appeared in most European countries in March, and by that time several European Health ministers had already resigned or been replaced, adding to the confusion. Croatian health minister Kujundžić was sacked by the end of January, France’s Buzyn quit at the start of 6, Dutch Medical Care Minister Bruins resigned in March7 while Romanian Costache resigned at the end of March.
The declining international collaboration, the challenge countries faced in providing services, perceived differences in the quality of the government response as well as the deepening inequalities made evident, all added to the tension caused by the pandemic and impacted the receptiveness of individuals to radical ideology.
There has also been a sharp increase in anti-Asian, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate crimes across the world, emboldened by mainstream and far right rhetoric over the last few months. Online, this has been evident through misinformation campaigns, stigmatising memes and conspiracy theories around COVID-19 and minority groups. The far right have successfully repackaged hateful ideas within new COVID-19 conspiracy theories such as Jews being responsible for creating the pandemic or Muslims spreading the virus intentionally. They have also attempted to insert themselves within growing movements such as the anti-mask and anti- lockdown protests. The last few months has also seen rhetoric against open European borders, the global elite and the danger of immigrants surge in the context of COVID-19.
The global pandemic has had a seismic effect across the continent. It is of course too soon to definitively say what the effect on the far right will be as things are still in flux. There are also large differences across the continent and the far right has been impacted differently across Europe, depending on the politics of the country, the government’s reaction to the pandemic and the power the far right group had established before COVID-19. In the short term there have been both positives and negatives but the far right generally failed to capitalise on the pandemic. Most European governments enjoyed a surge in popularity as the public initially rallied in solidarity and unity in the face of the virus. However, this faded in several countries as a second lockdown was instated. The long-term effects of the pandemic have also made some communities more susceptible to the far right.
Unlike previous European flash points such as the refugee crisis of 2015/2016 or the financial crisis of 2008, the far right did not enjoy an immediate rise in popularity over the course of the year 2020 and across the continent. Despite the political squabbling over masks and the every-country-for- itself approach to COVID-19 in the first months, the populist and Eurosceptic elements of the far right were often unsuccessful in dominating the narrative. Many of the far right parties failed to respond coherently, or with internal unity and took time to develop a new message. Attempts at rallying support against immigration for example, did not succeed in capturing the public mood.
The pandemic has shifted migration rhetoric to include the risk to individual health, but the virus has not spread across Europe through the typical refugee and migratory routes. Instead, while far right politicians were calling for closing ports in Italy, COVID-19 had already created clusters throughout the country. This has weakened the far right’s message associating safety with refusing immigrants. The fact that European countries did exactly what the far right has been calling for and shut down borders in March 2020 also removed an important rallying point for far right politicians. Their flailing strategies became more focused as the months went by however, and researchers have seen a dangerous merging of far right activity with more mainstream protests against lockdowns, masks and safety measures. The growing discontent as many governments decided on a second lockdown before Christmas also gave greater ammunition to far right groups, who positioned themselves with discontented citizens.
The following case studies examine the various similarities and differences in how different far right groups were impacted by the pandemic over the last year. The cases of Germany, Italy, France and Spain are used to illustrate the impact of COVID-19 on far right parties that were not in power when the pandemic began. The far right parties all had slightly different ways of tackling the coronavirus based on regional and political differences, as well as how each government addressed and managed the crisis. This led to non-ruling far right groups standing up for unusual political positions because their nature meant they had to remain anti-ruling-elite and in opposition to the governing party. The far right in Sweden for example, had a government that opted to keep schools and restaurants open. The Sweden democrats therefore could target the high mortality rate that resulted but also urged the government to follow international guidelines instead of trusting the advice of Swedish experts – an about-turn from the usual rhetoric around Swedish exceptionalism. Another outlier was the radical right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in Switzerland, where from the start the SVP acknowledged the threat of COVID-19. In fact, SVP politician Magdalena Martullo-Blocher was the first and only MP to wear a face mask at the start of March and was asked to leave by the president of the national assembly so as to “not disturb” the debates.
When 9 people were shot and killed in shisha lounges in Hanau by an alleged far right attacker, it was only another act of violence in a long list of far right plots recently carried out in Germany. The early 2020 German political scene was dominated by the role of the AfD – the Alternative for Germany– and its influence within the country. Their success in the polls worried the political establishment and the young party – it was launched in 2013 – enjoyed rising popularity using an anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and Eurosceptic platform. A regional election in October 2019 showed they were the second most popular party in Thuringia, beating Merkel’s party and receiving more than double the share of votes than what it received five years ago.
While the German government began to mobilise seriously against the pandemic in March, the German far right party downplayed warnings. Following the lead of America’s President, Donald Trump, the AfD politicians spoke of the COVID-19 being mild, that it was Chinese hoax and that the government was needlessly agitating the public for its own ends. AfD politician Axel Gehrke, who was the party’s spokesperson for health policy until he left the position in October, wrote in late March that the coronavirus was “demonstrably milder than influenza viruses,” and spoke of the “gigantic FAKE of the year.”15 However, this strategy failed to resonate as the crisis exponentially worsened and the German public took the government’s guidelines seriously. While AfD politicians were tweeting anti-refugee rhetoric, the public seemed to have already switched gears, with COVID-19 being the ultimate focus. Speeches about the outside invader refugee were no longer on the political agenda when the virus was within Germany already.
The AfD did a U-turn in April and published a policy paper, switching to criticising the government for reacting too slowly to the pandemic. They claimed a shutdown could have been avoided with earlier reactions from the authorities and that the measures taken breached human rights. However, Angela Merkel’s scientific, evidence-based and no-nonsense approach proved popular with the German people while the AfD’s lack of coherent messaging began losing them points in the polls. The Afd’s messaging around the elite not serving the voters did not ring true as the German government was lauded for its strong decisive actions against the virus, both nationally and internationally. From op-eds, social media posts and TV pundits, Merkel’s approach to the crisis was seen to be that of a great leader. A Spanish commentator even went so far
as coin a word “Merkelina”, to define a leadership that solves problems without attempting to derive political gain from it. German voters also appeared to prefer expert sources for guidance during the crisis. A survey in April showed 80 per cent of the German public approved of the government’s actions and Merkel gained significant support in national polls. Even internationally, confidence in the German chancellor was higher than in any other leader, according to a Pew Research Center survey of 14 countries.
The AfD was also experiencing a bitter intra-party fight between moderate and more far right wing elements of it, contributing to the confusion in messaging. The anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and neo-fascist elements exposed a cleavage within the AfD during the pandemic, and AfD leaders were conscious these elements could alienate more moderate members.
The AfD then decided to focus on positioning themselves, with greater success, as the voice of the people in a time of great economic uncertainty. The International Monetary Fund predicted a global contraction on par with the Great Depression and since May, the AfD have called for the opening of shops and public places. This has since gained significant traction with the general public and evidence of its success was seen internationally on 29 August when far right protesters participated in the storming of the parliament building in Berlin. Hundreds of protesters, some waving the flag of the Third Reich breached security barriers. This was part of a larger protest of 38,000 people demonstrating against the COVID-19 safety policies. Michael Ballweg, the organiser of the protest distanced himself from the storming of the Reichstag. However, the Identitarian movement and two neo-Nazi groups, the National Democratic Party and The Third Way had called for their members to attend the protest.
The popularity of the protests and the joining of the far right within indicates waning government support as Covid-restriction fatigue settles in. As polls began to show a waning of public approval for the government’s restrictions across Europe, the far right have identified an opportunity amidst mounting economic stress. However, the AfD has not regained its public support, with one poll carried by Kantar research institute in October showing that over the year, the AfD dropped from first to third position in eastern Germany – the party’s stronghold. Another study shows populism is in decline in Germany, but this only takes into account the opinion of registered voters, not the online world where Germany has for example, the highest number of QAnon believers outside of the United States. There is also no uniform decline in AfD support: In October, Reinhard Etzrodt, an AfD member, was elected chairman of the city council in the third largest city in the state of Thuringia – the first time a far right candidate filled this post since the war.
Italy’s outbreak is believed to have started on 25 or 26 January– a German businessman travelling in the country was named “patient zero”. The first corona-related death was on 21 February 2020 with Lombardy going into near quarantine two days later. Italy was the first European country to instil a lockdown, shocking neighbouring countries that were still underestimating the threat of the pandemic and were reluctant to shut down. Following the pattern across Europe, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte enjoyed an initial surge in approval ratings while the far right Lega party lost some support. Part of their failure could be attributed to the fact that the live rallies Lega thrived on were banned due to the social distancing rules.
Italy’s far right fell under similar trouble as Germany’s, with mixed messaging and an inability to read the public’s mood. Lega began the pandemic as Italy’s strongest party, focused on nativist, anti- immigration and anti-EU rhetoric. Lega’s leader, Matteo Salvini, first called for Lombardy to be re- opened in late February but then changed his mind and called for a full lockdown a few days later. An Ipsos poll in Italy showed a 9 per cent decrease in the party’s popularity compared to 2019. The results of the regional elections showed voters were focused on the efficiency of the regional government in managing the crisis, so results were not the same across Lega-dominated regions. The Lega-dominated Lombardy region was criticised for its poor handling of the crisis, as the messaging was divided between pushing for a total lockdown to stop the virus and opening up businesses to please the local voters. On the other hand, the Lega governor in Veneto, Luca Zaia, was praised during the crisis for his management that kept hospital admissions down.
When Italians headed to the polls on 20 September, it was the first Italian regional election in the pandemic-changed political landscape. Lega failed to unseat the ruling coalition in Emilia-Romagna, seen as a key election target. The Italian coalition government consists of the centre-left Democratic Party (DP) and the populist Five Star Movement since the Lega party broke away in the hope of triggering another election. There was however a landslide victory by a right- wing extremist candidate in Marche, a region previously governed by centre-left parties. Francesco Acquaroli represented an alliance between Lega, Forza Italia and the Fratelli d’Italia (FDI). The FDI party, which includes neo-Nazis, fascists and members of the Identitarian movement, is emerging as a strong contender to Lega, after Salvini was weakened by leaving the ruling coalition party. The leader of the FDI, Georgia Meloni aims to create a state in the image of Hungary, with a strong authoritarian government prioritising security over freedom. According to one poll, she is the fourth most popular politician in Italy and appears to have gained some of the support Lega has lost. Another poll in late November showed the FDI overtaking the Five Star Movement and reaching 15.5 percent approval. Already standing out in the male- dominated political scene, Meloni is seen as straight talking by many of her supporters. She follows the example of many on the far right of being very critical of the government’s COVID-19 response, positioning herself as the voice of the people and for family-values.
Lega has suffered politically during the pandemic, losing support in the polls as regions they managed suffered from COVID-19, rallies continued to be banned and their flip-flopping messaging failing to instil confidence in uncertain times. However, this has not prevented other far right threats from growing: the Five Star Movement remained relatively stable across the year before dipping towards the end of the year while the FDI has made gains, with Meloni emerging as a challenger to Salvini’s previously unquestioned leadership over the far right. The far right has benefitted from the failure of the EU to support Italy and to present themselves as the ultimate defenders of the country. Meloni has repeatedly used strong language to criticise the political establishment, which she accused of getting down on its knees “to lick the feet of the French and Germans”.
Conte’s government faced increased disapproval towards the end of the year, as Italians criticised his COVID-19 strategies. Perhaps surprisingly, the far right backed the Italian government’s request to raise more money to cover additional measures aimed at protecting the economy from the ravages of the coronavirus. The support at the end of November meant the authorisation needed to borrow a further 8 billion euros went through both houses of parliament easily. The opposition was organised by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, head of Forza Italia, who forced Lega and FDI in line and prevent any public disputes in the alliance.
For the far right, being seen to be anti-government and on the “people’s side” is an essential part of the playbook. A far right party often defines itself in its opposition to the government – doing otherwise would not induce much support – and the pandemic produced mostly predictable actions across Europe. The case of France particularly illustrates far right criticism of government. While initially applauding the closing of borders in March and suggesting the president had understood his errors, June saw Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far right National Rally party publish a “black book” about COVID-19, a scathing review of the government’s mishandling of the pandemic and how President Emmanuel Macron had lied to the public. This echoes the public’s anger with how the government has handled the crisis. French families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 have already filed complaints against officials for failing to protect the public.
Le Pen’s actions could be explained by unfavourable polling data: at the start of April, only a bit more than a fifth of the French public had a positive impression of her. Macron’s lack of popularity was also proven with the April municipal elections, which were not cancelled despite the pandemic. The elections had record levels of abstentions – 55.36 per cent – due to the number of coronavirus cases, which was then doubling every four days. The results of the first round were inconclusive but showed Macron’s party was performing poorly, finishing third or fourth in major cities such as Paris. Meanwhile, the National Rally’s Steeve Briois won by a landslide in Hénin-Beaumont. Le Pen touted this region as a model of COVID-19 management.
A day later, Macron announced a full lockdown and the postponement of the second round of the municipal elections. His actions were precipitated by the entire political class, unanimously calling for focus on the pandemic. Le Pen was amongst those calling for a strict lockdown and has described Macron as a king-like figure using smokes and mirrors to rule. Macron’s reputation had critics nickname him “emperor” or “Napoleon” even before the pandemic started, describing his imperial style of governing from the top. Polls also showed a loss of confidence in the government, and a growing sense of anger. There are dozens of legal complaints against public officials for failure to protect the public. A poll at the end of March 2020 showed 65 per cent believed the government was not doing enough while 47 per cent reported feeling anger over the management of the crisis. The uptick in government popularity seen across the continent and expected in France was relatively minor. Interestingly, the loss of faith in the government was not accompanied by an upswing for opposition parties, with only 27 per cent of the respondents seeing them as up to the task. More local leaders such as mayors fared better in the polling, with 69 per cent of the respondents feeling confident in their approach.
COVID-19 emergency measures also forced the government to reduce the population of French prisons. However, Marine Le Pen’s criticism
over the last few months about the release of prisoners – many of them of foreign origin – and the government’s response to acts of terrorism in Toulouse and Colombes was less successful as immigration and discussions around crime had fallen off the political agenda. When she visited the island of Sein in June, she was booed and the islanders turned their backs on her. Despite this, an Ifop poll published in October showed Macron and Le Pen as neck and neck with other politicians trailing behind, and Le Pen could top the first round of the 2022 French elections.
The beheading of the middle-school teacher Samuel Paty on 16 October by a young man enraged by Paty showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as well as the attack in Nice on 29 October by an alleged migrant, switched the national conversation to radicalisation and immigration for a few weeks. Le Pen and her associates pushed hard with the usual rhetoric on immigration and Islam, calling for example for the banning of headscarves. However this was less successful due to the French government’s increasingly right-wing bills on security, Muslims and protests. According to critics, Macron’s strategy for the next elections appears to be to co-opt enough of the language and policies suggested by the far right in order to defeat it at the polls. Despite the attacks, COVID-19 remains fixed at the top of the agenda as France reluctantly entered another lockdown in November. However the mounting unemployment, frustration with shutdowns and risk of further terrorist attacks can only strengthening the far right in the long term.
Spain’s long history of right-wing dictatorship has slowed the growth of far right and populist political groups. However, more recently, the radical right wing party Vox emerged and within a short period of time acquired a significant presence in parliament. Vox has positioned itself over the last few years as the defender of the poorer regions in Spain such as Andalusia. The party leader, Santiago Abascal, using the ‘make Spain great again’ slogan, often writes about the political elite and separatist politicians that ‘hate the idea of Spain’. His self-declared aim is to restore national pride and stand firmly against the EU, which he sees as a threat to Spain’s sovereignty.
However, Vox’s political rhetoric has not fared well under COVID-19. Rich regions such as Catalonia have had significantly more deaths than poorer southern regions such as Andalusia. With the closing of international borders and Muslims forced to halt religious rituals associated to Ramadan and Eid, two of Vox’s primary rhetorical targets were missing their mark in the early stages of the pandemic.
Spain was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, but its government has not shared Merkel’s level of success in Germany in handling the crisis. By mid April, nearly 23,000 fatalities had occurred, focused on Madrid and Catalonia, the economic heartlands of the country. A poll in early April showed more than two thirds of the Spanish population had the impression that the government was not up to the challenge. Even more thought that the country’s main opposition party, the Partido Popular, was worse. By mid-April, public confidence in the way the government handled the crisis had somewhat improved. By the end of April, polls made it clear that while Spaniards did not have great confidence in their government, they were looking for political unity and this helped solidify the mainstream centrist parties. When Vox held a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in October, it was overwhelmingly rejected, with opposition leader Pablo Casado from the conservative Popular Party (PP) lambasting VOX for “wasting everybody’s time”.
While the Spanish media and the public have been vocal in its criticism of the government and the European Union, it has not helped Vox according to the polls. One poll published in Publico in late April showed Vox fell noticeably, reversing the steady climb it had experienced with the November 2019 general elections. This is perhaps due to their early actions to COVID-19. Vox held a mass meeting in early March, and the party’s Secretary General, Javier Ortega Smith, tested positive for the virus. Actions such as blaming China for propagating a secret lab-grown virus also backfired as a poll showed two thirds of the respondents agreed that hoaxes on social media should be prohibited.
The European Union’s reputation has not fared well during the course of the pandemic. Governments failed to band together to produce a coherent response, while politicians ignored expert warnings that the virus was unlikely to be contained. EU leaders were also overly focused on the deteriorating situation with Turkey at the start of 2020, missing the severity of the impending pandemic. The 2016 EU-Turkey deal, which promised a 6-billion euros aid-packet for Turkey in exchange for keeping refugees within its territory, collapsed in February and tens of thousands of migrants and refugees had coalesced at the Turkish-Greek border.
Italy closing down its borders was the first real sign that leaders understood the radical measures that needed to be taken. One of the errors seen across Europe was politicians underestimating the deadliness and rapidity with which the virus was spreading – perhaps because China had managed to suppress the huge epidemic in Wuhan in over just seven weeks. In fact, when the WHO declared a public health emergency, only four countries reported they might be short of the protective equipment needed. While governments were slowly grappling with the enormity of the impact of the pandemic, there was little cooperation and solidarity across borders. When Italy asked neighbouring countries for aid at the end of February 2020, no other EU member stepped up, seeing Italy’s overburdened hospitals and focussed on their own dire circumstances. On 10 March, the Italian ambassador, Maurizio Massari, published an op-ed criticising the lack of solidarity being shown.
In fact, COVID-19 at the start of March was still discussed at EU-level as an external threat, instead of one that had crossed the borders months ago. European citizens then watched with increasing panic as EU member states publicly argued about protective equipment, with Germany applying a ban on exporting any equipment to other countries for example. The disorganised actions taken across March would only get worse as ministers complained about becoming aware of policy news in the press. At international level, the US and European countries were also competing to acquire the medical equipment, with poorer countries losing out to wealthier ones in the bidding wars and accusations of “modern piracy” being thrown around. Despite this, by the start of March, governments were still reluctant to impose a lockdown and ban cultural events so the Women’s Day march on 8 March still took place in Spain. The slow reaction time to the pandemic’s seriousness was then coupled with anxiety and divisions over financial policies, and whether countries will be able to bounce back from the economical devastation of 2020.
While the far right was also taken by surprise, and in several cases, criticised their governments for even initiating lockdown, the unfolding chaos at EU level was grasped at eagerly, a convenient target for public frustration and fear. It is important to note that despite the slow response at EU level, public health is not under its purview.
Mateusz Marzoch, leader of the ‘Młodzież Wszechpolska’ or All-Polish Youth, a self-described ‘nationalist’ youth organisation and descendant of ultranationalist groups active in Poland the 1930s, said the EU had been unmasked by the pandemic, a ‘union’ undone by the hoarding of medical supplies. “After COVID-19, disappointment with the European Union and globalisation will increase,” he told BIRN. “I think people will realise that they don’t need the European Union,” said Marzoch. “What they need is a strong national government, a strong country that can protect them when danger comes, when something threatens them.”
Another far right target was the deep division created around the economic impact. Spain, Italy and France supported the issuing of “coronabonds”, or a common debt instrument to fight the effects of the outbreak. This was rejected by Germany, the Netherlands, Finland and Austria – northern states more wary of joining liabilities with the southern states. This renewed tensions and soured support for the EU within the South. A Spanish poll in April showed half of the respondents felt “less European” than before the crisis and 90 per cent agreed the EU was doing little or nothing to help countries hit by COVID-19.
Spain’s Vox party pushed for “climate emergency” funds at EU-level to be used to deal with COVID-19 and accused the EU of being subservient to a “globalist ideology”. During the “coronabond” peak, a Vox party representative even accused the EU of being subservient to China. FDI leader Georgia Meloni in Italy, also called out the EU: “When the coronavirus was just an Italian problem it didn’t interest anyone in the European Union. When we had the first red zones in Lombardy, Ursula von der Leyen was with Greta Thunberg. They only did things when the virus arrived in Germany.” In France, the National Rally said they had warned against globalisation and the lack of protective medical equipment was linked to outsourcing industry. The head of the National Rally delegation to the European parliament, Nicolas Bay, called the EU “powerless”, that it had not “anticipated” the crisis and failed to do anything about it once it was informed. Italy’s Lega and Spain’s Vox party condemned the EU for failing to respond appropriately, but also for the lack of solidarity with the two countries who were initially strongly impacted and ignored. Footage of EU flag burning can be found on social media from that time period. The blame has also turned around on the two countries, with an April poll in Germany showing half of Germans blame Italy and Spain’s pandemic on “poor governance”. These criticisms of the EU hit their mark more accurately because the far right was reflecting what the public had seen develop on the EU political stage. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen apologised to Italy in April on behalf of Europe for its failure to do more to help at the start of the pandemic. “It is true that no one was really ready for this. It is also true that too many were not there on time when Italy needed a helping hand at the very beginning,” von der Leyen said.
The rapid closing of borders starved the far right of some oxygen but several far right discussion boards link the outbreak to the “open border” policies. Authoritarian governments in Hungary and Poland were quick to close their borders and return foreign nationals to their countries of origin under COVID-19. Meanwhile, Le Pen praised the French governments decision to bar entry through their land borders while Salvini spoke of maintaining emergency measures to prevent migrants coming in after the pandemic. The erosion of EU norms such as the open Schengen area has also weakened the EU’s reputation.
The far right in Europe has scrambled to stay relevant amidst the pandemic with mixed results as priorities turned away from popular far right talking points to pandemic-related issues. However, in the second half of the year, anti-mask, anti-lockdown and anti-safety-restriction protests have sprung up across the globe. The protests centre around how compulsory rules – even ones on health and safety – infringe on individual freedoms. The anti-mask momentum is not atypical of a pandemic – when doctors in the US urged the wearing of masks during the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was also seen as politically divisive, and called ‘dirt traps’ and ‘germ shields’
One of the first protests was in Michigan, USA, on 15 April, organised by conservative groups and demanding for the lockdown to end. By 1 May, there had been protests in half the US states. Several European states also had protests in April but the frequency and size of the protests were still small. But by late August, thousands of anti-lockdown protestors filled London’s Trafalgar square. On the same day, Berlin drew 38,000 participants. This was followed by other protests throughout the end of 2020, ranging from hundred to thousands of protesters, from Melbourne to Madrid to Montreal. Germany especially had had a particularly emboldened anti-lockdown movement: many anti- lockdown mobilisations had over 20,000 protesters attending.
There is increased worry amongst security forces and far right researchers about the influence of far right extremists within these protests. On 22 August a far right segment of the protest in Dublin armed themselves with iron bars and batons and clashed with counter protestors. Police believe some of the masked men were part of Generation Identity. Meanwhile, in a Berlin protest, hundreds of far right activists waved the black, white and red flag of the pre-1918 German Empire and stormed through a police barrier to force their way into the German parliament. The fact that the far right shows distrust in government measures is not surprising and fits well with anti-establishment narratives. This includes the sinister theory of the police state and that governments are using COVID-19 to take freedoms away. It has also positioned far right groups at the centre of these protests.
However, these are not far right only, or even far right led protests – the blurred lines between their demands and the mainstream have enlarged their pool of potential recruits. The French left-wing think tank Fondation Jean Jaurès interviewed 1,000 anti maskers on Facebook and found 50 was the average age and 63 per cent were women in France. “The epidemic has been gone for months,” one respondent said. “We are just collectively trained to submission,” she maintained. While France’s anti-mask protests have not matched Germany or the United Kingdom in numbers, people expressed four reasons for not respecting the law. The mask was judged inefficient in stopping COVID-19 transmission, there was a lack of confidence in the institutions that are pushing these protective measures, a rejection of the elite, and a rejection of the impingement on personal freedom. The protests have also allowed narratives peddled by the far right to enter the mainstream and for extreme anti-state messaging to be popularised. One alt-right figure for example painted the lockdown as a state power grab to ‘enslave’ men to society and the government – this has now become much more mainstream.
The protests also suggest a mounting concern over governments’ responses to the pandemic, coupled with the realisation that the second
wave of COVID-19 may not be the last: Scientists have warned a third wave might follow in 2021. Business owners and independent workers have also increasingly joined protests as the economic safety nets in European countries struggle to cope with the consequences of the pandemic.
In Italy for example, the number of clashes between police and protesters across cities have multiplied towards the end of 2020, despite polls showing a majority of Italians agreed with the tough measures instated.65 Meanwhile, in Spain, protests against the lockdown include both Vox and far left groups. In Germany, anti-lockdown protesters have been sharply criticised for alluding to the Second World War. One student protester took to the stage at a protest in Hanover on 21 November and likened herself to Sophie Scholl, the German student executed by the Nazis in 1943 for her role in the resistance. In another incident, an 11 years old girl at an anti-mask demo in Karlsruhe compared herself to Anne Frank because she had to celebrate her birthday quietly to avoid the neighbours hearing she had invited her friends over.
Anti-mask groups remain very active on social media, with Facebook groups across the continent attracting thousands of followers. All the reasons used for protesting have been echoed by far right politicians and online, aiding the positioning of the far right as the voice of the people. The physical protests have also brought the online movement onto the streets.
Traditional far right parties across Europe failed to make significant gains in the polls by exploiting COVID-19 fears. However, this does not take
into account their success in pushing out hate, spreading disinformation and exploiting the fear and uncertainty that the pandemic produced.
In fact, researchers have warned against the far right exploiting fears and radicalising the public since the start of the pandemic. The 2020 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) found that in North America, Western Europe, and Oceania, the threat of far right political terrorism has been rising over the past five years. This trend is likely to continue as the extended economic crisis could increase political instability and violence. A study commissioned by the German foreign ministry in late November also showed far right individuals in Europe and the US are increasingly forming global links and using the pandemic to attract anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists to their cause.
It is one of the most remarkable triumphs of the COVID-19 pandemic: The conspiracy narrative* “QAnon”, which began in the US in 2017, achieved surprising popularity in Europe in 2020, while at the same time spreading ideas totally undocked from reality and rationality. How did this happen?
In 2020 we have all become painfully aware that a pandemic is a perfect biotope for conspiracy narratives; a global and potentially fatal threat, with an unclear origin and with no proven means to fight and overcome it, is obviously a challenge for many people. If you throw lockdown measures and social stagnation into the mix, threatening the professional and private existence of many people and giving them a lot of free time with few possibilities of distraction, you’re left with a volatile situation.
Quite a few people who have struggled with boredom, who couldn’t stand the uncertainty of the pandemic, and wanted more personal attention and meaning in their lives, have found a way out of their misery on the internet, through reading, interacting with and spreading conspiracy ideologies. It is easy to see why: such ideologies have the advantage of simplifying the inexplicable because they offer easy explanations. In a conspiracy world, nothing happens by chance anymore, everything is ascribed a reason. There are clearly defined notions of good and evil, and every believer can choose and fight for what he or she considers to be good and brave. Furthermore, these narratives allow believers to see themselves as people in possession of “the truth”, giving them a perceived mission and urge to spread the narrative by “waking up” their fellow citizens.
Sounds like a sect? There certainly are similarities in their strategies. But within conspiracy ideologies, “evil” is not merely an abstract idea. Instead, real-life “culprits” get the blame, which leads to threats and attacks against very real humans. For centuries, conspiracy ideologies – whether explicitly or implicitly – have repeatedly named Jews as the source of evil in the world. Usually, they are described as greedy “elites” who want to enslave the globe. These antisemitic narratives also function as an operating system for all conspiracy narratives and were the same ones that led to the Holocaust.
In the 2020 pandemic, we are witnessing a new of the mass dissemination of these antisemitic narratives. However, not only Jews are victims of these myths. The conspiracy narratives of 2020, for example, have also increasingly directed their attention towards governments, science and the media. These bodies are ascribed an open or hidden “Jewishness” – also meant as the embodiment of modernity, freedom, equality, liberality, rationality. In 2020, the conspiracy narratives on the COVID-19 pandemic began with racism against people perceived to be Asian (as the virus originated in China, Donald Trump fuelled this sentiment by repeatedly speaking of the “China virus”), the denial of the existence of the virus or false stories about alleged cures.
However, it was not long before strategically motivated reinterpretations of these narratives emerged. Anti-democratic groups recognied an opportunity to use conspiracy narratives not only to spread uncertainty within their societies (“Does the government really want the best for us or
are we just test subjects?”), but also to spread antisemitism (“Who is behind 5G masts and global vaccination campaigns, and which new world order will be introduced along the way?”). These groups also saw an opportunity to compel people to act and legitimise violence (“Nobody is doing anything, we have to act now before it’s too late for our children – if necessary armed with guns”), to stir up nationalism (“Our values and traditions are destroyed when everyone is made equal”) and to rally against the credibility of science, medicine and the press (“Who pays them? What plans are they pursuing?”).
In order to stir up this mood, numerous “alternative media” platforms were formed. YouTube and Telegram channels in particular also experienced rapid growth in both number and reach. In addition to newly established online presences – also from celebrities who hoped for a new role and meaning in their lives within the pandemic – existing channels also discovered COVID-19 conspiracy myths for themselves and reinforced them.
For example, right-wing populists and far-right channels, believers of alternative medicine and esotericists. The common denominator of all these various groups is antisemitism and the fight against parliamentary democracy.
The fact that social networks are the main engine of these debates not only led to a rapid radicalisation of these discourses and their supporters, but also to an internationalisation. Various elements of conspiracy narratives emerged around the world – and a particularly inventive American conspiracy tale made its way to Europe: QAnon. This conspiracy narrative, originally centred on Donald Trump as a saviour in the fight against evil, AKA “the elites”, with explicit antisemitic elements (including paedophile elites who drink children’s blood), was created in the USA in 2017. An anonymous 4chan account, “Q”, claimed to be an informant from the innermost circles of the White House and provided his followers with mysteriously incomprehensible, but very meaningful short statements – known to the fans as “Q-Drops” – which could almost be described as clickbait for the conspiracy industry (“Do you feel a plot twist coming?”). Again and again, Q urged followers to wake up, think for themselves and participate. This technique brought believers to common exegesis, to a collective interpretation, welding them together to form a community – which is also reflected in the slogan “WWG1WGA” (“Where we go one, we go all”).
Through this, QAnon developed into a super- conspiracy of sorts that could easily absorb existing conspiracy narratives and integrate local conditions and situations. There was even an in-built solution within the Q-ideology for the development that its narratives became increasingly bizarre and contradictory. “Trust the Plan” is a key motto of QAnon: what you don’t understand now is still correct because there is a plan. Even months after the election, Trump fans who are believers of QAnon think that Joe Biden’s victory is either not real or part of “the plan”. These are distinctly sect-like features and demonstrate that QAnon fans have consciously shunned reality to live in a delusional world that can hardly be corrected from the outside.
The sense of community, the participative character and the integration of local players and existing conspiracy narratives make QAnon attractive to non-American anti-democratic movements in the pandemic as well. The spread of QAnon narratives began in anti-EU, Islamophobic, populist-right and far-right groups in Europe. They have enriched the antisemitic and anti-establishment narratives of the ideology with their own anti-government and anti- lockdown narratives. They mix a rebellious attitude with the certainty of victory that, as one of “the initiated”, you are doing something good for society if you behave in a self-centred, unmotivated and anti-rational manner.
Initially, QAnon spread to other English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. In the UK, it has mostly been Brexit fans who have adopted the conspiracy tale. Many groups use QAnon elements, such as the stories of global elites or paedophile rings, to discredit the government and ostensibly to criticise its anti- corona measures. However, for some British Q fans Prime Minister Boris Johnson is exempt from such criticism, alleged to have been “installed” to save the world together with Trump.
Soon after, however, the “Q-Drops” were translated into various European languages. The largest QAnon community among the non-English speaking countries currently exists in Germany. Due to the size of Telegram groups, experts assume at least 150,000 followers in Germany. The majority of the far-right and conspiracist Reichsbürger movement has put its own conspiracy stories under the Q banner; they claim that the Federal Republic of Germany is an illegal state and not sovereign, has never signed a peace treaty after the Second World War and has never given itself a constitution, which is why the “German Reich” from pre-Nazi times allegedly still exists. Reichsbürger proudly combine Q flags with “Reich” flags in black, white and red at large demonstrations in Germany and ask Donald Trump – as well as Vladimir Putin – to sign the allegedly missing peace treaty and assist with the expulsion of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is an archenemy figure for far-right groups.
The alleged child protection of Q (“Save the Children”) has also resonated strongly within the German conspiracy world. Many “Q” supporters style themselves as “concerned parents”. For decades, the alleged commitment to protecting children from paedophilia has been an issue with which the far- right scene has tried, not unsuccessfully, to impact society as a whole with, in order to spread racism (because they argue, in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, that the perpetrators are always migrants). Celebrities have also played their part: the well-known pop singer Xavier Naidoo cried in a YouTube video in May 2020 for the children who were supposedly being held captive by elites for blood production – thus making QAnon known to the broadest possible mainstream audience in Germany.
In France, the populist Yellow Vest movement, which is critical of the government, is interested in the rhetoric and narratives of QAnon – especially the conspiracy narratives of the “Deep State”, which supposedly holds the true reins of political power. “Yellow Vests against Pedocriminality” groups are also being founded, as well as groups that want to combat the “New World Order”, an antisemitic trope revolving around secret plans for a (often Jewish) world domination. Members of the French anti-vaccination scene are also vocal participants within the movement. Telegram groups have up to 20,000 fans, in which the doctor Didier Raoult, for example, who recommends hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 drug, is celebrated as an anti-lockdown fighter against President Emmanuel Macron. The French church is also suspected of being “evil”. French Q groups describe themselves for example as “a group of French, anti-globalization patriots, who campaign for the waking up of Nations”. Their stated goal is to “inform French people, and more generally, all Francophones that are manipulated by traditional media, about today’s worldly stakes”. Some Q groups use references to French royalty (e.g. the Fleur-de-Lys, a symbol of the French monarchy, or references to Joan of Arc and Charles Martel).
In Italy, it is anti-vaxxers in particular who want to use Q to rebel against the plans of the government. Here too, Telegram groups have up to 20,000 members. Q fans attack Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who allegedly wants to establish a dictatorship, and praise the far-right politician Matteo Salvini (League Party). Nationalism is also a topic under the guise of “liberating Italy from the EU”.
In the Netherlands, Islamophobic accounts that sympathise with Geert Wilders use elements of the QAnon narrative and compel their followers
to act: “Doing nothing is no longer an option”. In addition, one of the most important European QAnon influencers, Janet Ossebaard, comes from the Netherlands. In her film “Fall of the Cabal”, which went viral in March 2020, QAnon motifs and European conspiracy stories were combined for the first time.
The Q-reception in countries of the former Republic of Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia – is also interesting. Here, there are nationalist Q groups, but the largest is called “QAnon Balkan” and wants to use QAnon to unite the people in the region: “We do not divide people by religion and nation, because we are all hostages of a handful of globalists, dangerous psychopaths, who have placed their puppets at the head of our states and institutions.”
In Greece, there are not many active QAnon followers. If, however, posts use the relevant hashtags, they blend Q-narratives with anti-Roma prejudices and racism against black migrants. In Hungary, there is a strong connection to antisemitism: Q is of interest to followers of conspiracies revolving around Adrenochrome, the Illuminati, Satanism, the “Deep State” and a hatred of George Soros. In Lithuania, there is a QAnon Facebook group with 7,300 members – in a country with just 2.7 million inhabitants. In August 2020, the Canadian researcher Marc-André Argentino investigated European Q-groups in social networks. Only in Estonia, Montenegro and Albania did he find none.
The danger with QAnon and other conspiracy worlds lies, on the one hand, in the constant radicalisation, as well as the dramatisation of a compulsion or urgency to act, which can end in a readiness to use violence. Then, “Trust the Plan” suddenly becomes “Be the plan”. Even if this does not happen, however, another danger remains: once people have become accustomed to the anti-rational and anti-democratic mechanisms of conspiracy ideologies, there is a good chance that they will retain them, even if they abandon QAnon. Instead of qualified and experienced scientists, they believe in self-proclaimed video bloggers, instead of media platforms that conduct thorough research, they tend to believe in blogs that spout lies, and instead of trying to work on building a better world, they believe in “guilty people” who just need to be tried, imprisoned or defeated – and thus conveniently hand over any and all responsibility for their own lives. Many people are currently experiencing the consequences of this radicalisation in their families or within their social surroundings. They have to deal with these people on their own, because in most countries, there are no counselling services for dealing with believers of conspiracy ideologies.
* In Germany, there has been a shift in terminology when talking about conspiracy movements: The term “conspiracy theory” is being increasingly replaced by “conspiracy ideology” for a closed conspiracy dominated worldview and “conspiracy narratives” or “conspiracy myths” for single stories with conspiracist elements. This terminology is considered to be more exact, as the word “theory” contains the idea that something can be proven right or wrong by facts or empirical evidence. This is not the case when people cling to conspiracy ideologies.
Simone Rafael studied art history and journalism in Berlin. She worked as a journalist for several media in Germany before joining the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in 2002 to work for a democratic society and against far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism. She developed several web magazines and projects for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. Since 2009 she is editor-in-chief of the online magazine www.belltower.news – Network for the digital civil society. In addition, she leads the digital team of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, develops ideas against far-right extremism and hate speech on the Internet in the form of campaigns, argumentation training and project work and advises organizations, politics, media and civil society on dealing with far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism online
The brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer sparked a global response, galvanising a long-brewing resentment and anger at deep- rooted and systemic racism, as well as broader societal anti-Blackness and white supremacy. Inspired by the demonstrations across America, people have taken to the streets across Europe to show solidarity and raise awareness about racial injustice closer to home. Thousands gathered in Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam, amongst others, to join in the chants of ‘I can’t breathe’.
Like everyone else, the European far right have followed events in the US closely, seeking to exploit them for their own domestic gain and provide international support to Donald Trump and the US far right more generally. While the proliferation of continent-wide discussions about race, colonialism and imperial legacies has been a welcome one, it has also been seized upon by elements of the European far right as an opportunity to talk about race in a more exclusionary and supremacist manner.
This has happened in two ways. Firstly, existing racial nationalist activists and organisations, already preoccupied with the concept of race, have used the BLM protests to push their existing political platform to a wider audience.
Secondly, some elements of the far-right that had traditionally distanced themselves from open racial politics, promoting instead ‘cultural nationalism’, have become more willing and open to explicitly racial politics. Whether this shift is permanent will remain to be seen but in the short-to-medium term we are likely to continue to see cultural nationalism cede ground to racial nationalism within the far-right.
The most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon has been the emergence and spread of the ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan in response to BLM. First emerging in the US in 2015, it is only really this year that it has been popularised amongst the European far-right. Decontextualized, the slogan is inoffensive and comparable with ‘Black Lives Matter’.
In context it represents a negation of the structural and systemic racism implicit in the need to highlight the value of non-white lives. It allows the far right to push a racist agenda via the use of an indisputably true statement, namely that white lives do indeed matter. The requirement of explanation and context when opposing the use of ‘White Lives Matter’ is its major advantage for the far right. For people who understand racism as something that only occurs when there is direct intent, they are more likely to personalise the issue and get defensive. Where there is cognitive dissonance on people’s understanding of historical racism’s bearing on systemic discrimination today, it is also easier for people to distance themselves from the problems at hand and thus make them more likely to see nothing wrong with the use of the slogan White Lives Matter. However, while some people genuinely but mistakenly believe that BLM movement is being dismissive of white lives, many on the far-right are willfully misunderstanding the issue for political gain.
In the UK, the slogan has been adopted widely by the domestic far-right. The anti-Muslim organisation Britain First, for example, released numerous images of Lee Rigby, Emily Jones and Charlene Downes – all white murder victims – with text overlaid reading ‘White Lives Matter’. The hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter has also trended in the UK, though admittedly much of the traffic is in condemnation of its use. Similarly, the name of Lee Rigby, the British soldier murdered by al-Muhajiroun activists on the streets of London, also began to trend on Twitter. Many on the far-right have sought to draw false equivalency between the two tragedies. Katie Hopkins for example tweeted, ‘Outrage. Available in any colour, As long as it is black #leerigby’. For some, this more open discussion of race was something of a departure. Prominent figures and groups such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) and Britain First, known primarily for their Islamophobia, switched their focus to race as part of broader plans to ‘defend’ various statues and memorials, in response to protests about their links to slavery and colonialism. When a Burnley FC supporter was condemned for organising a plane to fly the ‘White Lives Matter’ slogan over Manchester City stadium, Lennon likewise lent his support. While the likes of Lennon and Britain First were far from moderate in their view prior to this, such a move is clearly worrying to the extent it can normalise more extreme far-right ideas in such a socially divided time.
The most sustained use of the slogan White Lives Matter in the UK has come from a new racial nationalist organisation called Patriotic Alternative. Formed in 2019 by Mark Collett, former Head of Publicity for the British National Party, the group has quickly grown to a following of nearly 18,000
on Facebook.130 PA is a racist far-right organisation with antisemitism at its very core. They aim to combat the “replacement and displacement” of white Britons by people who “have no right to these lands”. In this regard PA follows the broader trend in recent years amongst many in the far right of rebranding white nationalist ideology as a defense of ‘indigenous’ Europeans against their ‘Great Replacement’ from non Europeans. On 9 August Patriotic Alternative (PA) held a day of action across the UK to coincide with International Indigenous People’s Day (IPD). The event involved repeating, at a national scale, a strategy the group employed on 4 July when they displayed a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner on the top of Mam Tor, a hill in Derbyshire. The image of the banner atop Mam Tor was intended to stir up controversy and in so doing bait the media and concerned members of the public into giving the marginal group free publicity. Though press coverage was only local, the event attracted attention on social media and was successful in bringing in new supporters to PA. Due to this success they decided to hold the much larger event on IPD. The result was images of roughly 80 locations displaying the slogan, alongside related phrases, from just over 100 activists. There were also a handful of pictures submitted from abroad, including by the fascist groups Nordic Resistance Movement in Denmark and Action Zealandia in New Zealand.
Similar stunts using the White Lives Matter slogan have been seen across the continent in 2020 with reports of banners being unfurled at football games in The Czech Republic, Ukraine, Hungary and the Netherlands. One report by DW showed how “Monkey chants, a Confederate flag, “White Lives Matter” banners and even a call for the release of the policeman charged with the death of George Floyd have all been seen at football grounds in Europe over the past month.”
However, one of the most concerted and high profile campaigns in reaction to the BLM movement this year has come from the Identitarian movement across the continent. The international Identitarian movement started in France with the launch of Génération Identitaire (Generation Identity, or GI), the youth wing of the far-right Bloc Identitaire. It has since spread across the continent with affiliated groups, the most prominent of which, in addition to France, are based in Germany, Italy and Austria. At the core of identitarianism is the racist idea of ethnic-separatism which they call ‘ethnopluralism’. Similarly, they also call for ‘remigration’, a coded term for the idea of repatriation of non-white people. Part of the movement’s success has been their ability to take extreme ideas and present them in a way that sounds moderate. They affect public attitudes by promoting a lexicon which, for those unfamiliar with the contemporary far right, may have less obvious links to extreme, prejudicial and dangerous political ideas and policies. It is for this reason that they have pounced on the White Lives Matter slogan so enthusiastically this year. In June for example, GI activists in France held an anti-BLM counter protest and unfurled a huge banner reading “Justice for the victims of anti-white racism: #WhiteLivesMatters”. Similarly, in Germany, GI activists sought to capitalise on a series of large BLM demonstrations across the country by launching a campaign titled #NiemalsaufKnien (Never on our knees) in response to protestors and politicians kneeling in solidarity with the victims of racial violence.
The increased prevalence of more explicit racial politics and rhetoric is not merely anecdotal. Based on keyword matching in the tweets posted by far- right accounts monitored by HOPE not hate, we observed a notable increase in tweets discussing race during the week of George Floyd’s death a period that also become a flashpoint in the BLM movement. His death took place on the 25th of May, a Monday. That week and the following week, adjusted for total weekly tweet volume, tweets mentioning the keyword “white” increased fourfold compared to the previous two months. Specifically looking at a set of 289 accounts being part of the European Identitarian movement in mainly the UK, France, Germany and Austria, the same pattern was observed. Although the movement more frequently used the keyword “white” (and it’s French and German counterpart) than the average far-right account overall, the week of Floyd’s death saw the amount of discussion increase by approximately 370%. In both the case of identitarian accounts as well as the whole sample of far-right accounts the relative amount of tweets matching the keywords remained elevated until August 31st, the end of the period measured.
The re-racialisation of the far-right has been notably evident within the UK, though similar tactics have been observed across the European far right. By using the international discussion of racial injustice that has been spawned by the events in America, the European far-right has worked to deny or downplay the scale and uniqueness of anti-black oppression across Europe and promote their longstanding belief that the true victims of societal racism are actually white people at the hands of multicultural and politically correct elites. Egregiously, many have increasingly sought to co-opt the language of human rights and oppression, with some even publicly identifying with figures such as Martin Luther King, Gandhi or Mandela. More generally though the European far-right has seized the BLM moment this summer and sought to mirror its success and co- opt the claim of being a persecuted minority. Here we see a rhetorical gymnastics that frames far-right activism as a struggle for human rights and equality, shorn of overtly racist or crude epithets. This tactic provides a serious challenge to those opposing the far-right or seeking to moderate their activity on social media as the lexicon ostensibly appears progressive thereby requiring increased levels of context to reveal the reality of the prejudiced politics on display.
2020 got off to a tragic start with a mass shooting by a far-right terrorist in Hanau, Germany, taking the life of 10 people in an attack on two shisha bars frequented mainly by people with an immigrant background. The attack encapsulated what would later become one of the key features of far-right activism in 2020, namely the way it was motivated in-part by conspiracy theory beliefs. However, it also appeared to be a continuation of the far-right terror trend from 2018 and 2019. It was the second deadly far-right terror attack in Germany in less than half-a-year, following the attack against a synagogue and kebab shop in Halle in October 2019. The Halle attack was inspired by the Christchurch mass shooting which claimed the lives of 51 people in two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019 which inspired a series of attacks in Europe and the US during the year.
The 2020 Global Terrorism Index published by the Institute of Economics & Peace highlights that we are experiencing a peak of far-right terrorism in the West with 49 registered attacks in 2019, an upwards going trend for five consecutive years. While complete data is not available for 2020 at
the time of writing, this trend does not appear to be sustained for this year. However, there remains a large and active terror advocating far-right community. There have been many terror related arrests and multiple new groups have been formed during the year, indicating that the threat of far-right terror should not be seen as diminished.
The multiple attacks and attempts in Germany, Norway and the UK directly inspired by Christchurch demonstrated the international mindset and decentralised structure of the current far-right threat. In a recent report by HOPE not hate, Joe Mulhall wrote about how we appeared to be shifting into an increasingly ‘post-organisational’ far-right landscape, where a “decentralised collective of anonymous people” were working in “broadly the same direction and towards similar goals”, making it more difficult to monitor and undermine their activities. This has been the case for some time online, but the attacks and terror related charges brought in 2019 and 2020 has underlined that this is also a feature of the most extreme parts of the far-right. Many attacks during this period had a distinct online dimension and aimed to encouraged others to commit similar acts of terrorism (albeit without strict direction from a leadership) and were committed by perpetrators whose familiarity with online spaces where far-right terrorism was encouraged.
From the publication of documents online to specific sites outlining the details and motivations ahead of their attacks and the use of live streamed video as well as the peppering of both with vocabulary common to these spaces, the intention in many cases (made explicit in documents released ahead of the attacks) where to further cultivate online pro- terror subcultures online and encourage others to carry out such acts.
The ensuing media coverage and virally replicated memes are also often part of the perpetrators plan to sow division and hatred. Therefore, it is important to understand that far-right terror doesn’t end when the last bullet has been fired but form a part of a larger wave designed to stoke up violence and sow fear in primarily minority communities. The tactic exploits existing organisations and terror promoting networks online to maximise the reach of the attack.
Part of this network has come to be termed ‘the terrorgram’ when specifically referring to channels on chat app Telegram, one of the most active platforms for far-right terror advocating groups today. It has over time grown a specific aesthetic and language that glorifies images of war and violence. Related groups can be found across other chat apps, Instagram and fascist forums. While few of the activists taking part in these will take action, the collective serve to instill the feeling that violence is both necessary and justified while at the same time allowing people to connect, share advice and motivate each other. Creating a network of individuals with similar ideas and aspirations but without direct leadership.
That online terror advocating groups are increasingly important to the terroristic far-right is made evident in a spate of terror related arrests and charges brought in 2020 against far-right activists, as well as exposures of specific terror advocating networks.
In January 2020 an Estonian nazi made headlines as the leader of Feuerkrieg Division (FKD). The group gained notoriety on the messaging app Telegram because of its extreme content and calls for terrorism by a leader who called himself “Commander”. Commander posted pictures of himself in what looked like combat gear, bragged about his extensive collection of far-right literature and urged other users to bomb federal buildings. FKD soon had members in several European countries and North America, the fact that most members had not met each other offline did not stop them from producing propaganda in the form of stickers, posters and digital content. Police also made arrests in Croatia and Lithuania related to the FKD.
This mode of organising also allows very young people to take a central role in the most extreme segments of the far-right as long as they can produce sufficiently extreme and interesting content and are articulate enough. Unknown to the group’s members, Commander was just 13 years old and two British members of 16 and 17 years old faced charges for terror related offenses in November 2020. Another 23 year-old member of the group was convicted in Germany in December. The United Kingdom also proscribed the FKD in July 2020, making association with the group illegal.
Worryingly, FKD is not an anomaly. Similar terror advocating groups have also been formed elsewhere, following the style of FKD with decentralised, mainly online organising. One was the so-called “Moonkrieg Division” run by a 16 year old Swedish boy although the group had members in the US and Eastern Europe.
Similarly, in the UK 2020 saw the emergence of “The British Hand” which was founded by a 15 year-old boy who said he was planning to attack asylum centres alongside his fellow group members. Another member from the group is currently facing charges for planning terrorism and manufacturing weapons through 3D printing.
Groups organising primarily offline are however still a feature of the terror scene in Europe. Several members of British National Action, which was proscribed in 2018, and its splinter groups were convicted during the year in the UK. Primarily offline groups like National Action, the Scandinavian Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) and American AtomWaffen Division also provide a blueprint and inspiration for newer online groups. FKD for example made explicit references to AtomWaffen Division and its members engaged in the NRM’s public chats on Telegram.
Another trend in 2020 was the continued increase in activists using the label “eco-fascist”. The murderers in Christchurch as well as the one in El Paso, USA in March and August 2019 explained their activism in-part through concern for the environment. “Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment”, wrote the Christchurch shooter in his manifesto.
On 30 October 2019 two men burnt down a mink farm in the south of Sweden, with an eco-fascist nazi terror group called “The Green Bridgade” taking responsibility for the arson. The group, which is similar to aforementioned terror advocating groups on social media encourage violence as necessary and has close ties to mainly US based nazi terror group The Base but adds its focus on the environment. It had members in the UK and notably put up propaganda posters there as well. It disbanded in March 2020 but similar, though often short-lived, groups have appeared throughout 2020.
Alongside the attack in Hanau, in which conspiracy theory seemed to have formed part of the perpetrators motivations. Attacks by proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory have also taken place in the US and Canada. In Germany, another conspiracy theory of a coming “Day X” where supposedly corrupt political leaders, migrants and Jews were to be killed has found support within the police and military. Multiple individuals have been arrested after acquiring material and assembling lists of targets. These show how trends in far-right terrorism clearly follow broader trends in the far-right and in society at large. Currently conspiracy theories plays an important role and eco-fascism fits well with the anti-globalism already found in the far-right.
As public concern with legitimate environmental issues continues to grow, the far-right has also sought to capitalise on this shift in awareness, with far-right populist parties such as France’s National Rally attempting to rebrand themselves with a green tinge. At the most extreme it has become combined with violence, strong veins of anti-humanism, racism cloaked in nature mysticism and notions of “natural order”. While the movement remains small, as the topic continues to be salient, it carries with it a potential for further violence.
To understand the threat of far-right violence, merely tracking attacks designated as acts of terrorism or terror related criminal charges is insufficient. This is especially true in international comparisons where legal frameworks differ. The form violence takes might also different depending on context.
Across Europe there are a range of organisations, events and individuals that are part of the most extreme part of the far right that views violence as justified or necessary. For these groups, almost all kinds of violence is seen as self-defence against some kind of outside invader or internal corrupt element. Simultaneously violence can also be glorified because it is seen as part of other ideals, such as that of a masculine warrior or fighter especially evident in far-right martial arts groups. While most actors in this milieu do not actually engage in what is commonly labelled terrorism, they do engage in in other forms of direct violence.
Examples of this include attacks and arson on refugee housing and street violence, including attacks on ideological opponents and minorities. While criminal, these actions often do not reach the threshold to be described legally as terrorism but still spread fear in affected communities . For example, in July a black NHS employee in Bristol, UK was hit deliberately by a car in what Police deemed a racially-aggravated attack because of the language used by the perpetrator. In far-right chat groups the victim was described as a gangster and criminal and the attack was quickly justified through the idea that black men in Britain sexually abused white women.
Other relatively common forms of violence with potential deadly outcome that are not identified as acts of terrorism are arson attacks against asylum centres and refugee accommodation. In 2015 and 2016, during the increase in migration because of the war in Syria, attacks were common on refugee centres. Finland is a particularly bad example with 40 arson attacks against refugee centres in 2015 and 2016.
In addition to new and online far-right terror networks we have also seen more traditional far- right organisations encouraged violence, implicitly and explicitly. Related to attacks against refugee centres it is notable how the Sweden Democrats in 2016 published lists marking out the location of them, similar to what took place in the UK in 2020 where lists of hotels housing migrants were spread on far-right social media channels and several were visited by the leader Paul Golding and activists from Britain First.
This is a useful reminder that while the internet has become a central space for extreme far-right networks to organise, there continues to be threat from more traditional offline networks and groups. These include concerts, martial arts tournaments and conferences that serve to connect activists, disseminate propaganda, recruit and radicalise for violence. Such events include the concert organised by the French branch of Blood and Honour named “Call of Terror” in February 2020 and the yearly nazi martial arts festival “Kampf der Nibelungen” in Germany.
These examples highlight how the far-right terror threat is complex and cannot be seen as completely distinct from adjacent parts of the far right. While it is only a small fraction of the movement that is willing to engage in outright terrorism, several parts of the movement serve to justify violence or serve to make the threshold to perpetrating violence smaller. These include clearly definable organisations with a leadership structure and name, offline events and meetups but also networks of chat rooms and live streams that all function differently but play a role in justifying violence.
Far-right ideas and politics are deeply embedded in the Western Balkans and pose a serious threat to the stability of the region. They accentuate ethnic and religious divisions, undermine civic movements, and delegitimise local democratic institutions and their international sponsors.
This article investigates the programmatic and ideological analogies between different far-right organisations in the region and the way in which they reflect the politics of mainstream parties. Ideas and ambitions that are considered prerogatives of the far-right in Western Europe, have been a dominant factor in the Balkans during the last four decades. Far-right politics are ubiquitous and mobilise several layers of society. The phenomenon should therefore be analysed within a broader political scope. This research does not aim at providing an exhaustive classification of the groups that may be classified claims and revanchist sentiments that determined the “normalisation” of nationalism in the regional political framework. Far-right leanings have also been propelled by diaspora communities which gave support to the parties in conflict. The experience of migration contributed to enhance the sense of national belonging138 and in some cases to emphasise the racist content of the national narratives. One of the earliest Albanian affiliation to neo-fascist ideology seems to have occurred in the context of the Italian National-Socialist Black Metal (NSBM) scene.
In order to understand the pervasiveness of far- right ideas in the WB, I will analyse far-right leanings by proceeding from its “periphery”, that
is underground movements, toward its “core”, that is mainstream parties. Some of the most radical expressions of the far-right have been endorsed by Srbska Akcija/ Serbian Action (SA), Posizioni i Tretë Shqiptar/ Albanian Third Position (ATP) and Bosanski Pokret Nacionalnog Ponosa/ Bosnian National Pride Movement (BPNP). SA was founded in 2010, but its origins date back to the late 1990s when an homonymous fanzine was published in Belgrade. The original idea of Srbska Akcija was to combine Serbian orthodox nationalism with the skinhead subculture.140 BPNP exists since 2009 whereas ATP was founded in May 2019.
In analogy to populist parties, these Balkan far- right groups refuse to be identified as either right or left-wing. They relate to “third way” doctrines that were conceived in the 1920s as a response to bolshevism and liberal capitalism. These groups draw inspiration from historical characters of the interwar and World War II periods who sympathised or collaborated with fascist governments. Evocating the thought of Julius Evola, Oswald Spengler and Carl Schmitt, third way activists advocate the return to tradition as the only possible means to restore authentic national and European values.
Far-right groups do not disclose the names of their members and it is difficult to know their quantitative figures. Judging by the pictures that they have published, they should not be very numerous. SA is most likely the larger organization, whereas ATP and BPNP probably have a small number of active members that is dedicated to the propaganda. Their objective is not to become parties that run for elections and therefore they are not interested in gaining the support of the masses. Third way activists aim at mobilising individuals disposed and prepared to undertake specific tasks. They try to captivate young people by deploying contemporary far-right imagery and sounds.
Beside keeping the law at bay, secrecy can be a strategy that aims at increasing the appeal of the groups. The organizational structure of BPNP is inspired by secret societies and obliges all members to keep silence about the activities. ATP draws its name and political ideology from the former Italian neo-fascist group Terza Posizione144 whose members were associated with terrorist groups such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari (NAR). In analogy to the other far-right groups, SA does not openly advocate the use of violence, unless it is for “self-defence” purposes. However, videos that glorify street riots are posted on a YouTube account affiliated to SA. According to a 2015 interview, at least one member of the organisation has joined the Novorossiya forces to fight against the Kiev government in Ukraine.
Preservation and protection of the national group and traditions are the core politics of third way movements. The nation is a community determined by common spirit and blood which was born from race. The far-right acknowledges that each race has its own values and worldviews. Racial relativism is advocated as the only way to preserve social harmony against the dangers of mixing. When George Floyd was killed, SA stated that it was a brutal crime that needed to be punished. However, it also pointed out that the “global left” and Soros exploited the case to create chaos. According to SA, racial hatred is evil, but racial mixing inevitably leads to hatred. Each race has its organic laws and its living space in which it can prosper. The group’s motto is: “0% hate, 100% identity”.
The third way ethics imply care for fellow nation and race members, as well as for the environment and other living beings. Such ethics assert that Nature should be loved because it is God’s creation, and that national-socialism is the only authentic green ideology because it preserves biodiversity, even among people.153 Albanian far- right activists point out the damage caused to the environment by capitalist exploitation. They expose “pseudo-ecologists” like Greta Thunberg and suggest reading authors such as Linkola and controversial NSBM musician Varg Vikernes in order to know about true ecology.
The care for nature also implies the care of one’s own body that has the function to protect and regenerate the race. Far-right activists complain about the loss of virility that affects contemporary men who have become chubby and fat. In order to recover the muscular tone, they encourage people to practice sports, but some activists think that supposedly ‘Zionist practices’ such as body-building must be avoided. BPNP warns to stay away from drugs and alcohol and claims that Israeli mafia sells ecstasy with the deliberate purpose of destroying the European youth.
When dealing with health issues, the far-right leans toward conspiracy perhaps more than it does when it engages with historical issues. There are actually several groups that spread QAnon-like stories in Serbia, and SA is one of them. In an article published in May 2020, the activists explained that “Pizzagate” was a circle of child trafficking, paedophilia and satanic rituals that involved Jeffrey Epstein, Donald Trump, the Clintons and Marina Abramović.
Children’s health has a strong affective appeal that is also used by mainstream politics in order to reach the masses. The coalition that won the last Serbian elections was called Za našu decu/ for our children. No-vax campaigns are almost exclusively based on people’s concerns for children’s health. Conspiracy theorists and no-vax advocates with far-right leanings such as Jovana Stojković in Serbia and Alfred Cako in Albania have thousands of social media followers. The current Covid-19 crisis has contributed to increase their popularity. The attitude of third way activists toward the pandemic is not univocal. They acknowledge the danger of the virus, but have also criticised governments for limiting freedoms.
Care is often articulated as humanitarian aid. Right-wing football ultras in Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia donate blood and support fund raising for people in need. Similar initiatives are carried out in Bosnian Facebook pages such as Ljiljani Bosanski that combine Islamic and nationalist propaganda. Pictures of persons who suffer because of the lack of vital needs counterbalance the propagandistic images spread by local politicians such as Tirana mayor Erjon Veliaj who has recently been posting pictures of nice, trendy and seemingly wealthy people
that represent a small portion of society. BPNP provides a list of humanitarian actions that are supported by the organisation. This includes
food sharing, neighbourhood patrolling and blood donation. Some far-right groups have made of the humanitarian cause their main raison d’étre. The Pokret Levijatan/ Leviathan Movement, was founded in 2015 to protect animal rights before turning into a political party. One of their main humanitarian actions consist in patrolling Belgrade at night to harass migrants and other marginalised persons.
The emphasis on protecting traditional values turns into hatred toward those who are considered a threat to them. Marxism, feminism and homosexuality are considered against the laws of nature. Feminism is defined as a mental disease,164 whereas homosexuality is associated
to paedophilia and perversion. One of SA’s most frequent activities involves disturbing LGBTQ manifestations. The passage of African and Middle Eastern migrants in the Balkans has accentuated local far-right trends almost everywhere in the region. In analogy to Western European groups, WB far-right activists corroborate the myth of ethnic and racial replacement. SA invokes the closure of borders because migrants endanger public security. A blog and Facebook page named brerore were opened in late 2018, by Albanian right-wing activists in order to propagandise radical nationalist ideas. The group uses the same symbol of the Italian right-wing party Lega. Some of the authors of the blog have progressively embraced aggressive attitudes toward migrants and they blame “sorosians”, communists and religious fanatics for carrying out population exchange between continents.
The passage from socialism to democracy has freed people from dictatorships, but has failed to produce uniform wealth in the region. It has instead created profound social inequalities that have a strong and clearly visible impact on the everyday life of individuals and families. According to the far-right, democracy is a “lie”, an “illusion” and a “cruel joke [maskarallëk]” because it tells people that they enjoy equal rights when they don’t. Fascism stands for the rejection of materialist values and strives to make man understand that money, social Darwinism, and communist utopias are fake gods that must be destroyed. The third way aims at abolishing conventional democracy in order to establish a corporatist welfare state. The latter will free people from plutocracy173 and neo/liberal policies.
Mainstream parties advocate democratic values, but they share similar conceptions about the effects of neoliberal politics. The Savez Nezavisnih Socijaldemokrata (SNSD) which is the main partyof Bosnia-Herzegovina’s autonomous unit, the Republika Srpska, stresses that globalisation and liberal capitalism have failed. Lëvizja Vetëvendosje (LV) that won the Kosovo elections in 2019, and SA activists might have diametrically opposed views on Kosovo’s status, but they both believe that “neoliberalism” is an agent of political and economic chaos. In analogy to third way movements, LV advocates the formation of a “social” state that will redistribute wealth. The party agenda envisions the nationalization of resources that have irregularly been privatised during the transition years.
Far-right activists refuse to adopt political models that they believe were imposed by foreign powers. They oppose both “multiculturalism”, which in their view is the expression of a moral corruption, and “civic nationalism” which they see as an attempt to create nations with members that are not biologically related to each other. Regional mainstream parties share similar views. According to SNSD, national identity is neither useless nor obsolete whereas multiculturalism was a big lie. The party program stresses that Republika Srpska should be founded on a clearly defined sense of belonging.
The debate concerning the founding principles of citizenship is particularly relevant in Bosnia- Herzegovina and in Kosovo where international actors have played a major role in the post-conflict state-building process. In Bosnia, the main party of the Bosniak community, the Stranka Demokratske Akcije (SDA), calls for the constitution of a supranational Bosnian-Herzegovinian identity based on civic interests. The main Croat party of the Bosnian autonomous unit Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ) is against the concept of “civic universalism” and stands for “ethnic federalism”. In a similar way, LV in Kosovo rejects Athisaari’s plan because it imposes a multi-ethnic society that, in their opinion, treats Serbs as a privileged minority. In analogy to SNSD, LV refuses the idea that national identity is obsolete and asks that if the concept of nation-state is so outdated why only Kosovo has to be a multi- ethnic state. The party has criticized the former chief of the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) Yves de Kermabon, stating that if he liked multi-ethnic states, he could turn (his homeland) France into one.
Religious radicalism is usually associated to Balkan Muslims because researchers tend to look at the phenomenon mostly from a global perspective. A local gaze suggests that the rise of radicalism might as well be the outcome of far-right ideologies, which consider religion as an essential tool to restore traditional values.
Most Serbian far-right organisations place Christian Orthodoxy as the basis of their political projects. SA activists describe themselves as an army devoted to Orthodox faith. Religion has recently been at the centre of attention in Montenegro as in the end of 2019, the government passed a law on religious freedoms that threatened to dispossess the Serbian Orthodox Church of its properties. The event accentuated the conflict between the two main nationalist trends in Montenegro: one that advocates the belonging of Montenegrins to the Serbian national identity, and the other that promotes Montenegrin identity as a distinct national entity.
Separatist drifts are also stimulated by the existence of two churches. The Serbian Orthodox Church is entitled to administer the eparchy of Montenegro, but in 1993 a schism occurred which led to the restoration of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church that has not been recognised by the Patriarchate.187 The last elections in August 2020, were won by the coalition Demokratski Front (DF) which is led by the pro-Serbian Party Nova Srpska Demokratija (NOVA). The party program emphasises that the Serbian Orthodox Church has a special role in the national and spiritual upbringing of “our people”. The vision of NOVA coincides at least in part with the ideas of underground far-right groups such as Bunt Crna Gora that runs the homonymous Instagram and Facebook pages, and a blog. According to an interview, Bunt (revolt) was founded as a reaction to the abovementioned law on religious freedoms. The members preserve anonymity and declare that they do not belong to any party. Serbian nationalism is opposed by far-right Montenegrin groups, such as the one that runs the Facebook page Komiti-Zelenaski Pokret (KZP). The latter rejects any affiliation to Serbs and professes loyalty to the Montenegrin Orthodox Church.191 In response to the Serbian appeals for brotherhood, KZP publishes crude old pictures of Montenegrin independence fighters killed by Belgrade forces accompanied by the words “we have never been brothers (…)”. Recent events have also produced repercussions for Muslim-Christian relations. Soon after the Montenegrin elections, Serbian nationalists attacked exponents of the Muslim (Bosniak) community in Pljevlja. In response, a car parade was organised in Sarajevo with the call “brothers you are not alone”.
Unlike Serbs, Albanians and Bosnians practice different religions and the far-right has proposed alternative ways of spiritual transcendence. In order to generate a sense of common belonging, BPNP professes naturalism. In their view, national socialism is founded on the laws of nature and has therefore a clear concept of right and wrong.
ATP calls for the rejection of all “Abrahamic” faiths because they are responsible for the European decay. The far-right in Albania is averse to Islamic faith since, in their opinion, it does do not allow believers to be part of a nation. Albanians feel that Islam draws antipathies upon them from Western Europe. These anxieties are based on the fact that radical trends have lately become more visible. Many Albanians in different WB states supported the recent anti-French campaign advocated by Erdogan. Others cynically grinned to the Vienna attack of November 2020, which was carried out by a terrorist with an Albanian background. In order to extinguish religious divisions, the ATP promotes paganism, which is portrayed as the true faith of Albanians and of their Illyrian ancestors. Far- right activists have criticized the government for hosting Iranian MEK dissidents in Albania. They fear that the presence of Iranian dissidents will accentuate Islamic radicalism, and jeopardise the overall security of the country since it creates the preconditions for a proxy war with Teheran.
Most WB countries have territorial issues with their neighbours and far-right groups are strong advocates of irredentist programs. BPNP declares that the national-socialist state should annex territories that were detached from Bosnia such as the Sandžak that is part of Serbia. ATP claims the Albanianness of Kosovo and insists on referring to the region as Dardania, as it was called in antiquity instead of Kosovo which is a Slavic word that was adopted later. Serbian far-right activists employ the term “Kosovo i Metohija” to define Kosovo which they see as part of Serbia, notwithstanding the declaration of independence of 2008. Beside Kosovo, SA claims Montenegro, Krajina, Slavonia and Dalmatia which are parts of Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and “South Serbia”, that is North Macedonia.
Semantics are important in the region because language is a tool of appropriation of space through ethnocentric historical narratives. This is particularly the case of the Greek-Macedonian controversy concerning the name of Macedonia and the one between the latter and Bulgaria concerning Macedonian identity and language. The first question was resolved with the change of name of the Republic of Macedonia into Republic of North Macedonia. The second is still pending and has led to a stop of North Macedonian talks for EU accession after Sofia’s veto in November 2020.
The Macedonian case shows that national issues of mainstream politics have a relevant impact on the region. Sometimes territorial ambitions advanced by mainstream parties are even bigger than those of underground movements. Whereas ATP is mostly concerned with Kosovo, the Albanian party with parliamentary representatives Partia Drejtësi, Integrim, Unitet (PDIU), advocates the constitution of an “Economic Commonwealth” between Albania and the Albanian-speaking regions of the other Balkan states (Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Greece). The purpose of the project is to gradually achieve the full integration the Albanian people.
The programs of other regional mainstream parties point at the same goal. SDA states that it aims at defending the rights and national interests of Bosniaks that live in other countries of the region. Vnatrešna Makedonska Revolucionerna Organizacija – Demokratska Partija za Makedonsko Nacionalno Edinstvo (VMRO – DPMNE) in North Macedonia wants to reach a border agreement in order to facilitate connections between “Macedonians” in Macedonia and in Golo Brdo without even mentioning that the latter region is in Albania. A similar agenda is established for the Kosovo and Bulgarian sides of the borders.
Analogous trends characterise Serbian politics. The main Serbian party in Serbia, the Srpska Napredna Stranka (SNS), considers Kosovo as part of the national territory and advocates closer political and economic relations with Republika Srpska. SNSD leader Milorad Dodik has been advocating the independence of Republika Srpska from Bosnia and its union to Serbia for years. Building tighter relations with Serbia is also one of the key objectives of NOVA in Montenegro, which aims to enhance the natural, historical and business connections between the countries. The party pursues a similar policy with Republika Srpska. Rumours have started to circulate about the endeavours of Republika Srpska, suggesting its ambition of annexing the coastal Montenegrin town of Sutorina to Bosnia. Serbian politician Aleksander Djurdjev believes that Belgrade should support the initiative. The news worried the KZP. Novak Adzić, a member of the Montenegrin opposition, claimed that country risks turning into a Republika Srpska on the sea, that is a state dominated by Serbian nationalism.
Balkan regional rivalries that are normally contained within the limits of cyber space, tend to invest the physical space in contexts where nationalists of different nations live side by side. Currently, this especially concerns Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Graffiti, parades, monuments, pyro shows, ostentation of national and religious symbols, and intimidations of real or fabricated opponents are some of the actions undertaken by nationalist and far-right groups to demarcate the belonging of contended spaces.
FK Shkupi ultras Shvercerat write on walls and banners: “Skopje is Albania too”. At the end of 2019, North Macedonian supporters attacked Kosovo fans with knives after a football match. FK Vardar ultras Komiti expressed their disappointment toward Albanians in the country stating that the Macedonian people is living in a regime of apartheid because they are dominated by the (Albanian) minority.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina several roads and public buildings bear the names of war criminals. A monument dedicated to Croat war victims in Bosača was vandalized by someone who depicted the symbol of the Bosnian army on it. National resentments are deliberately exacerbated in Facebook pages such as Hrvatsko Viječe Obrane, Vojska Republike Srpske and Armija Republike Bosne i Hrecegovine that glorify and vilify the factions that confronted each other in the 1992-1995 civil war. There are no fancy photoshopped pictures with neon light effects in these Facebook profiles, but raw images portraying young man and woman who have perished in battle, the faces of their parents who have to live with the pain, and figures and information about killing, defending and betrayal.
Following the results of Montenegrin elections in August 2020, the former Bishop of Serbian Orthodox Church Amfilohije, who recently passed away, declared that he intended to undertake construction works of sacred sites in Lovčen and Cetinje. Part of the Montenegrin press saw this project as the implementation of the old Serbian nationalist agenda known as Načertanije. Montenegrin nationalists held up a banner as a warning that they will not allow such an enterprise. The current political situation is stimulating national animosities also in other fronts. Albanian nationalism has never been particularly extreme in Montenegro although there have been manifestations of revisionist trends.
In analogy to Albanians in North Macedonia, the Albanian minority in Montenegro celebrates the national festivities with national symbols, manifestations and noisy car parades. The Facebook page “Albanians in Montenegro” glorifies historical characters who fought against the annexation of allegedly “Albanian” territories by Montenegro when they still belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Far-right Serbian nationalist groups such as Bunt Crna Gora stigmatize these forms of nationalist externalisations in order to present the Albanian minority as a threat.
Local politicians have carried out some endeavours to enhance regional economy and overcome tensions due to border disputes through the so-called “Mini-Schengen” initiative. The latter envisages the free mobility of people and goods in all WB states. The project has been mainly promoted by the Prime Ministers of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, and has drawn criticism from both right-wing and centrists. The former consider it to be a betrayal of national interests, and the latter see it as a bland alternative to the EU accession. Far-right activists position themselves against any inter-Balkan cooperation that does not imply the recognition of their maximalist claims. When Serbia and Kosovo signed an agreement in Washington in September 2020, both ATP and SA declared it was “scandalous”. They thought that Trump used Vučić and Hoti for the benefit of America, Zionism and pederasty/moral degeneration.
Notwithstanding regional rivalries, third way activists have several programmatic points in common. Firstly, they distrust regional and international actors such as local governments, the USA, the EU, Putin and/or Russia, and Turkey. Moreover, they are equally engaged in fighting against alleged enemies of tradition such as LGBTQ movements, “sorosians”, migrants, Muslims, Marxists and Zionism. Finally, they believe that the long-term purpose of their political projections should be devised on the principle of racial solidarity. Unlike conventional nationalist parties who are mainly focused on territorial claims and minority rights disputes, contingent challenges and race ideology are factors that allow third way activists to overcome divergences and seek for each other’s collaboration.
Far-right trends in the Balkans are currently in ferment. A generation of people born during the end of the socialist/communist regimes or in the transition period is growing tired of waiting for a social development that never comes or that does not satisfy their expectations. This generation, which was projected toward emigration to Western Europe to study and work, now perceives the arrival of other migrants as competition, since in their view, they would further limit their chances for individual affirmation.
Third way ideology redefines regional and continental hierarchies according to a biological/racist concept. Moreover, by emphasising anti-capitalist ethics, it promises to free people from the frustrations of consumerism. Since local governments and international institutions find it difficult to curb criminal networks and corruption, far-right activists feel legitimated to present themselves as champions of morality.
The analogies between third way ideology and parliamentary parties has shown that underground politics have a relevant influence on mainstream parties. Social networks, blogs, underground circles (in the Balkans or abroad), religious institutions, stadiums, streets and public squares are the places where far-right activists come in contact with larger parts of the population. The comparison between mainstream parties and far-right groups suggests that the main political conflict does not concern relations between neighbours as much as it concerns relations between local agents and what they perceive to be the main causes of their problems such as “neoliberalism”, “globalism” and their cultural facets. The far-right groups push people to believe that the societies in which they live need radical structural changes and portray themselves as agents of a new anti-colonial struggle.
In the last parliamentary election in October 2019, the far-right coalition party Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość gained 6.8% of the vote, gaining them 11 seats in Parliament. In October 2020, Konfereracja put forward its candidate for presidential elections – Krzysztof Bosak. He achieved a similar result as the parliamentary election, but importantly was chosen by 20% of voters under the age of 30.
After these election results, the politicians of Konfederacja started became more visible on the political scene and media, including both public media (TVP Info) and liberal private media rather than just alternative, non-mainstream media as previously. This has allowed them to promote their ideas to a broader audience. At the same time, they have modified their rhetoric to be less overtly radical.
In addition, Konfederacja is increasingly active on social media, with its follower counts and engagement steadily increasing. According to the research done by journalists of OKO.Press, Konfederacja’s Facebook page was the only one to increase in reach and activity in what would otherwise have been a post-election lull. It gained 2.8 million reactions between July and September, far higher than that of other political parties such as Civic Platforms or Law and Justice, which received much higher vote shares.
The most strong and most visible far-right narratives in Poland are those that concern the issue of LGBT rights and gender equality. One can say that, in general, all right wing politicians are against giving equal rights to the LGBT community and against women rights and gender equality. We can see, however, a kind of diversity among them. In the political program of Konfederacja, the issues of gender and LGBT rights were linked with the issue of reform of educational system and the rights of the parents to educate their children in their own way, such as suggesting that schools should be private and the parents should decide to which kind of schools they want to send children – these promoting “gender ideology” or “traditional values”. There is also a very strong narrative based on religious argumentation – LGBT and gender equality is against a so-called “natural world order”, and thus cannot be accepted by Catholics. There are also some ideas to introduce a constitutional ban on civil partnerships. There are also some, like Konfederacja parliamentarian Grzegorz Brown who have expressed support for making homosexuality illegal.
The refugees/migration issue is much less visible in comparison to the situation five years ago, but it still occurs and contains very strong anti-Islamic traits, with Islam portrayed as a threat to Polish culture, religion, public order and as source of terrorism. Far- right media frequently publish articles about crimes committed by migrants or other social problems as being the results of liberal migration policy. Along those lines, the theme of this year’s Polish Independence March, the largest far-right gathering in Europe which counts numerous Konfederacja activists among its organisers, was “Our civilization, our principles”.
Konfederacja has attempted to capitalise on the pandemic by crticising the measures taken by the government, mainly the restrictions on businesses and movement, as well as lack of sufficient support for small businesses. Some of them, including one of the leader of Konfederacja Grzegorz Braun, have publicly questioned the existence of the pandemic and took part in the demonstrations against Covid- related restrictions both in Poland and Berlin. This agenda has recently included anti-vaccine rhetoric.
Having become a parliamentary party, Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość will attempt to strengthen its position in the political mainstream and build their regional structures such as local branches and social clubs. They will also try to attract more middle class voters that are disappointed by the current government, and the worsening economic situation of many people will likely result in a greater interest in radical movements.
Written by Agnieszka Mikulska-Jolles
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