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“Through struggle, we forge ourselves into greater men”

Patrik Hermansson charts the growth of fascist fitness groups. Fitness advice is a growing focus for the far right in Britain and internationally. The “fitness”…

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Chapter : “Through struggle, we forge ourselves into greater men”

Patrik Hermansson charts the growth of fascist fitness groups.

Fitness advice is a growing focus for the far right in Britain and internationally. The “fitness” subculture is a potential entryway into far-right groups and radicalisation. While once a staple of 4chan’s /pol/ board, more recently explicitly fascist British fitness groups have grown in popularity on chat app Telegram, and active communities have sprung up focused on the topic. Some of the largest are directly connected to Britain’s largest extreme right group, Patriotic Alternative.

The language in these “fascist fitness” chat groups is often indistinguishable with that on any other fitness blog or Instagram post: increase your protein intake, avoid bread, work out regularly, and sleep properly.

The tone is encouraging and accepting when members post images of their half-naked bodies, and ask for advice on both how to lose weight and gain muscle. Some look like avid gym-goers; others have just started and want to lose weight. Despite being far away from what one imagines as the “ideal” of the fascist man, these individuals are encouraged and welcomed into the closed chat groups in which fascist fitness activists congregate.

However, the photos of bare torsos are usually anonymised with stickers of Hitler’s face over each poster’s face, and between the fitness and weight loss advice is sandwiched the fascist propaganda. Both texts and promotion of far-right groups such as Patriotic Alternative (PA) are common. In other messages, more sinister reasons for the self-improvement projects reveal themselves. One admin of a group posted a picture of himself in a gym mirror with the message: “training to stop a bus loaded with Soros paid protesters”.

“Defend your race, defend your land, achieve immortality”

“Ready to join the SS,” writes one anonymous user after posting a shirtless picture of himself in the gym mirror. Other posts detail workout plans alongside questions on how to make improvements. One man posts before and after pictures of himself, saying: “Currently weight 279 so in total I’ve lost 25 lbs” and receives encouraging responses from the other members, including: “NEVER STOP. SIEG HEIL.”

The tone is accepting towards group members, but virulently hostile to political opponents. “I hate soy boys. Vegetarianism is an eating disorder,” writes one user, using the pejorative term “soy boy” to refer to other men who supposedly lack masculine characteristics. It’s common to see accusations of other men also being “low T”, meaning having low levels of testosterone. Physical fitness in these groups is not just about the individual, but a way for the members to differentiate themselves from what they view as a “weak” and “effeminate” political establishment.

Since its inception, fascism has defined itself in opposition to what it views as the decadence as well as “softness” of modernity. Instead, fascist groups and individuals have promoted physical strength, glorified struggle and underlined traditional gender roles – to counter what they view as the feminisation of men. This conspiratorial world view imagines that a supposedly softened and disorganised society opens up to the influence of sinister forces, and to resolve a healthy, physically and mentally strong population is required in response.

Ultimately, in the fascist view, the health of the nation is defined by the health of its people and how closely these reflect the ideals of purity and strength. At its worst this process leads to purging of what fascists consider impure groups: non-whites, those with disabilities and other examples of what they consider “degeneracy”.

Mussolini famously glorified violence and favoured it above reason and debate, answering a question about what his party programme was in 1920 by saying: “The Democrats of Il Mondo want to know our programme? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better”. Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF) emphasised the importance of physical fitness of its members. The party organised sports clubs and its members’ magazine Action ran a weekly column called “How to Keep Fit” with fitness advice. It advocated for a reshaping of the educational system with a new emphasis on fitness, Mosley wrote in Action that from age seven to 14, school would “mainly be devoted to physique building and medical supervision”. Another issue from 1938 read: “Right up to the age of 18 the duty of building a child’s body will be as great a preoccupation of the nation as the building of its mind”.

This connection between the health of the nation and its people remains today. Researcher on the far right, Ben Elley, argues that in far-right self-improvement groups, personal fitness is not just for one’s own benefit but is part of a political struggle. By becoming physically stronger they believe they can prevent the white race from being destroyed. Elley writes that self-improvement “become part of a righteous Manichean battle, greatly distorting the balance of input and reward that might normally be expected. Small personal victories […] are incentivised as victories on the cultural battlefield”.

Fascist fitness groups on Telegram conceptualise their members’ bodies as a battleground. The group’s members urge each other to get more physically fit by lifting weights and exercising and making such exercise part of their far-right activism. “When you lift alone, you lift with Hitler”, one admin writes. It adds meaning to what would otherwise be a purely individual project. When viewed as part of a political project, lifting weights is a way to become a “hero” through pain and struggle.

This worldview is gendered, of course. German sociologist Klaus Theweleit argued that part of the fascist attraction to hardening oneself physically as well as mentally came from “misogyny or flight from the feminine, manifesting itself in a pathological fear of being engulfed by anything in external reality associated with softness”. Several fitness-focused far-right groups only allow men as members and in Telegram chats, women are mostly relegated to a back seat, because femininity is what its members attempt to distance themselves from.

White Stag: “Hail push-ups. Screw politics”

One of the groups which has gone furthest in its emphasis on physical fitness is White Stag Athletic Club (WSAC), which has approximately 30 members. Formed in the last two years by pseudonymous Yorkshire-based security guard “Sarge”, it seeks to “fight degeneracy through honour, tradition, and brotherhood”.

“Sarge”

“Through this struggle, we forge ourselves into greater men,” its introductory message says. In 2021, the group amped up its recruitment efforts and started to recruit individuals via a Telegram channel. Sarge, who is also connected to Patriotic Alternative, is an administrator for another large fitness chat, which he has also used to recruit. Sarge previously went by the name “Ash” and was one of the co-founders of the fascist podcast The Absolute State of Britain, meaning there is little doubt of the new group’s ideological direction.

WSAC is an interesting case study because of its combination of fascist worldview with extreme emphasis on physical fitness alongside – in its own words – a rejection of organised politics as a way to effect change. Instead, it aims to produce hardened men and “better fathers than they had” themselves. Or so says Sarge, who claims to be a father to one child himself.

The tight-knit, secretive group organises local meet ups and aims to do a hike each year with all of its members. The hike is weighted, meaning participants have to carry a weighted backpack. This year’s hike took place on 15 January in Pen-y-ghent in Yorkshire. Alongside the hike, members are eventually expected to take part in fights with one other member, demonstrating the directly violent element of fascist fitness groups.

Throughout the year, members commit to doing a daily exercise programme designed by one of its leaders. This is updated regularly and published in a closed group on encrypted chat app Wickr. Once completed, members write “Hail Victory” in a closed chat group.

Despite its rejection of politics, WSAC’s fascism is demonstrated in the chat regularly. Members post pictures of swastika flags and when Kyle Rittenhouse, an American who shot and killed two anti-racist protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on 25 August 2020, was found not guilty in November 2021 the group erupted in celebration. “Hail Kyle” posted multiple users.

Violence and brotherhood

Positioning physical fitness as part of a wider political struggle adds significance to an otherwise quite lonely activity, allowing groups like WSAC to form and grow around this shared identity and activity. This might be part of the reason why such groups have appeared and have risen in popularity during the pandemic. Disconnected physically, many have looked to online communities for connection, and when it comes to the far right, also ways to engage and push forward the aims of the movement under the constraints of social distancing restrictions. Physical exercise and self-improvement more generally can help satisfy the urge to do something practical, that goes beyond simply talking online, for the movement’s activists (while also being relatively low risk).

The danger of these groups lies, firstly, in their emphasis on transforming activists into soldiers that might be motivated to commit acts of violence. And, secondly, in the community they create where members start to associate, sometimes real, positive change in their lives with fascism.

An intrinsic part of the “self-improvement” message of these groups is to increase one’s capacity for violence. WSAC and many groups before it push their members not just to be physically fit but also to learn how to fight. In Telegram groups, American and European fight groups such as the Rise Above Movement (RAM) are often glorified. WSAC has also glorified RAM. Four members of RAM were arrested in 2018 for inciting and participating in violent acts against anti-racist protestors. WSAC’s requirement to take part in fights is inspired by international fight clubs like these.

However, direct violence is rarely the primary motivation for joining these groups, and the community aspect is central and one of their more sinister aspects. After observing fascist fitness groups for several months, it is undeniable that some of their members make significant steps towards their goals. Users like “Dan”, who joined one of the larger Telegram groups in July 2021, has regularly posted pictures of his progress and said he had lost 45 lb. Moreover, he has graduated from being a lowly member to becoming an administrator of the group and now posts almost daily. Associating, in their view, positive change in one’s life, with a violent and hateful ideology, is dangerous. Elley describes it as the member who achieves his goals become “indebted to the movement for his change”.

Fascist fitness groups provide community and purpose that might be hard for some of these individuals to find elsewhere. This has been exacerbated by the pandemic, and is unlikely to disappear once restrictions are gone. Relationships and communities have already been formed, catalysed by a frustration within many parts of the far right with purely online organising. Fitness, alone or in group, and even if imaginary, provides a directly practical way of doing something for the far-right cause.

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