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TURN off the sound and you might be watching a video blog by a fixie-bike riding, avocado-munching hipster—an environmental campaigner or a music journalist, perhaps. But Martin Sellner is no liberal. The Vienna-based 27-year-old uses social media sites—YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—to promote the “identitarian” movement of which he is a leader. The identitarians are Europe’s answer to the American “alt-right”, which helped carry Donald Trump to the White House.
What Germans call the Identitäre Bewegung (IB) first emerged in France in 2003. Boosted by the refugee crisis and Islamist terrorist attacks, it has spread across northern Europe in recent years. Its local groups all sport the same yellow-and-black websites and anti-migrant, anti-Muslim, anti-media messages. Like its transatlantic counterpart, the IB exercises an outsized influence in two ways. First, it connects the traditional far right to populist politicians on the national stage. Second, it helps both groups by repackaging their ideas for a younger audience.
Its professed mission is to preserve national differences. “Human rights include the right to a homeland” is a typical mantra. Where others see European nations as the products of centuries of exchange and interaction, identitarians idealise a mythical past in which borders were absolute and clear (even in Germany, where they have historically shifted as often as the gears on a BMW). Clear borders allowed those inside them to establish religious and cultural norms, identitarians argue. They speak of a “great replacement” (of white Europeans by immigrants with higher birth rates), “ethno-pluralism” (which, confusingly, means something close to the opposite of “pluralism”) and the need for a “reconquista” (a reference to the Christian recapture of Spain from the Moors).
Mr Sellner cites Greenpeace as a model. Like that outfit, the “IBsters” deal in stunts and direct action. They have hung a banner reading “secure borders, secure future” from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, blocked roads in Calais to oppose a migrant camp, disrupted theatre performances in Berlin and Vienna and occupied mosques in Leiden and Poitiers. They have smartphone-friendly websites and sell T-shirts and tote bags bearing their logo: the Greek letter lambda, which appeared on the shields of the Spartans who held off the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC. They also adore the local, rail against “McDonaldisation” and idealise the pastoral. A recent video by their Bavarian chapter shows rolling hills and sprightly young men boxing in woodland dells.
The movement has a deft way of making xenophobic causes seem palatable to moderates. Mr Sellner uses the Twitter hashtag #remigration to “encourage” African and Asian immigrants to reverse the brain drain by returning to their homelands. He frames insinuations that Muslim immigrants are chauvinists and rapists as a defence of women’s rights. An IB group in Paderborn, near Hanover, recently distributed cans of tear gas to female pedestrians; in the current political context, the message was clear: German women need protecting from those beastly foreigners.
This relative subtlety opens doors to respectable society that remain shut to the traditional skinhead right. The likes of Mr Sellner and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a leading French identitarian, are invited to speak by the mainstream media. They are thus useful to the anti-immigration parties advancing in much of the continent, like the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the National Front (FN) in France. They promote (and sometimes provide) candidates for their parties and heckle their rivals. The politicians repay the favour. “I understand their concerns,” says Marine Le Pen, the FN leader (and Marion Maréchal’s aunt). Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader, shares their videos and defended the Viennese theatre occupation. Local FN politicians have even hired identitarian activists as press advisers.
Beyond all the mumbo-jumbo about “ethno-pluralism”, the old racist tropes and practices are still there. In Germany identitarians describe immigration as “nation death”; in France they speak of “pureblood Frenchmen”. They have marched alongside skinheads at anti-Islam rallies in Dresden and put a chain-lock on a Muslim school in Rotterdam. In August Germany’s constitutional watchdog put the IB under formal observation—hardly surprising, as the NPD, a German neo-Nazi party, has circulated the movement’s videos as examples of good technique.
Pepe hops the pond
Compared with America’s alt-right, identitarians are less web-centric—they tend to meet in person, in local groups—and less openly race-obsessed. But the affinities outnumber the differences. Breitbart, the American alt-right’s favourite website, covers the IB in gushing tones and is planning to launch its own European division. Mr Sellner hosted a pro-Trump party in Vienna on the night of the American election.
This points to the movement’s most curious trait. Its activists may preach love for the homeland and its unique character, but in practice they are impeccable internationalists, mixing and exchanging ideas like other millennials. Austria’s identitarians borrowed their look wholesale from counterparts in France (as Mr Sellner, speaking good French, admits in one of his YouTube appearances). Alt-right activists on both sides of the Atlantic treat a cartoon frog, Pepe, as a sort of mascot. From Indianapolis to Innsbruck, they share the same open-source politics, fume over the same grievances and chortle over the same in-jokes. Their movement is a howl of anguish at the integration of different peoples. It also epitomises that process.