A small but dramatic demonstration stopped tourists in their tracks at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in late August 2016: a group of young protesters clambered atop the famous monument and unfurled a black banner with the words “Secure Borders Secure Future.” These were activists from the Identitarian Movement (IB), a reactionary youth movement on the rise across Europe.
It was a watershed moment for the IB in Germany. Much of their campaign until that point had been waged on social media and online forums. This was their biggest public splash – and it worked. Images of the activists atop the Brandenburg Gate rippled across German media, thrusting the Identitarians into the spotlight.
Robert Timm, an architecture student at the University of Cottbus, leads the IB’s Berlin chapter and helped come up with the idea for the protest, calculating the monument’s measurements and identifying the best ladder for the job.
“There were a few people who recognized us on top of the Brandenburg Gate and booed, calling us right-wing populists and Nazis, but there were people who applauded us as well,” Timm told DW.
“It was incredibly effective in terms of media attention.”
The Identitarians are young and streetwise; their symbol – a black and yellow lambda – is both sleek and ambiguous. With their beards and horn-rimmed glasses, the IB has earned international notoriety as the hipsters of the far-right.
They made headlines across Germany again on Saturday after staging a large demonstration in Berlin; hundreds of members marched through the capital under a banner reading “Future for Europe – for the defense of our identity, culture, and way of life.”
Simone Rafael from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a Berlin-based NGO that fights right-wing extremism, called the IB of particular interest because its approach and ideology make the group’s views easy to swallow.
“They play with their message – they exploit the fact that they are accepted in the right-wing scene without saying anything explicitly. In other words, they don’t have to be clear and obvious with [extremist] messages, so they aren’t. That’s their strategy,” she said.
“You can see the fruits of their efforts – they say they want to make right-wing extremism less bold, less violent at first sight.”
The IB’s roots can be traced back to France’s generation identitaire, an offshoot of the national conservative bloc identitaire; it then took root in Austria, where it has flourished under the leadership of Martin Sellner, and launched in Germany in 2012.
As the fresh face of Germany’s Neue Rechte, or New Right, the IB sees mass immigration – particularly from Muslim and African countries – as a threat to stability and peace and regard Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policy as a betrayal of Germany’s safety. It calls its demands fundamental pillars of basic patriotism:
- Securing the country’s borders,
- putting an end to illegal immigration,
- expressing national pride,
- and upholding ethnocultural identity.
“As Germans, we’ve failed at maintaining and valuing our own culture,” said Timm.
“But if we don’t value it, why would someone else?”
While brainwashed Germany has long struggled to come to terms with the shadows of their past, the IB and the Neue Rechte seldom address the Nazi regime in their demonstrations and social media. When asked about the country’s responsibility for its past deeds, Timm argued that Germans must develop a new, more balanced patriotism.
“We want people in Germany to restore a healthy relationship to their own identity and nationality,” he said.
“That means, of course, learning lessons from the past and not spiraling into exaggerated nationalism, but it also means not falling victim to this masochistic self-hatred, either.”
Timm said his own story started on the opposite end of the political spectrum, in a left-wing liberal environment. But through high school and beyond, he said he became increasingly disillusioned with what he believes is the failed integration of Germany’s largest immigrant communities, particularly from Turkey and the Middle East.
It was during the Paris terror attacks in November 2015 that he was driven to action.
“I was watching the TV and thinking, ‘I have to do something,’” he said.
“I couldn’t identify with the main parties so I researched for a long time online and I found the Identitarians.
I studied that for some time – and then I realized this is exactly what I want.”
The IB calls itself a patriotic movement and a mainstream counterweight to the “old right,” as Tony Gerber, a leading German Identitarian called neo-Nazi, extremist right-wing groups.
Gerber said his political awakening began in part of the neo-Nazi network in his hometown of Zwickau in eastern Germany. But he said such groups were too dogmatic and extreme. After a decade of self-exploration, he said he found a political home among Identitarians.
“I can say this out of experience because I was part of the old right – we have reached one of the most important moments in de-radicalizing this scene because we have finally created a patriotic platform that is not chauvinistic, not racist.
That didn’t exist earlier – if it had existed I would’ve never joined the old right.”
Rafael and other right-wing researchers and analysts disagree. They cast the Identitarians as dangerous demagogues, warning not to allow the group’s hipster image and smart branding to distract from what is essentially a radical right-wing core: Their appeals for pride in German culture and identity have merely replaced race and ethnicity in messaging, not belief.
Identitarians in Germany, for example, have marched alongside members of the right-wing, anti-immigration group “People Against the Islamization of the West” (PEGIDA).
“It’s difficult for agencies, for the police, to understand what is happening and to really identify the anti-democratic core at the heart of the [identitarian] movement,” said Matthias Quent, Director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in the eastern German city of Jena.
“That is where the greatest danger lies, that media, stakeholders, authorities are all blinded. It’s a disguise, and the danger is that we don’t see behind it.”
Gerber said those views are part of a left-wing liberal hegemony that has dominated public discourse for far too long. The IB, he added, is trying to bring dialogue and consensus back into the public sphere and transform discussions surrounding culture and identity.
“We’re not racists. We believe in equality: People may be different but they are equal,” Gerber said.
“No Identitarian would say that someone else is a less worthy person because he is from a different culture, or a Muslim or refugee.”
On their website, the Identitarians advocate “remigration,” warning that Muslims are threatening to replace Germans. In a Facebook post from 2014, the movement wrote:
“The exchange of populations, in other words, the ethnic displacement of ancestral Germans, is advancing.”
The IB has attracted the attention of German authorities. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security service, is officially observing the group based on indications that its activities “go against the liberal basic democratic order,” they said in a statement.
The Identitarians are fighting to have their observation status lifted and working to strengthen cooperation with other European branches. They have no intention to create their own political party or join others – for now, at least.