In the middle of the public lecture by Dr. Daniel Wutti organized for weeks at the University of Klagenfurt in rural Austria in 2017, 15 male demonstrators stormed through the doors. Some were dressed as stereotypical Muslim women in black niqabs. One man was wearing traditional Austrian lederhosen, and when the “women” unfolded large banners reading “Stop Immigration” and “Integration is a Lie”, they threw stones at him.
“At first it was confusing,” says Wutti, who organized the lecture on integration at the same time as the start of an “Inclusion Buddy” program for refugees in the region. “Then people in the audience started shouting and someone tried to get a megaphone from the ringleader.” He adds, “I think it was pretty obvious what point they were trying to make.”
The stunt, which was organized by the local branch of the far-right identity movement and attracted media attention, resulted in ringleader Luca Kerbl being found guilty of the attack after beating the headmaster as he left the hall. Several refugee students who witnessed the stunt felt traumatized and had to undergo therapy, including one from Afghanistan who said this reminded him of the Taliban’s actions at his old university.
The incident was one of the best known examples of a growing problem in locations across Europe: an increased presence of far-right groups and their activities. “There have always been right-wing extremist students at universities, but now they seem to be encouraged,” says Judith Goetz, a political scientist who has been asked by a number of student organizations in Germany and Austria to hold workshops on how to respond to the situation. “Some students, especially leftists, are very scared. Once they know their addresses and personal information, they worry what will happen. “And since free speech has been a hotly debated issue on campus lately, dealing with extremism has become a sensitive issue for university staff.
The identity movement, also known as Generation Identity, has been one of the best-known groups in European locations in recent years. It was originally founded in France and has groups all over the world. Members advocate the racist “big substitute” theory, and their Austrian leader Martin Sellner is currently being investigated for links to Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant. Earlier this year they were ordered by authorities to leave Greece after protesting the arrival of migrants in the country.
Identitarians lean explicitly on the left protest culture and cite groups like Greenpeace as inspiration. Goetz has recorded dozen of the group’s campus stunts in Germany and Austria, from sticker campaigns to aggressive actions like the Klagenfurt incident. Identitarians are also known to have reached out to students in other countries on the continent, including pamphlets at the University of Liverpool in the UK and the opening of a “meeting house” in Budapest, Hungary.
Recently, thanks to the Christchurch investigation, the group’s organizational ability has been severely limited. The social media accounts have been deleted, the group is difficult to accept donations, and prominent supporters have even labeled the brand “corrupted”. However, older members are already grouping under new names. In Austria, heads of state and government organize protests and create social media content under the name Die Österreicher DO5. The group shares the same ideology as The Identitarians, but appears to be based on citizen-led movements such as Fridays for Future. The rebranding provides insights into how nimble right-wing groups are circumventing restrictions and how they continue to co-opt features of progressive movements to appeal to young people.
The Identitarians became famous in Germany in 2017 when they opened a four-story building in the east near the University of Halle. Members gave media interviews claiming they wanted to target the “liberal” culture of universities and hosted events with prominent members of the international right.
The residents said they were nonviolent and intellectually superior to the traditional Nazis, although group leader Mario Müller has a well-documented history with NPD, the German neo-Nazi party. However, a total of 31 violent incidents related to the home were recorded by the government-backed right-wing violence counseling centers, including an incident where identitarians attacked two off duty police officers with maces and batons after mistaking them for left-wing activists . You are currently waiting for the trial.
According to the students, the intimidation and provocation rates were even higher at low levels. “Last summer I was harassed very regularly, like every two weeks,” says Katherina Hindelang, who became known to the identifiers after they discovered her on a demo. “They would call” left bitch “or” catcall “.” Other students claim members of the group came to their homes and molested them or left stickers and flyers on their doors on the far right.
The identitarians said they left the house in December 2019 after both local activism and increased surveillance by German security services restricted their activities, although an affiliated group, Ein Teil, stayed in the house. The house appears to have been completely vacated in June 2020.
This prevention of attempts by the far right to create a stronghold in the neighborhood is solid evidence that nonviolent anti-fascist activism can work. The group’s continued presence, however, has arguably encouraged far-right activities in the university town. Since May of this year, right-wing extremist groups have regularly taken places in the main market to protest the restrictions of the coronavirus and spread other extremist propaganda.
The template for the activities of the identitarians was developed by the Italian group CasaPound, which combines right-wing extremist ideology with right-wing extremist tactics such as squatting social centers and the staging of banner drops. The student body Blocco Studentesco was founded in 2006 and at one point gained control over the National Assembly of Students. “They pushed the cultural dimensions of collective action, music and graphic communication without explicitly referring to fascism,” says Emmanuele Toscano, sociology researcher at the University of Marconi. “It allowed them to grow among younger groups without directly facing fascist problems.” Official numbers have fallen since its director Francesco Polacchi was charged with a series of violent attacks in 2017. According to the recently published book by Italian journalist and far-right expert Paolo Berizzi The education of a fascistA number of informally connected student groups are still active and the campus remains a major recruiting site for extremists in Italy.
Recruiting young people has been essential to their growth since the far-right party began. From the Hitler Youth to Mussolini’s Opera Nazionale Balilla, young people give energy and longevity to early fascist movements. Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, right-wing groups continued to evolve, co-opting subcultures such as punk, metal and, more recently, online cultures such as gaming to attract new recruits. By targeting locations, groups are given an intellectual veneer, access to those who may become future leaders in society, and a recruiting funnel for right-wing parties. Universities, of course, also tend to host strong left and anti-fascist movements. Another tactic for the right wing’s survival is to quickly and nimbly rename themselves after they have been exposed or their organization restricted.
In Austria and Germany in particular, right-wing extremist groups on campus have a long and violent history. Only male student communities, so-called fraternities, have been active since the 19th century, many of which were based on nationalist principles. In the 1930s, some of them became an integral part of the Nazi movement, particularly in Austria, with some members holding senior positions in the regime. Most disbanded after the end of World War II, but many regrouped in the 1950s. Today they offer cheap or free accommodation to male students and are closely associated with the identifiers and far-right political parties.
“[Burschenshaften] consider themselves the academic backbone of the Austrian [far-right] Freedom Party, ”explains Bernherd Wiedinger, a far-right researcher, who explains that the party used the student groups to recruit staff from 2017 to 2019 as part of a coalition government.
Bureaus also offer right-wing extremist groups such as identifiers a safe space to regroup, rename and hold events. In the churches in the German cities of Dresden and Düsseldorf, “patriotic rap” concerts were recently held by the identity member Kai Naggart, who now appears under the pseudonym PrototypNDS.
Clashes broke out in January at the University of Vienna in Austria, where a right-wing fraternity marches weekly, after the university allowed a professor with nationalist views, Lothar Höbelt, to hold a series of open lectures. As a professor of modern history, Höbelt contributed to a memorial book on Holocaust denier David Irving and has a long history with the Freedom Party.
“When [the student union] found out [about his activities] Last November we started protesting his lectures, ”says a student activist, Julia Spacil. “Then the identitarians [including leader Martin Sellner], Fraternities and young members of the Freedom Party decided to “defend” his lectures. “Identitarians organized the action under the new name” Die Österreicher “.
Spacil describes the sight of right-wing extremists in the back of the classroom as “intimidating” and says the university should have intervened. Events like this, however, pose a mystery to academic freedom. “I think the university is having a hard time here. In my opinion, he was a bad choice for a professor. But now he’s here, the university can’t just throw him out, ”says Weidinger. “Whenever conflicts like this arise, the university seems to be helpless. It is said that people should sit down on academic ground and resolve their conflicts rhetorically. This is just a naive approach to a clash between anti-fascists and right-wing extremists. “The University of Vienna did not answer The nationPlease comment.
Goetz does not believe that universities are taking enough preventive measures against right-wing extremist activities. “My experience is that they usually only react when something happens,” she says. “I think they could help the faculty prepare for situations so people know what to do in advance.” She added that it would be helpful to train lecturers on how to respond, as right-wing groups “benefit from the attention”. With universities tentatively reopening after the coronavirus pandemic, there is a high likelihood that far-right groups will try to exploit students’ fears when faced with an impending recession and ongoing restrictions on their social life.
In Klagenfurt, according to Wutti, the university reacted “very positively” to the stunt. “E-mails were sent to all students stating that the university did not approve of non-tolerant and non-democratic acts and that they were against the identitarians,” he explains. “A lot of information was circulated about them and their opinions, and many guest speakers came to talk about who they were.” The security presence was also increased and the classrooms were closed between lectures.
However, Wutti believes that something “more sustainable” should be permanent, as far-right groups are still present. “It could happen again,” he concludes. “I think we should have permanent, ongoing courses on right-wing extremism so that students know who these people are.”