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Germany's domestic intelligence service has classified the Identitarian Movement as a far-right threat. What's behind the group's ideology?
Speaking by phone from Rostock, Daniel Fiss, the leader of Germany's Identitarian Movement, seems calm and friendly. It's hard to believe this rational sounding man with a north German accent is, in fact, a right-wing extremist.
After all, the young student tells me his movement supports the right to asylum, believes in human dignity and the German constitution. And that "we do not discriminate against anyone based on their ethnicity, religion, sexuality or anything like that."
But journalist Andreas Speit, who researched the movement for his book Das Netzwerk der Identitären (The Identitarian Network), said the Identitarians are skilled at concealing their real agenda. "The Identitarians are keen to portray themselves as a tolerant movement," he said, explaining that this runs counter to the cliched image of far-right extremists as violent skinheads clad in black combat boots and wielding baseball bats.
Members of the Identitarian Movement neither sound nor look like typical right-wing extremists, but their ideology certainly does. It builds on the notion of ethnopluralism, which according to Speit "posits that allegedly, every ethnic group has its own historical realm where its distinct culture, traditions and identity emerged." The Identitarian Movement claims these regions must be preserved and protected. "But this is faulty reasoning, as it assumes that homogeneous societies exist in the first place," said Speit. "In reality, constant interaction has allowed humankind to progress."
Ambiguity with a purpose
The Identitarian Movement has been active in Germany since 2012. The group currently has only about 600 members, but they're trying to compensate for this with elaborately staged protests and events. The group first came to national prominence in 2016 when activists occupied the Brandenburg Gate and unrolled huge anti-refugee banners.
According to Identitarian ideology, the notion of ethnopluralism creates the need for remigration, a term that refers to the idea that migrants, as well as nationals with foreign roots, should be sent back to their "home countries."
"In this respect, they are remorseless," said Speit. "They unequivocally state that anyone who is not of German descent should not be in this country."
I asked Fiss whether this means they want anyone of Turkish descent holding a German passport to be returned to Turkey. "Not necessarily," he replied, before going on to assure me that his movement has nothing against people with foreign roots.
This ambiguity is a "discursive tactics of the Identitarians," said Speit. "They know what they should say, and when, and in which circumstances, in order to be perceived as moderate." Otherwise, he added, their radical positions would be plain to see. "For example, they have for the most part held back on commenting on the question of how migrants should be returned home. Should they be shipped off in trains?"
'No tolerance for extremists'
Extreme right-wing ideology, slickly packaged in a way to make the ideas socially acceptable — that's what makes the Identitarian Movement so dangerous. For that reason, the German domestic intelligence agency (BfV) decided on Thursday to step up its observation of the far-right group and classify it as "a verified extreme-right movement." After two years of investigations, the BfV found that the group's views were not compatible with the German constitution.
"We must not only focus on those extremists with violent tendencies, but also keep an eye on those people who stoke fire with words," said BfV President Thomas Haldenwang. He said the Identitarians were questioning equality and human dignity, and deliberately making foreigners out to be the enemy. "There must be no tolerance for extremists."
The classification of the Identitarians as an extreme right-wing group now enables the BfV to monitor them using secret surveillance methods, and also infiltrate their ranks with undercover investigators. Speit thinks this latest step will be a stumbling block for the movement. "This marks a societal limit. Some followers will see the classification and think twice about whether they really back the group's views," he said. In addition, supporters of other right-wing groups may now hesitate when deciding whether to work together with the Identitarians.
The far-right political group, Alternative for Germany (AfD), officially decided back in June 2016 that it wouldn't cooperate with the Identitarian Movement. But this demarcation line hasn't always been so strict: for several months earlier this year, from March to May, Identitarian head Fiss had a part-time job at the Bundestag —working in the office of AfD parliamentarian Siegbert Droese.
In the German-speaking world, Austrian Martin Sellner is seen as the most influential leader in the Identitarian Movement. He is currently being investigated for suspected involvement in a terrorist group, for his earlier contact with an Australian right-wing extremist allegedly responsible for the Christchurch mosque attacks in March.
"If we look at Sellner's words, the explicit relationship between the Identitarian Movement and violence is clear," said Speit. In training videos, followers can often be seen boxing and practicing combat exercises. In the eastern German city of Halle, where the Identitarians have set up a "housing project," they attacked two police officers with baseball bats and pepper spray in November 2017, apparently mistaking the officers for left-wing extremists.