Michael Zeller, in a conversation with Kasia Krzyżanowska, talks about far-right mobilization campaigns and the processes of their de-mobilization.
Michael Zeller is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at Central European University (CEU). He is also an Associate Researcher at the CEU Centre for Policy Studies, working on the ‘Building Resilience against Violent Extremism and Polarisation’ (BRaVE) project, and the head of the Organisation Research Unit (ORU) at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR).
Kasia Krzyżanowska: In your recent article you analyze far-right mobilization processes with an example of the Hess Memorial March Campaign in Germany in the late 1980s. You show how a neo-nazi mobilization campaign caused countermobilization and called the state to act to prevent the far-right gatherings. Could you explain a bit more how the far-right mobilization looked like in this example?
Michael Zeller: The focus of this study was demobilization, because mobilization has received a lot of attention in social movement studies traditionally. Scholars have paid much less attention to the way movements, their specific organization and their campaigns, demobilize. That’s starting to change, and I hope this article makes a contribution to that.
The specific case I look at, is, as you say, started in the late 1980s and ended in the mid-1990s. It centered on the figure of Rudolf Heß, the last prisoner of war of the Second World War. Heß was one of Adolf Hitler top acolytes, the Reichsführer, the deputy leader. Throughout his imprisonment in Spandau prison in Berlin in the post-war era, he’d been held up as this rallying point for Neo-Nazis, for continuing right-wing extremists in Germany.
And his death predictability signaled a moment for mobilization — few years after his death, which occurred in 1987, there was a wave of German nationalism that coincided with the toppling of the Berlin wall.
His death was a crystallization point that catalyzed this far-right mobilization or right-wing extremist mobilization in Germany. This campaign was characterized by many charismatic leaders, most notably by Michael Kühnen, who really was a driving force behind German far right activity in the 1970s and 1980s. There were also figures who would play a major role in the decades to come: Christian Worch, Jürgen Rieger. There was magnetism that was pushing forward and moving this campaign along the symbolic center-point of Heß.
The mechanism that my paper reveals is that this far-right movement provoked violent counter-mobilization. In turn, the state was prompted to intervene and stop all demonstrations — at least within the confines around the issue of Rudolf Heß in Wunsiedel, the town where he was buried. The far-right campaign itself was not violent or disorderly. It was extreme and aggressive. Some would argue, and I find it plausible, that far-right demonstration campaigns are inherently aggressive towards the other that they are targeting. But their orderly attempt to mourn Rudolf Heß prompted a resistance from militant anti-fascist. The counter-mobilization reached a climax in 1990, when thousands of opposed demonstrators were clashing and battling in Wunsiedel. This created public safety concerns that ultimately justified state intervention and prompted the campaigns’ demobilization.
The state, precisely the judicial authorities together with the German Federal Constitutional Court, banned these far-right movements only if there was empirical evidence for the use of violence between far-right movements and counter-mobilization activists. In other words, the ban on the neo-nazi demonstrations is more likely to be issued when there are public security concerns rather than concerns related to the far-right ideology. Is this mechanism still observed by the European state authorities in the contemporary cases of far-right mobilization?
I think this pattern holds today as well because liberal democratic regimes in Europe are reluctant to place ideological tests on speech and associations.
There are few rights and freedoms that are more fundamental than the freedom of speech and association. It is a bedrock principle for most European countries: to not infringe upon that, unless there are extraordinary basis for doing so.
Violent behavior and public endangerment become the grounds on which the state can justify suppression essentially. None of the justiciaries, even in Germany which is so often called a militant democracy, its whole regime is based on preventing another Nazi Regime and is sensitive to far-right ideology in that way.
The recent example of this mechanism would be anti-refugee demonstrations during the height of the refugee crisis. A lot of far-right activity and some state intervention was there. And most recently anti corona virus demonstrations. In most European countries, it’s been policy to let these demonstrations happen, even if they are a risk to public health, the states are not willing to infringe upon free speech.
Because of the difference in the philosophy of free speech protection in the US and in Europe, perhaps there are also some divergencies when it comes to far-right demonstrations and the behavior of the state authorities. Could explain about these differences between the US and Europe in this regard?
The US is unique. For one, its far-right scene has deep roots: the Ku-Klux-Klan, the racist social movement in America has been around for about 150 years in one form or another. America does not have as strong a tradition of anti-Fascist, anti-far-right mobilization. On the one hand there is a strong far-right sector, stronger than many places in Europe, and a weaker anti-far-right movement sector. On the other, there is a government that creates the context of permissiveness for the far-right. It was brought to a particular point most recently with the Capital insurrection on January 6th. You can definitely make a plausible argument that parts of the US regime historically have been white supremacies and thus far-right. This point about the institutional politics of the United States probably makes campaign dynamics and demonstration dynamics a little different.
As far as the events of the 6th of January are concerned — it was shown by many authors that many rioters were QAnon followers. How important were conspiracy theories in this case of far-right mobilization?
I would say that they were very important. If only to make the general point that social movements and social groups all tell stories to each other, they all have a narrative and a rhetoric that they advance with their activism. It is never more true than political movements and political demonstration.
Conspiracist thinking and conspiracy theories are distinguished by their separation from verifiable fact, their quality of seeing deep, sinister and insidious motivations and actions underlying events.
This thinking has a long history in far-right action. You can trace it back to, probably further, post-First World War Germany: we can see it in the conspiracy theory about the German army that was never beaten in the field, about the Germans betrayed by Jews and politicians in Berlin, which was untrue. The US has its own history of far-right conspiracist thinking. It also includes adopting some of these anti-Semitic theories but also anti-communist and anti-leftist thinking. The biggest examples are McCarthyism. The latest reiteration of that was Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
What would you say for the comparison between the far-right and fascism? When I read the stories about the 6th January and movements during the Trump era, the fascist analogy was evoked many times in the articles published in the US. What do you think about this analogy? Is it of any informative value?
You are asking me to void into a very contentious issue of whether this term should be used. There are roughly two sides to this. There is one group of scholars who are predominantly historians who say fascism is a historical phenomenon. It applies to the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco and it’s confusing to apply that label elsewhere. There are others who say that this ideology can recur. There are groups that have the same ideological tenets as those regimes.
I don’t think that’s the key point to answer there. If you take an ethnographic perspective, it dissolves a lot of confusion. Looking at the way activists within far-right groups and within the anti-fascist groups talk about their activism, we can see that some extremist groups proudly identify as fascists. This is the label that they are aspiring to and if they could recreate the interwar fascist regimes or the Francoist regime, they would do it. By the same token, many anti-far-right and anti-fascist activists are animated by two historically-based beliefs. One, that far-right or fascist actors can grow rapidly and gain power. That in the case of Hitler’s regime or Mussolini regime, they very quickly went from being a small group of individuals to possessing state power. The second is that even when the far-right groups are small, they still can be deadly. And the Capitol hill insurrection is an example of that. Four or five people died there. So these are the animating concerns for the anti-fascist activists and fascist activists who ascribe to this label of fascism.
Let’s try to draft a theory of the far-right demonstrations. What actually makes the far-right demonstrations campaigns more probable to occur? On what factors depend its number and duration?
We can say pretty confidently that the far-rights will not be going anywhere. These far-right campaigns will occur, because this movement’s subculture is robust. There is a culture that feeds the activists and radicalizes new ones. Focused and distained, deradicalization policies and programs could possibly change this, but that’s at best a long-term calculation.
Perhaps what’s unique about far-right demonstration campaigns is that quite often they get stronger as they go on.
As they manage to enshrine their annual or weekly or monthly demonstrations, they create a ritual. If they succeed in making this ritual a tradition and part of a true faithful warrior, carrying out symbolic struggle, then it acquires a property of inertia: it just will keep moving forward, unless some outside force moves to stop it. With quite a few far-right demonstrations, for example the Pegida demonstrations in Dresden have been going for over 6 years now and they had, even during the first Corona virus lockdown, they had some demonstration online, they kept their ritual going over YouTube and it’s persistent just because it has this ritual attached to it.
I never heard about demonstrations that happen online. Not less importantly, what are the causes for the far-right activists and anti-far right activists to join? When it is more probable to activate as you call it in your article, “kamikaze counter-moblization”?
All movement activists usually get involved in something through some combination of personal connection and ideological commitment or inner impulses. On the one hand, anti-fascist activists may mobilize against far-right demonstrations because they know other people who are doing this type of activism. They could also be doing it because they are afraid of the potentiality that I mentioned before: that the far-right can come to power quickly. It would be naïf to ignore the fact that for some the opportunity to fight and have a violent clash is the attraction.
There are some people who want to go out and punch a fascist in the face, as a popular phrase expressed it.
Kamikaze counter-mobilization happens when anti-far-right activists go into opposing a far-right demonstration. Their goal is to disrupt the organizer’s capacity to build the far-right movement. In the case that I look at, the counter-mobilization against the Heß Memorial March was mainly from anti-fascist activists from Berlin, who came to Northern Bavaria to protest against the March. If the local authorities imposed bans on demonstrations, it didn’t mean anything to the anti-fascist activists. It just meant they didn’t have to take the train down to Bavaria to counter-mobilize. By the same token, lots of anti-far-right or anti-fascists activists are adamant that they don’t want bans because when you ban a far-right group from doing something or ban your group outright, you play into their narrative of victimhood, of being oppressed by a quasi-democratic regime. Thus, they can paint themselves as noble warriors and patriots. What anti-fascist activists want is mass social mobilization to show resistance — that sort of occurrences is far more difficult to incorporate into the far-right narrative.
When you stated in your article that the processes of demobilization are under-researched, I thought that I agreed. When I was thinking about the mobilization processes and campaigns, it came to my mind the Black Lives Matter protests from last year that happened in the US and then all over the world. They were radically different from the far-right mobilization: they had different ideology and goal but the demonstration campaigns were huge, long, persistent. However, now it seems to be completely demobilized. How different is then the far-right mobilization from other demonstration campaigns? And why did the BLM campaign ceased to exist, despite not having obtain its goal?
The fact that last year the mobilization was so huge and so visible has masked the fact that there is still some continuing Black Lives Matter mobilization. There continues to be some pressure for radical demands, as well as for some moderate demands. But there is still a capacity to organize some demonstrations because, frankly, there is still a lot of well-founded grievance from Black Americans. Since these grievances haven’t been addressed by state authorities, there is still capacity and incidents of mobilization. But, separating it from the far-right, we should note that Black Lives Matter mobilization is different. The demonstrations often occurred spontaneously or with relatively rapid organization, responding to recent events or tragedies. This is different from the far-right model that could be grasped in a phrase ‘mark your calendar, we will be here next year to demonstrate.’ Black Lives Matter is also broader with a lot of different groups and interests involved in it. It’s not as clearly formed as far-right organizations, which tend to be smaller and have clearer structures. For the far-right, demonstrations are made by organizations. For Black Lives Matter, demonstrations are made by the movement.
Perhaps you were already asked this question many times, but why are physical demonstrations still important in the era of social media and Internet mobilization?
It’s gotten to the point where I love getting this question. I have heard it often enough that I know exactly on how to confront this skepticism. There is so much attention in articles about online activism and how this is changing things fundamentally. No. Wrong.
Far-right demonstrations are really the bedrock of organizing in this movement sector.
Online tools and methods of networking and connecting have become more and more important but demonstrations remain an important type of activism. Even during this past year of Covid-circumstances, where it would make sense intuitively to try and organize online — you are less likely to get bystanders or, let’s say, more moderate people to be involved — far-right groups, across the Western world, were organizing demonstrations. As a movement sector, the far-right is committed to this type of activism.
Beyond that, the far-right demonstrations have an important role for socialization for activists and, on the extreme end of this, terrorists. There are numerous cases of far-right terrorists who previously took part in far-right demonstrations. In the United States, Timothy McVeigh who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal building, had participated in Ku-Klux-Klan activity and demonstrations before the attack. Anders Breivik had been interested in the EDL (English Far-Right Defense League) and taken part in some of their activism. The national socialist underground probably the deadliest far right terrorist cell in the post war era, was involved in a lot of far-right rally’s in the early 1990s before it started it terrorist campaign.
There is this extreme end that demonstrations play an important socialization role. Towards the other end, demonstrations also play a role in socializing future leaders. The most recent example I can think of is the former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, the largest far right party in Europe, Heinz-Christian Strache. He had been heavily involved in all sorts of German speaking demonstrations in his youth which was a major formative period for him. I would be willing to place a bet that you will see a lot of people who were involved in events leading up to and maybe during the Capitol insurrection in Washington who will seek public office in the Trumpist Wing of the Republican Party. In fact, you already see that a little bit with some of the extreme Congressional representatives who were previously involved in far-right demonstrations around QAnon Conspiracy. Other forms of activism and engagement may appear for the far-right, but demonstrations are here to stay. They are not going anywhere.
Collaboration: Isabel Lasch, Karen Culver