Radicalisation has become a major topic of debate in contemporary Australia. While this has mostly been focused on radical Islamist groups, there has been an increasing amount of attention given to the rise of neo-Nazi groups, far-right movements and white supremacists.
As has been illustrated by the rise of both extreme right-wing and openly neo-Nazi groups in Europe, Nazism is a continuing narrative and an ‘unfinished’ history. Many current groups are anti-Islamic, but they also often incorporate racial ideology and antisemitism. In fact, to understand the methods and politics of neo-Nazi or far-right groups we may need to return to the study of Mein Kampf.
This is an obtuse and strange text, rife with antisemitism and fundamentally built around a fantasist ideology of an ‘Aryan’ race endangered by ‘lesser’ races. For those who wish to understand the major themes, Neil Gregor provides an excellent introduction to the text. Hitler himself stated it was written only for the Nazi faithful: ‘I do not address this work to strangers, but to those adherents of the movement who belong to it with their hearts.’ Yet Mein Kampf is still being openly used for its material on political action and propaganda, as well as for its racial ideology. It is currently being read by people in wildly different societal contexts. Certainly there is a direct reliance on the text in some far-right groups.
Given Hitler’s absolute racial-nationalist fervour, it may seem odd that Mein Kampf has become transnational––yet on some levels this was also an aspiration of Hitler. Part of his extreme world-view was the notion that Jews were a ‘rootless international race’ (as he expressed himself on 30 January 1939) and this led him to rewrite a famous slogan from the Communist Manifesto, ending speeches with the phrase ‘Antisemites of the world, unite!’ He was already using this expression in 1920, and by 1939 he was still arguing the same point. In his infamous speech on the annihilation of the Jews, he stated that the ‘Jewish slogan “Workers of the world, unite!”’ should be replaced with ‘Creative members of all nations, recognize your common enemy!’
The targets may change, but the idea of taking action (including violent action) against another group for the supposed ‘survival’ of a race or nation is a continuing theme. A recent report on ‘Genocide in Myanmar’ pointed out that some political organizations were using Nazi ideology, and even that direct comparisons were drawn between the Nazis’ antisemitism and ‘endeavours to protect [the] Rakhine race.’ This included an argument that ‘crimes against humanity,’ such as those committed by the Nazis ‘may be justifiably committed’ for the ‘survival of a race.’ This reflects the Nazis’ own perverse position on ‘victimhood’––in which they claimed that Germans were victims, and that this supposedly justified violence and murder to ‘protect’ the German race. This essential conception of being a ‘victim’ is common to many contemporary extremist groups, which characterize their own actions as defensive while they carry out violent attacks on others. This is regardless of whether they conceive of themselves as defending a nation, a race, or a religion.
If we are genuinely seeking to counteract radicalization then we need to also understand what attracts people to such radical ideologies. When it comes to Nazism, one point of attraction appears to be the ‘consolation of racism,’ which operates on two levels. Firstly, it offers a simple explanation that is ‘comforting’ because it claims an inherent capacity and supposed superiority based on ‘race.’ Because this is ‘inherent,’ this is also then independent of one’s actual position in society or the place of one’s nation in the world. Secondly, it removes any blame for failure and places it on someone else.
Both aspects were certainly part of the message that Hitler preached in the 1920s, in the volatile situation that existed in Germany after the loss of the First World War. Hitler essentially took every aspect of failure in German society and placed the blame on an imaginary foe (Jews). Hitler was particularly effective at connecting to people in his speeches, often through a simple and repetitive message that connected to existing feelings of despair or disenchantment. He could certainly draw on existing prejudice, but also a pervasive sense of loss. Many people in Germany did not grasp how their nation had gone from its position of power before the First World War to a kind of pariah state after the war, and it is very telling that the Nazis only made major gains in national elections in Germany during the Great Depression.
It is clear that the same process continues to operate in contemporary society. Certainly in Europe the ‘lurch to the right’ is often connected to political instability, economic recession, and high unemployment. But this can also occur on a personal and individual level.
In a recent episode of Q&A, a self-confessed former neo-Nazi described his attraction to extremist ideology as arising from confusion, alienation and a desire to achieve and belong. Drawing a comparison with the recruitment of youth to extremist Islamic groups, he argued that some of the key attractions were that: ‘all of a sudden the world is no longer complex. It’s literally black and white…If you do this, you’re going to do good for your community and the problems out there, you don’t have to work on yourself, you don’t have to put in any effort of yourself, they’re the problem. The solution is joining us.’
Hitler also consistently advocated this same ‘solution’ in Mein Kampf, arguing that only one group was ‘the true enemy of our present-day world’ and ‘the real originator of our sufferings.’ Nazism offered (and still offers) some people a kind of resolution and ‘path’ because it provides them with a simple resolution to complexity: this is not your fault, this is the fault of someone else. Join us and fight them. Sadly, as we are all aware, people continue to be drawn––in a variety of ways––to the idea of being part of a community of the ‘Elect’ and participating in a form of mission that focuses on the elimination of a supposed enemy.
Dr Koehne is presenting on ‘Hitler and the Uses of Humiliation’ at an international workshop on Emotions and Memory.