Rightwing extremism in Germany
Right-wing extremism in Germany has made headlines in recent weeks, with the first publication since World War II of Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, and the anti-immigrant protests that have peppered the country since a group of immigrants attacked women in Cologne. More broadly, the past decade has witnessed a steady rise of far right politics and social movements across Europe — from the rise of the Golden Dawn party in Greece to the 2011 mass shootings in Norway.
My guest today, Cynthia Miller Idriss, talks about her forthcoming book, “The Extreme goes Mainstream?: the Commercialization of Far Right Youth Subculture in Germany,” which will be published later this year by Princeton University Press. Over the past several years, Dr. Miller Idriss has collected thousands of images from the far right youth subculture and conducted interviews in schools where extremism thrives. She argues “that far from being mere ‘subcultural style,’ commercialized extremist products can be a gateway to radicalization and violence by both helping to strengthen racist and nationalist identification and by acting as conduits of resistance to mainstream society.”
Citation: Cynthia, Miller-Idriss, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 12, podcast audio, January 25, 2016. https://freshedpodcast.com/cynthiamilleridriss/
Will Brehm: 2:01
Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Welcome to Fresh Ed.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 2:04
Will Brehm: 2:06
How has the stereotypical image of a ne-nazi changed in recent years?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 2:12
Well, if you look at stylistic changes over time, you know, what people used to think of as a sort of skinhead look or you know, just the physical appearance of a skinhead who has bald head, bomber jacket, high black combat boots. That look has sort of all but disappeared in Germany and in most of Europe and it’s been replaced with a whole fragmentation of sub-cultural style in the scene. You know, there are lots of different aspects of the different styles that I could talk about. But taken together, they represent a kind of mainstreaming of the style and much less distinguishable appearance and more subtle kind of coding of the ideology through symbols.
Will Brehm: 3:05
And what are some of these coded symbols that you find in mainstream commercialized products that signify this right-youth culture?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 3:16
So, you know, one of the ones that I use is some of them are very direct, you know, coded symbols for, you know, like text that says, my favorite color is white, you know, or something like that in English, right? But sometimes it’s a symbol like one that I often use for non-German audiences because it tends to be still familiar, is a symbol of a little fox, like a little image of a fox. And underneath it, it says Wüstenfuchs(?) which means Desert Fox. Desert Fox was the nickname of Irwin Rommel, who commanded sort of the Nazi troops in North Africa during World War Two. And that was a common name and people would know but you know, people would recognize that name as his nickname. A certain generation of Americans tend to recognize that too, for example, but just seeing a little picture of a little fox walking toward you on the street on a T-shirt, you know, you might not catch that right away.
Will Brehm: 4:20
And what about codes like 88?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 4:24
Yeah, so codes like the alphanumeric code when I call them things like 88, which stands for the 8th letter of the alphabet for H. H. For how Hitler and, you know, the number 18, which is for A. H., for Adolf Hitler. Those codes have been in play for a long time, even under the Nazis. And so, they kind of predate the commercialization that really began in earnest in the late 1990s, early 2000s. So they don’t show up as much in the sort of new brands but they do still show up in kind of tattoos, sometimes in license plates, sometimes in the T-shirts themselves, but not the ones in the major brands usually, because they’re so common now as codes that they’re less, they’re less intriguing for companies that are trying to more subtly code their products.
Will Brehm: 4:24
So what are some of the new brands using to suddenly code their products?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 5:30
Well, I would say, you know, a lot of what the new brands are doing is using sort of motifs that appeal to the far-right scene that get kind of adopted by the far-right scene. You know, so a lot of Nordic imagery, for example, where you know, Viking imagery and the Vikings in Nordic myths and legends have long been a part of far-right nationalists sort of mythology and ideas in Germany. So you’ll see a lot of that, I mean is really dominant and you know that kind of, those symbols also again, were used by the Nazis, even the swastika, a Nordic symbol. You know, the SS, the symbol of the SS.The zig, Zig rune is a runic symbol, a Nordic runic symbol. So, there is again a long history of that. It’s just done differently now, not as much with the direct symbols as it is with the kind of, the use of Vikings, the use of lots of Nordic imagery, snowy ski slopes, and boats and images. So on the one hand, there’s that kind of thing. And even the names of some of these brands that are marketing to more far-right consumers use Nordic spellings in their names, or, the products are named after Nordic gods, for example, or goddesses. So Nordic imagery tends to be a really big one.
You also see, sometimes, military, the use of military coding, military imagery, colonial references, you know, references to the U-boat heroes, things like that. So not as, you know, I mean, and again, it’s very carefully toeing the line. There’s you know, one product for example from one company has the word swastika with the Swedish spelling across the back, you know, which would be illegal if it were written in German “Hakenkreuz” but it’s the word for swastika. So, you know a careful towing of the line of legality but also, you know, kind of using symbols that by writing it in Swedish, not everybody would necessarily recognize what that symbol means.
Will Brehm: 7:44
And what are some of these brands? I mean, are these like big brands that everyone in Germany would know about?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 7:51
No, so you know, the largest brand that has a market in the far-right is called Thor Steinar. They are the only one that has their own physical stores. And, you know, it’s always a big question in Germany, is how many people know the brands. I mean, you know, when I talked to people in this sort of anti fascist scene, they say, oh, everyone would know it, you know, a lot of people, once you know it, you know, if you follow local news in the cities, where they’ve opened, there are often protests from the left protesting the opening of a store like that. And so, you know, it does sort of make a splash initially in the news. But then, I have, you know, lots of friends and colleagues. When I did a fellowship here in Germany two years ago and presented on this work, I don’t think any of the Germans in the room had heard of it. So, you know, it was, you know, it’s not as well-known as people think it is. I think, in Berlin, where, you know, a couple of stores have been open, people did tend to know it more. But then when I lived in other cities that it wasn’t as well-known.
Will Brehm: 9:00
And who are the audience that these companies are targeting? Like, who are the people wearing these products with far-right symbols embedded in them?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 9:15
Well, it’s also a bit of a mystery, because in terms of empirical evidence, we don’t have, you know, data on the consumersso we don’t know, officially. But you do, you know, from my interviews with young people, you know, and from what I know, media reports, and what we know from observations of far-right festivals or music concerts, for example, you know, it does seem to be a consumption pattern that’s more young adolescents. So, you know, so 13 to 15 year olds, 13 to 16 year olds, I think, would be a pretty big market, but they do have, some of them have women’s lines. The largest one, Thor Steinar, for a while had a children’s line that’s not on the market anymore. So you know, one thing people have told me is that we will go to these concerts and sometimes, like, you could see a young family kind of walking around. Like, part of the idea of you know, having such high quality and expensive clothing in these brands is that you could market to an older consumer, but I’m not sure that that has played out in actually the consumption patterns of its consumers.
Will Brehm: 10:26
Have you noticed if there’s any sort of class issue associated with those who purchase this propaganda?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 10:34
I haven’t, again, we don’t know, you know, we know very little about the actual consumers, because that data is not publicly available. But it is very expensive clothing, you know, T-shirt might be 30 euros, jeans, a pair of jeans could be, you know, 80 euros, I mean, it’s certainly not inexpensive clothing. And so, you know, it is a kind of thing either people are, you know, having more of a disposable income themselves, or they’re saving up for it. In some cases, you know, in interviews that I did, young people got them as a gift, you know, so it might be something that they got as a holiday gift from someone, from an older sibling, or a parent who either didn’t know about, especially the one that you know, when you have physical storefronts. So, either didn’t know about the background of the brand, or it didn’t matter. So, you know, I think the more expensive items would be more special items. But certainly, you know, young people are apparently willing to spend money on higher quality clothing from time to time.
Will Brehm: 11:46
And what about location wise? Is this phenomenon more prevalent in certain parts of the country rather than others?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 11:55
So, again, we don’t know exactly in terms of consumption patterns, the stores that are in Germany, more of the physical stores, are in the former eastern states. But, you know, it’s hard to say. There’s a big internet presence. I heard from an anti-fascist activist who said, she stopped some French tourists at one point who were leaving the store in Berlin and said, you know, did you know that this is the store that you just, you know, purchased. She was worried that they, as touristshad walked into the store, which looks, you know, very mainstream, and they said, Oh, yes, we know, you know, we came here on purpose for that. So it had, you know, there were no stores in France at that time. And they sort of made a deliberate trip to Berlin to go to the store. So, you know, so, again, I’m really cautious about, I think you have to be really cautious about what it means that the stores are, you know, where their physical location is, because I suspect that that’s not where the primary, you know, consumers are, I think it’s probably internet-based.
Will Brehm: 13:06
And has anything changed in Germany since the 2000s that has made this rise of the commercialization of right-wing symbols emerge?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 13:20
Yeah, so actually, I don’t think the change is in Germany itself. I think that change is in a younger generation of youth who are sort of culturally different from previous generations in their desire, you know, the sort of millennial youth or even the group that’s coming after them who want to be able to not be pinned down to only one identity, if that makes sense. So I think that whereas, you know, my generation of kids kind of grew up and you were very much stamp, sort of a punk or a skater or a preppy, you know, the 1980s and 1990s saw kids, you know, kind of letting their subcultural style reflect one core identity and maybe that changed over time. But for a period of time, there was kind of one identity and I think that what we’re seeing is potentially more an example of young people who want more fluidity. They don’t want to be defined only by one identity. And so they may be trying on identities but they are not necessarily, you know, interested in being only one thing if that makes sense.
Will Brehm: 14:35
So on one day, they could be the quote unquote, “Nipster”, the neo-nazi hipster, and then the second day, they can be a some other identity?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 14:47
Well, yeah, potentially, that kind of thing or even I think more during the day, they can, you know, go to their apprenticeship site as a worker, you know, but their jacket is zipped over their T-shirt that might convey kind of ideological beliefs, but then they can go out with their friends later and kind of take their jacket off, let’s say. So it’s more that they can blend in and they don’t have, you know, I mean, the skinhead identity was, the skinhead you know, phenotypical appearance, was very, you know, you had to look like everybody else. You had to be kind of, it was like a uniform, right? You had to shave your head, buy a bomber jacket, wear these same boots that everybody else wore. You looked kind of identical to everyone else. So, you know, you can, even if you’re in the far-right scene, you know, or have these beliefs all the time, there are different ways. Some of the products are a little bit edgier, you know, they’re a little more rebellious, let’s say, some of them are a little sportier. So there’s sort of a range, some of them are more provocative, some of them are less provocative. Some of them are, you know, just have a brand logo that is now identified with the far-right scene, let’s say, but is not, doesn’t have anything else, you know, on it. There’s no ideological symbol at all, no coding at all. So it just, it gives them a chance to kind of, I think it’s part of its appeal is that you’re able to express a little bit more diversity within the scene and also move between different identities, even in your daily life without as much difficulty.
Will Brehm: 16:34
Germany has been in the news lately. I recently read an article in The New York Times about the publication of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s book and also lots of anti-immigrant protests that have been kind of rocking the nation and what do you think the connection is between these commercialized symbols of right-wing extremism and this sort of rise of anti-immigration and xenophobic culture that we’ve been seeing more and more in the news lately?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 17:09
It’s a good question. I think, you know, I think that the rise of xenophobic sentiment in general, or really anti-Islamic sentiment, I think that part of what is happening there is a kind of a grappling with serious change in a demographic reality in Europe, in general, and in Germany in particular. So you just are seeing, you know, from a moment, you know, not so long ago, and Germany was, you know, widely sort of, politicians and leaders would say, we are not a country of immigration, you know, to kind of an acknowledgement that they are a country of immigration. And so there’s, you know, there is just, I think, a period of adjustment to that, I think that. So, I think that there’s some, and then the migration crisis, the refugee crisis over the last year, you know, 1.1 million refugees coming into Germany, you know, has brought that into sharp relief. But I think it’s something, it’s a trend that’s been happening for a long time, in terms of, you know, adjusting from a society that was pretty homogenous to a society that’s quite heterogeneous, and I think that that’s, you know, one of those stumbling blocks that you’re going to see is there’s a lot of work to be done, kind of in civic education, you know, both in the public education level, but also in the general public about, you know, what it means to live in a place that has much more multiculturalism.
Will Brehm: 18:54
And of course, this is quite similar to stories that you hear coming out of France and Poland as well.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 19:03
Right. Exactly. Yeah. I mean, that’s, I think it’s, you know, really Europe, I think the question for the next generation in Europe is going to be this question of how around diversity, ethnic and racial, and linguistic diversity, and what it means to be European, to be German, to be French, and, you know, how you can move together harmoniously as a society, you know, across increasing difference. So, you know, I think it’s going to be a fascinating, you know, 40 or 50 years, and hopefully, one that can be marked by, you know, by more harmony, rather than more violence. But I think that what you see when you see these sort of prohibitive protests or protests of, you know, when you’re getting 10s and 50, you know, thousand people in the street is the scope of that. I mean, I think politicians have to pay attention to that, to how emotional, you know, ordinary Germans are about these changes, and really find a way to open the space where people can talk openly about what it is they’re afraid of. And, you know, and that’s not so different from what we see in the US when, you know, you see Islamophobic things happening here. And then reports that, you know, the vast majority of Americans have never met someone Muslim, right? So, you know, I think people are afraid of what they don’t know.
Will Brehm: 20:26
Let’s shift gears to your book. And you happen to collect thousands of images over the years, over decades to explore this right-wing youth culture. How did you end up gathering all of those photos?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 20:46
So I didn’t collect them all myself. And the photos themselves are from over decades, I’ve been working on the projects myself for almost a decade, about eight years. And what happened was actually my editor for my first book asked me to look for a cover photo for the book while I was in Germany. And so I went, I was in Germany on another trip, unrelated to, going to a conference. So while I was in Berlin, I went to this archive in Berlin called the antifascist educational and press archive in Berlin. It’s a wonderful little archive, run by mostly leftist, anti-fascist folks who have been tracking the right wing and a whole variety of settings, the far-right wing in, you know, everything from flyers, you know, they just have books and materials, all kinds of things, including, you know, all of the original product catalogs from the very beginning of these major companies. I mean, so they’ve been incredibly helpful to me. So one of the things I did, I went to that archive and I talked to them. I’d met them before in my research, and I said, you know, I’m looking for a photograph for this, do you have any recommendations? And they put me in touch with three professional photographers who follow the right wing in public settings. So public protest marches, or music festivals, or, and, you know, I just documented. And they sell their photos to the news media, basically.
And I got in touch with those three photographers and said, I’d be really interested in looking at your photographs. Because while I was looking to see, you know, first of all, to see if I could find a photo for my book. So they all gave me access to their archives and as I was looking through their photos for a photo for the book, I discovered that since I had last been there, it had been four or five years, that they were capturing these changes stylistically in the scene that I hadn’t really been aware of when I finished my research just in 2002, 2004. And so I started to look more carefully at those images. And I asked them for permission to analyze them and they generously gave me access to those archives. And so that’s how it started with these professional photographers’ archives, looking through those images for stylistic changes, and for symbols. And then I went back and, you know, digitized those product catalogs and started capturing screenshots of the commercial websites, and had to go look at some historical archives to try to understand the usage of the symbols, you know, in the 1930s and 1940s as well. And there’s quite a lot of their collections in, you know, the US Library of Congress, for example. They were confiscated by the US military after World War Two, just, you know, photographs, thousands and thousands of photographs. So there’s sort of, it’s one of those projects that you can endlessly collect data for, unfortunately.
Will Brehm: 23:40
And so you’ve been able to basically track the changes in far-right youth culture since the 1930s.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 23:48
Well, there’s a gap. I mean, I didn’t look at images between, say, World War Two and the 1980s, 1990s. So I looked at, I just looked, I was interested in looking at, once I started understanding and, you know, seeing the symbols, some of the same symbols that were used, you know, in World War Two, I wanted to see, for example, could I find evidence of the use of these Munich symbols? And so looking back at some of those images, just to try to understand them, and their historical context was helpful to see something like, you know, at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, they have still photos of propaganda films shown to Hitler Youth. And so you could see how Viking imagery, for example, and Nordic lore was used in propaganda films. And so that’s been very helpful for me to understand that this isn’t just an invention of the 2000s of this century. But it’s something that’s been a long long been a part of nationalist and extremist thinking in Germany. So it’s not so much that I was tracing the transformation over time, as I was tracing how, to some extent, some of the symbols and play today are rooted in longer trajectories of a historical usage.
Will Brehm: 25:09
You also interviewed students. Now, why did you end up interviewing students? How does that fit in with all of these images you’ve collected?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 25:18
When I first started this project, I had a big question about, you know, my big question was, could I, would I write a book? Or could I write a book that was based on the images alone? You know, from lots of logistical reasons, that was appealing to me, you know. I was in the middle of another project at the time, as you mentioned to you on the transformation of how knowledge is produced in US higher education is a big project at the Social Science Research Council. It just wasn’t, for lots of reasons, a good time for me to take on a big transnational project and a full time faculty position. I didn’t have a sabbatical coming up, right to start running something in another country. But I was increasingly dissatisfied with only analyzing the images. And I just felt like, you know, people kept saying to me things like, well, do kids even know what they’re wearing? Do they know what these brands are? Do they know what the symbols mean? And I couldn’t answer any of those questions for myself or for anybody else. And because there’s not real data on the consumers themselves, I really felt like I needed to show some of these images to a group of youth who are in or around the scenes and see what they thought. Like, do they actually interpret these images the way that I think, you know, so I can decode them, you know, as an analytical academic, but what does it mean in everyday life? And so, you know, I have long been interested in the vocational system. I’ve been studying for my first book, one of the schools I studied was the construction trades. And I knew from previous research that construction trade apprentices have higher levels and have reported, at least in some studies, higher levels of xenophobia. So on the one hand, I thought that schools, those kinds of schools, would be a good place to get access to youth who might have some experience either themselves, or through siblings, or friends or neighborhood where they might encounter these brands. And they might be able to be kind of interpreters for me, or help me understand if they understood the symbols at all. But on the other hand, I’m also interested in, you know, I am a professor of education, I’m interested in how schools respond to things like that. And so I also wanted to know what the schools were doing. And so I found these two schools that are the only two schools for construction trades in this region. And one of them happens to ban all ideological symbols from sort of the left or the right, or military content for that matter. They’re not allowed to wear any symbols, and the other doesn’t ban anything. So I thought it would be kind of an interesting quasi experimental design to see what happens in those settings and our youth, you know, modifying what they do, or covering up the symbols, and in what ways.
Will Brehm: 28:04
And what have you found, I mean, do students know what the symbols mean that they wear?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 28:09
So I mean, I’m still in the middle of analyzing the interviews, they’re all transcribed, and we’re coding them now and analyzing them. So I don’t have, you know, systematic numbers, but I’ll say it’s a real mixed bag, like, they tend to recognize the brands as what they call, the word they most often use is racist, right? So they tend to recognize the brands as racist, but they don’t know why I would say that’s the most common response, right. So they recognize that they’re deemed somehow racist, or unacceptable, but they don’t really understand, they can’t explain why. Some of them are very well-informed about it, and can really, you know, almost all of the images are, you know, they can interpret them the way that I think they’re interpreted. Some of them know almost nothing, and can’t, don’t interpret any of them. So there is a real mix, and that adds an interesting dimension to it. And some of them can’t interpret them, although they own it, right? And so, you know, it changes a little bit how you think about the clothing if some people are buying it, primarily because they see the brand around, or it’s very popular in their neighborhoods, they get a sense that it’s sort of anti-establishment, and they know that it’s banned for some reason, and they might not exactly know why.
Will Brehm: 29:27
And what about the school’s response? Has it been successful for schools, or at least the school that you looked at to ban extremist symbols?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 29:37
So it’s a good question, because you have to say, you have to sort of determine, what does success mean, right? So if what you’re saying is, it’s really important for us as a school community, to set a firm, to symbolically mark what it means to be a part of this school and to symbolically state, you know, that these kinds of ideologies aren’t welcome here, and that everyone is, you know, so that nobody feels uncomfortable because of what they see on a T shirt, then, yes, it’s been successful. If, you know, the intent of the ban is to try to prevent any further, you know, then I think, no, it’s not successful. I mean, I don’t think the bans are successful at prevention. But I do think, and, in fact, I think the bans, in some cases, backfire. Because young people just get more creative with the way and the companies get more creative with the way that they make the symbol. So one of the brands for example, a popular brand in that scene, made a Velcro removable logo, right. So you know that young people could take it off as they go into school and then young people started turning it around, so that it originally looked like an A, and they turned it around. So supposedly, it looks like a V for Vaterland, right. So they modify and creatively engage with the symbols when they’re banned. And I think that’s part of why there’s a market for products like this, because, you know, it is banned, it’s illegal to have a swastika. You know, to have some of the more common symbols and so the market becomes, a market emerges for more subtle coding. So, no, I don’t think they’re successful at prevention but I I understand the impulse behind them, you know, as a philosophy in terms of what the school stands for, if that makes sense.
Will Brehm: 31:37
Your book makes a contribution to the ideas or the theories of culture and nationalism and extremism. How would you kind of define that contribution that you make to those, kind of, three large academic ideas?
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 31:54
Sure. Well, I think, you know, I mean, I consider myself to be a cultural sociologist, I’m really interested in engaging with theories of culture and how culture works. And so one of the things I take up in the book is this sort of long standing debate about whether culture has autonomous power, you know. And without going into too much theory, it’s kind of a discussion about, you know, is social structure or socio-structural issues more powerful motivators for human behavior and, or can culture have power on its own? And what will the symbols play in that, I guess, is really important. So one of the things I argue is that symbols themselves are sometimes the motivator, they’re not just to, kind of a subset, they’re not just a tool, but they can sometimes be themselves, you know. They can have constitutive power on their own. So, you know, one of the interesting things I tried to argue is also about the economic objects themselves should be studied for their symbolic value, and the ways in which they can constitute identity. So, you know, sociologists have long understood economic objects, really through an exploitative lens, for good reasons and have been caught up, kind of, in Marxist understandings of what economic objects do. And one of the things I try to argue is that economic objects can also have constitutive power in shaping consumers’ identities. So, you know, and we know this sort of intuitively, and there’s some work looking at things like, you know, the Eco-movement. What does it mean to buy green? Does purchasing green products make you feel more like, you know, an ecological person? But it hasn’t been something that we’ve really taken up as sociologists in any more significant ways. And so I’m hoping that this book will do that.
In terms of engagement and extremist groups, I feel like one of the things I’m trying to say is that there are, you know, it’s not only political motivations that draw people into the scene. And I think particularly for young adolescents, cultural motivations need to be understood as a part of, as a mechanism that can draw people in. And we can look at these scenes, you know, the two big themes to animate my analysis of the symbols are, kind of, belonging and protest. So, on the one hand, the way these symbols facilitate a sense of group identity, the consumption of these products help, you know, contribute to a sense of belonging to peers and group identity. But they also are mechanisms of protest against mainstream society who many youth in these settings may feel let down by, and I think those mechanisms of belonging and protests are really powerful, have explanatory power, and really, you know, in really powerful ways for how young people engage with the far-right and potentially with other extremist movements. So I argue that, you know, it’s not just subcultural style, but it can be a powerful kind of gateway to radicalization and violence in a variety of ways that we have to pay more attention to.
Will Brehm: 35:18
Well, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, thanks for joining Fresh Ed.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss: 35:21
Happy, too. Thanks for inviting me.