Evan Thomas spoke to some of the activists, who said they are frustrated by the recent refugee crisis and plan to continue carrying out acts of civil disobedience.
This media-savvy organization, primarily made up of college students, is changing the nationalist scene in Europe through their defiant, but nonviolent tactics.
A few years ago, old-style nationalist or neo-Nazi groups sought to attract young people opposed to multiculturalism and mass immigration. Now, the Identitarians have established themselves as an alternative, aiming to be a “patriotic Greenpeace-type organization”, as their Vienna-branch leader Martin Sellner puts it.
Recent stunts include blocking the A4 road near Nickelsdorf, occupying a border post in Salzburg, and building a border fence on the Austrian-Hungarian border.
The group says it has used social media to reach thousands of people since the start of the refugee crisis in September. They want Syrians to seek refuge in regions in the Middle East or North Africa. They claim that proceeds from their “border helper” (Grenzhelfer) stunts will be going to World Vision to support refugees in safe zones neighbouring Syria – rather than in Europe.
Alexander Markovics, who heads up Austria's Identitarian movement, believes that “Europe can never hope to solve the migrant crisis and world poverty through immigration”.
He claims it is short-sighted and culturally-destructive for all involved. “Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other nearby countries are more logical destinations for them, and this is where Europe should be focusing aid efforts and diplomatic leverage,” he adds.
While there is some disagreement on how to classify the Identitarian movement politically – whether it be far-right, right, or ‘new right’ – they represent something distinct from traditional right-wing groups of the post-war period.
Photo: Evan Thomas
Identitarianism claims “ethno-cultural pluralism” as a core value, which says no group of people is more or less valuable than another. This view, Markovics says, is of central importance to their worldview and has allowed them to attract young people from various political leanings.
In keeping with the idea that different people should be free to run their own societies, they take positions that seem almost influenced by the traditional left than far-right – for example being anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and in favour of self-determination. The emphasis on strengthening indigenous identities globally and opposing assimilation is also uncharacteristic of the far-right.
Despite representing a break from traditional far-right extremists, the Identitarian movement remains very controversial for its vocal criticism of mass immigration and multiculturalism – which Markovics argues, “makes the preservation of ethno-cultural identities impossible and will lead to a non-European Europe”.
As Europe becomes more polarized on issues of culture and migration, a part of Austrian society is seeing this position as more reasonable than they otherwise might have in the recent past.
According to Julian Bruns, an expert on far-right movements, when talking about the Identitarians it is important to keep in mind that they don't bring violence to the streets, instead it is their messages that present a danger because they know how to package them well.
He says that since the movement’s beginnings in France in 2012, it has been made up of students, not skinheads, who use popular culture and new right rhetoric to attract young adults to their movement.
The social anxiety over the migrant crisis that Austria’s Identitarians are tapping into, is also facilitating a boost in popularity for the Freedom Party. The FPO, campaigning to reduce immigration, could conceivably win a majority in Vienna's October elections – something that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.
Many Identitarians have links to the Freedom Party, and the FPO's recent success in Upper Austria's state elections was marked with jubilation on some of the movement's social media profiles.
Potentially even deeper than the divisions highlighted by the Greek debt crisis earlier this summer, the current refugee crisis has exposed profound differences among Europeans on the direction, role, and even definition of Europe.