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Decoding Extremism

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A protest poster against white nationalist symbols. Man with a red backdrop. The German-to-English translation of this poster: “Say goodbye to your Nazi wear: Anti-fascist demonstration against Thor Steinar and the right-wing lifestyle.”
Germans have protested these white nationalist symbols. The German-to-English translation of this poster: “Say goodbye to your Nazi wear: Anti-fascist demonstration against Thor Steinar and the right-wing lifestyle.”

Many experts associate the alt-right with white nationalism, a movement alarmingly embraced in recent years by young, internet-savvy Americans. But the U.S. is not the only country where racism is rebranding. American University associate professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss has written a new book about the spread of racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic sentiments in contemporary Germany.

If alt-right messages are found in previously endearing images like Pepe the Frog, where can one uncover the hidden symbols of German white nationalism? Designer clothes.

According to Miller-Idriss’ book, The Extreme Gone Mainstream: Commercialization and Far Right Youth Culture in Germany, commercial products and clothing are laced with disturbing references to Nazism and similar ideologies.

“I initially wanted to understand this coding as a study of symbols and subcultures,” says Miller-Idriss. “Then I realized that I was learning something with more mainstream relevance. It was no longer just a study about a subcultural niche. It was also a study about why extremism is appealing to such broad groups of people.”

An associate professor of education and sociology, Miller-Idriss is also associate dean of academic affairs for AU’s School of Education.

New Styles, New Expressions

For her research, Miller-Idriss examined thousands of images in digital archives. She also interviewed many young Germans and their teachers in two vocational schools with a history of far right extremist presence. She detailed how young Germans transitioned from hard-edged skinheads to fashionable, if subtle, consumers of white nationalism. These people may appear less menacing on the surface, but they often harbor the same hateful ideas.

It’s a generational shift, with radical Germans now adopting more understated personas. “The skinhead style was a big commitment. You shaved your head, and you had this outfit that communicated to everyone around you what your style was, what your political sensibility was, and maybe even your willingness to be violent,” she explains. “This new clothing allows a lot of young people to secretly convey a message, but hide their identity a little bit. It isn’t as big of a commitment. It also allows them to avoid some of the stigma, while still expressing their right-wing ideology.”

Nordic Symbols and the Far Right

German companies market these products in catalogs that look something akin to the fall J. Crew collection. And the white nationalist allusions are sometimes so arcane, Miller-Idriss’ research was partly an exercise in decoding and decryption.

“I’d see a T-shirt with a historic looking ship that said ‘Madagascar’ on it. So, then I’d start researching World War II history, and it turns out that there was an original Final Solution to send Jews to Madagascar on transport ships,” she says. “Sometimes it took me so long to figure out what some of the codes meant.”

Some of these symbols, while frequently used in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, predate the Nazi era. Young Germans are latching onto Nordic imagery, with the belief that Germanic tribes are descendants of Aryan-like Nordic tribes.

“It’s kind of evoking this idea of a lost era, or a sense of a sacred homeland,” she notes. During her many interviews, people’s answers were quite revealing. “They explained that Nordic is basically a way of talking about Aryanness, without directly talking about race.”

The Extreme Becomes Mainstream

The apparel is high-end and sporty, and dressing this way in a hip, urban setting like Berlin becomes normalized. The extreme becomes mainstream in a troubling way, she says. Yet even if that ideology is out in the open, effectively combating it is still difficult. Like alt-righters relishing their opposition to “political correctness,” young Germans have persisted in the face of disapproval and Germany’s restrictive speech laws.

“I think the appeal of the market comes from the fact that there are so many images you can’t display,” she says. “There’s a lot that you can’t show or say in Germany that you could do here in the U.S. And I think that created opportunities for brands to come in and create this kind of market.”

Again, she notes parallels to the climate in the U.S. Mainstream media outlets are still unsure how to cover far-right political activists, and colleges are frequently divided over letting them speak on campus. It’s a balance between free speech and airing—even legitimizing—potentially racist, incendiary views.

“I think the media probably have a really big responsibility right now to write stories about this extremism,” she argues.

In her research of Germany, she believes studying this phenomenon is a step toward curtailing it. “There’s no way to know what good interventions might look like unless I develop a better understanding of where these ideas are coming from, and why people are buying these products,” she says.

What Comes Next

Right-wing nationalists are gaining ground in other western countries, whipping up anger toward immigration, Islam, and the European Union. Miller-Idriss says Germans now realize they’re not immune to this anti-establishment backlash. In the September elections, the far right AfD party won almost 13 percent of the vote and secured more than 90 seats in the German Bundestag.

"It's the first far-right party to be in government since the early 1960s. I think that was a big wake-up call for Germany," she says. "There are clearly large portions of the population for whom that kind of rhetoric is attractive."

But how worried should people be of this surge? “There are strongly organized attempts to recruit and to grow the far right,” she says. “So, we have to be vigilant. I do think it’s going to continue to be a minority. The question is, how vocal does that minority become?”