The annual International Workshop on Right-Wing Extremism sponsored by the FES Network “Combating Right Wing Extremism” and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was scheduled to take place at the SPLC in Atlanta, Georgia May 11-14th 2020, however the COVID-19 pandemic made a physical workshop impossible. In lieu of the in-person meeting and given the urgency of right-wing extremism in current politics – especially in trying times for public health and the economies of many countries – we opted to meet virtually via videoconference for the very first time. Though Zoom can hardly replace the personal connections and experiences this network thrives on, it offered the opportunity to successfully engage in dialogue with minimal financial and environmental expenses.
The FES network “Combating Right Wing Extremism” extends across national borders, uncovers right-wing extremist and right-wing populist groups, and offers approaches and solutions to contain the detrimental effects right wing extremism and populism have on democracy, civic participation, and the rule of law. The network currently includes approximately 25 regular participants who are high-ranking experts from academia, state intelligence and security services, and civil society who are active in the fields of right-wing extremism and misanthropic tendencies in Germany, Poland, Hungary, Great Britain, the USA, and Canada. Organizations represented in the network include the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Hope not Hate, the Never Again Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The location of the International Workshop on Right-Wing Extremism workshop has alternated between the U.S. and Europe since its founding 16 years ago. Over time, the networks formed in the workshop have grown, and this year we brought together more than 30 experts from Europe, Germany, the United States, and Canada. Its success lays specifically in the international exchange of knowledge and the formulation of best practices and policy recommendations. Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism in the guise of illiberalism, nationalism and authoritarianism connect extreme right-wing parties and groups across borders, making these issues and perspectives some of the greatest political challenges of our time. According to the SPLC, there are currently 1020 extreme right-wing groups in the United States, while the number of groups and the ranks of their membership have been increasing for years. This growth of right-wing extremism in the United States can be attributed to a combination of unique local factors: lax or inadequate gun laws, an overpriced health care system, a lack of immigration reform, rampant conspiracy theories, a sympathetic President, and silent Republicans tolerant of the President and unwilling to condemn bigotry.
The COVID-19 pandemic is now the newest contributor to the spread of right-wing extremist ideologies. In Germany and here in the United States, people have increasingly gathered to protest strict public health guidelines and shut down policies put in place by governments at the state level. These protests are perfect physical spaces for right-wing extremists to mingle, spread hate and conspiracies by blaming foreigners or minorities, and by encouraging anti-government sentiments. In Europe, nationalist tendencies are now strengthened thanks to right-wing populism in political parties from the AfD in Germany to the National Rally (formerly National Front) in France, and the current governments in Poland and Hungary. Our democracies must oppose these political currents and the threats they pose to international human rights at all levels - also and especially through politics and civil society.
The speaker on the current U.S. situation emphasized that the pandemic has heightened activities among right-wing extremist movements. A trend investigators are seeing in the U.S. is that hate is not only targeted at one specific group, but rather randomly and generally addressed towards minorities, religious communities, and foreigners. “What to do if you get COVID-19”, reads one fake CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organization) online flyer distributed through social media, advising “Visit your local mosque!; Visit your local synagogue!; Spend time in diverse neighborhoods!; Spend the day on public transportation!”. Instagram, iFunny, Facebook, Telegram, even gaming platforms such as Dishboard (and many others) are being used to spread these and many similar dangerous, hateful, and inflammatory messages. “If you hate the bug, give a hug” reads another such message on Telegram that continues “Spread the flu to every Jew”. These messages and their spread via social media raise an important question as to how to deal with this from a political or legal perspective. One of the broadest and most fundamental rights of citizens of the United States is freedom of speech (outlined in the 1st Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution), so it is an uphill struggle to condemn, convict, or even limit hate speech online.
Another speaker presented the views from Germany, concluding that though the numbers of people within the right-wing extremist movement have not changed by much, the level of intensity, aggression, and violence in these movements has increased. These groups organize themselves less through formal party structures, but rather loosely in Kameradschaften, neo-Nazi groups, and violent terrorist groups. Domestic terrorism has subsequently become more visible and more brutal in Germany. Stefan Ernst and Markus Hartman, both members of a neo-Nazi group in the State of Hesse, allegedly shot and killed Walter Lübcke, a senior governement official in the state who was a member of the CDU, the conservative Christian Democratic Party, and known to favor pro-refugee policies. The assassination of a high-ranking politician in Germany had not happened since the RAF (Red Armee Faction) in the 1970s. Another example of domestic terrorism was the attempt by the right-wing extremist Stephan Balliet to shoot and kill people attending services marking the highest Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, in a Synagogue in Halle in the State of Saxony-Anhalt. He even tried live streaming with a helmet camera, which is why there is a new ongoing discussion on Gamification of Terrorism in Germany. Balliet couldn’t get into the Synagogue and thus changed his plans instantly – apparently thinking that if he could not kill Jews, he could kill Muslims instead – by killing a random person on the street and a patron of a nearby Kebab shop.
Since the 2017 federal elections in Germany, there has also been a relatively new political party in the federal parliament or Bundestag: the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland). This party is known for its racist policies and rhetoric, and particularly dangerous contingent, “Der Flügel” (“the wing"), which was deemed a right-wing extremist group within the AfD in March 2020. Despite this contingent being officially dissolved at the end of April, its former members are still considered dangerous and are being monitored by the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), the domestic intelligence service of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The 2020 meeting, though a virtual event, was successful as it brought more voices together than would have been able to travel for the originally scheduled meeting in Atlanta. At one point, the Zoom tracker counted 38 international experts that exchanged significant analysis of noteworthy right-wing actions from the transatlantic sphere for discussion and evaluation. The network decided to add a virtual meeting to the annual in-person meetings in the future, giving the network an additional opportunity to undertake these important exchanges.
Michael Czogalla is the Program Officer for Foreign- and Security Issues at the Washington Office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.