The international conference in January 15-16 2020 at CBEES premisses.

The international conference in January 15-16 2020 at CBEES premisses.

Conference reports Far-right Memory Politics in the Internet Era: Snapshots from a Workshop

The International Workshop Far-right Memory Politics in the Internet Era held at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies from 15–16 January 2020 investigated the nexus between far-right activism, memory politics and the internet.

Published on on February 5, 2021

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The International Workshop Far-right Memory Politics in the Internet Era held at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies from 15–16 January 2020 investigated the nexus between far-right activism, memory politics and the internet.

A number of years ago, a TV commercial for an Italian telephone company asked what kind of world we would be living in today if Gandhi had been able to stream his message of peace and understanding on a global level using current communication technologies. The commercial gave a sense of hope. A parody of the spot, streamed on YouTube, substituted Gandhi with Adolf Hitler and asked the same question. In recent decades, the internet and social media space have empowered secluded groups and given a voice to powerless people like never before. However, the online environment has also changed the nature and augmented the impact of revisionist narratives and anti-democratic politics promoted by far-right groups. As early as the 1990s, Manuel Castells described how the “networked” society of the internet gave even small and under-resourced networks a good deal of visibility. The internet audience is large, varied and often responsive to appeals for on-site action. The digital “space of flows” – the hubs in which different networks intersect – permits an augmented dissemination of marginalized counter-histories. Former Nazi collaborators and their younger sympathizers have become adept at using these online hubs for coordinating their activities, even on an international level, and for disseminating their contents globally. The International Workshop Far-right Memory Politics in the internet Era organized at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies, Södertörn University from 15–16 January 2020 investigated the nexus between far-right activism, memory politics and the internet.

The workshop was opened on 15 January 2020 by Södertörn University scholars Andrej Kotljarchuk, Madeleine Hurd, Steffen Werther, and Francesco Zavatti with an introductory presentation of their research project Memory Politics in Far-right Europe: Celebrating Nazi Collaborationists in Post-1989 Belarus, Romania, Flanders and Denmark, funded by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies and based at the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University. The project analyzes the creation and use of revisionist narratives by the far-right in present-day Europe and, in doing so, critically assesses the history of several groups of the European far-right from the postwar period to the internet era. Part of the focus of the project is on the activities of Nazi collaborationist veterans who re-organized themselves in Western Europe and the Americas after the Second World War. Starting in 1945, the former pro-Axis sympathizers gradually corroded the confinement from the mainstream memory framework. They achieved this by spending their time and energy networking at a transnational level and establishing different kinds of organizations. According to the narratives that they published in memoirs and underground periodicals, as well as in talks held during the memorials to their fallen comrades, they ascribed themselves the status of patriots and defenders of Europe against the communist threat. The seeds of poisonous revisionism that they planted and cultivated with great patience and dedication proliferated culturally and politically across the Western hemisphere throughout the second half of the 20th century. After the demise of communism, the “memory grab” that accompanied de-communization gave the Eastern European veterans and their supporters greater access to mainstream politics: they could work with political parties, scholars and journalists in formulating the stories that were to legitimize the new democratic regimes. The “double genocide theory”, which redefines the perpetrators of Nazi atrocities as victims of Communist genocide and, in turn, justifies the exterminationist ambitions of interwar and wartime far-right movements, is the most successful metanarrative of these groups. The “double-genocide theory” has much in common with the self-absolving narratives disseminated by Western European far-right groups, who present themselves as martyrs and their nations as victims. In the 21st century, these narratives are being disseminated globally by old former Nazi collaborators, though primarily by younger militants. Far-right networks have benefited from the rise of social media, using what Manual Castells terms “transnational discursive public spaces” to gain visibility despite their small size and limited resources. References to wartime tales and symbols, to accounts and pictures of their memory sites and collective rituals, uploaded in fully illustrated and open access websites, e-publications and e-repositories, have provided Nazi collaborationist veterans and their successors with a large and varied audience on a global scale, often responsive to appeals for on-site action. In order to provide new insights into the memory politics of the far-right, and specifically into their historical origin and development, their transnational dimension and their use of the internet to internationalize and normalize, the project members have analyzed the case studies of several Eastern and Western European far-right groups.

Andrej Kotljarchuk (Södertörn University) presented his sub-project ‘Martyrs for Europe’: The Legacy of Belarus Waffen-SS and Home Defense Veterans in Today’s Belarus, aimed at examining the use of revisionist narratives from the Second World War and of the postwar anti-communist resistance in post-Soviet Belarus. In present-day Belarus, the official heroes of the Second World War are only those citizens who fought against the Nazis. This reflects the close ties between President Alexander Lukashenko and Russia. The 1999 treaty mandating a Union State of Russia and Belarus currently manifests in a customs and military union and it looks forward to having a shared parliament, flag and national anthem. Instead, opponents of Lukashenko are seeking to reject Russia altogether. The ties with Russia are particularly resented by pro-West nationalists. These nationalists wish to promote a Second World War pantheon of heroes comprising all those citizens who fought against the Soviet Union, including the Nazi collaborators and ultranationalist groups who parachuted into the country as anti-communist fighters after 1945. Today, their cult, sponsored by anti-Lukashenko and ‘pro-Europe’ digital platforms and networks, is popular among far-right radical groups. As a method, the sub-project includes an analysis of the visual glorification of pro-Nazi military collaborators in the digital posters designed by radical groups and distributed via social media.

Steffen Werther (Södertörn University) and Madeleine Hurd (Södertörn University) presented their sub-project Memory Work of ‘Germanic’ Waffen-SS Veterans after 1990 and the Legacy of the Waffen-SS in a European Perspective, on the one hand focused on Waffen-SS veterans’ identity and memory work and, on the other hand, on the cultural and political legacy and ideology of Waffen-SS veterans in European far-right groups and in popular culture. The study encompasses the activities of German, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch and Flemish Waffen-SS veterans and supporters during the postwar period, focusing on the key decades following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The working hypothesis is that “Germanic” European veterans have been able to exploit changes in the definitions of “Europe” and “Europeans” inherent, first, in the Cold War and, after 1990, in the expansion of the European Union. The study concentrates on three areas: the making of the “European” grand narrative by the trans-European community of Waffen-SS veterans and sympathizers; the memory work by the Waffen-SS in printed media and spatialized rituals and commemorations; and the “passing of the torch” to a younger generation of admirers who range from ardent admirers of the volunteers’ heroism over apologetic history buffs to blatant neo-Nazis.

The present writer, Francesco Zavatti (Södertörn University), presented his sub-project The Memory Work of the Legionary Movement across the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Since the early 1990s, in post-communist Romania, the Nazi collaborationist Legionary Movement has reappeared in small and politically insignificant parties and associations. The Legionary Movement’s networks proliferated in post-communist Romania due to the antisemitism that had already been fomented during the late-communist dictatorship by ultra-nationalist communist intellectuals and Securitate generals. Once Ceauşescu was gone, Legionary Movement symbols and anti-Semitic rhetoric were once again publicly showcased by a composite mixture of old exiled veterans, former anti-communist fighters and political prisoners, as well as young university students, all of them not in power positions but extremely active in disseminating their credo. Their attempt to champion the discourse on the national past was conducted through intense and dedicated memory work by publishing history books, memoires and periodicals and by commemorating the Legionary Movement and its martyrs in the public space. The sub-project focuses on the trans-national, trans-generational and more generally trans-historical continuities that permitted symbols, keywords and narratives of Legionary Movement to survive across the multiple political and cultural storms of the 20th century into the internet era.

The first session of the workshop focused on the similarities and differences between the construction of victims by present day and 20th century far-right groups (Session 1: Grievable Bodies: Commemorating Yesterday’s and Today’s Martyrs. Chair: Andrej Kotljarchuk. Discussants: Steffen Werther and Justina Smalkyté). Sophie Schmalenberger (Aarhus University) presented the study The AFD as a Memory Alternative for Germany: The Chemnitz Case, aimed at shedding light on how far-right groups exploit and incorporate memory activism, which Schmalenberger understood as comprising practices and performances that commemorate and mourn, thereby drawing attention towards its grievable bodies. By using a combination of established and innovative repertoires, the far-right tries to articulate Germany and the Germans as victims in order to preserve and maintain an ethnic conceptualization of the German people as an endangered community in the face of a multicultural society. The case study focused on the reaction of the Alternative for Germany party (AFD) to a group of asylum seekers killing an inhabitant of Chemitz. AFD commemorated the victim as “German”, presented the perpetrators as “criminal foreigners” and claimed that the established political parties “forgot” about the victim. Such narratives construct the victims as Germans and dehumanize the perpetrators of non-political crimes by politicizing them in the same way they were politicized by Nazi propaganda in the last century. AFD operated almost exclusively via social media channels, promoting a configuration of meanings and feelings that crafted an alternative Germanness which did not conflict with the notion of Germany as a nation of perpetrators but, at the same time, fostered the same stereotypes and figured language used by the Nazis 100 years ago to dehumanize the Jews.[1]

The second session of the workshop focused on victimhood, but more specifically on how decontextualization, whataboutism and plain falsification favor the fostering of self-exculpating narratives among the far-right (Session 2: Constructing Victimhood: Decontextualizing and Faking History. Chair: Madeleine Hurd. Discussants: Francesco Zavatti and Ilana Hartikainen). Vanessa Tautter (University of Brighton) presented the paper Dis-|Composure: Far-Right Claims to Historical Victimhood. Tautter argues that because of the internet, the global memory culture has been increasingly accessible at a local level, enhancing the transnational impact of the concept of ‘victim-orientation’ on the European mnemonic landscape: the victim-oriented discourse on the Holocaust, the discourse of the decolonization movement and the discourses developed on the communist past after the fall of the Iron Curtain mattered in the reshaping of local memories throughout Europe. The recognition and mainstreaming of the co-responsibility for Nazi crimes by the Austrian State facilitated the deconstruction of heroic war narratives which, until the early 1990s, dominated the discourse of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). The FPÖ acknowledged the victims of Nazi crimes but it also promoted the notion of universal and inclusive victimhood for the entire Second World War generation. The intended consequence of this narrative shift is the decontextualization of Nazi active collaboration and popular support, with the consequent relativization of the Holocaust victims. As Tautter has shown, a number of mnemonic communities of the far-right do not accept the new mainstream narrative of the FPÖ. Consequently, social media has become a platform on which the Austrian far-right has recreated competing discourses on the past.[2]

While Austria and Germany have come to terms with their Nazi past, causing far-right parties to reorganize their discourses towards what is socially acceptable on a mainstream level, the memory regimes that are being enforced in Spain continue to silence the victims of Francoism while also permitting the memory of the Nazi collaborationist Blue Division to be widely mediatized and publicly celebrated. Marta Simó (Autonomous University of Barcelona) presented a paper called The Blue Division, Still Present in Today’s Far-right Memory in Spain, dedicated to analyzing the narratives of the Blue Division. The long duration of the Francoist dictatorship has allowed Blue Division veterans to commemorate their alignment with Nazi Germany in public ceremonies for decades. The regime that emerged from the transition also tolerated the public commemoration of these Nazi collaborators in democratic settings. In different periods, the self-exculpating narratives of Blue Division veterans and sympathizers have been fostered by different groups and networks. Since the postwar years, the Brotherhoods of the Blue Division contributed to popularizing Falangist principles and revisionist accounts of the Second World War history for the younger generations. During the last years of the dictatorship, they firmly sided with the agenda of other reactionary and conservative forces. During the transition, they became an important vector for mobilizing former combatants and the younger bunkeristas, for whom they represented idols of a glorious past epoch. Simó presented some of the most significant offline and online present-day mediatization of the Blue Division, whose fallen still have a road named in their honor in Madrid.

On 16 January 2020, the workshop focused on the power of the internet in mainstreaming the voices of the European far-right (Third panel: Mainstream Revisionism and the Online Far-right. Chair: Francesco Zavatti. Discussants: Andrej Kotljarchuk and Vanessa Tautter). Michael Cole (University of Tartu) presented the paper Far-Right Influence on Ukrainian World War Two Narratives, dedicated to comparing the Ukrainian government’s narratives on the Second World War with the narratives promoted online by far-right groups. Although since its independence from the Soviet Union it has proved impossible in Ukraine to exclude the Great Patriotic War from its official narratives, the interpretation of history has often changed, reflecting the pro-West or pro-Russia orientations of the incumbent. The competing visions on how to commemorate the past meant that the conflict prevailed over fairer, critical and less celebratory accounts. By focusing on Ukraine’s official narrative of the Second World War from 2014, Cole shows that hostility towards Russia favored the radicalization of the Second World War’s narratives, with the inclusion of elements that previously had only been promoted by far-right groups and which were not widely popular among Ukrainians, such as the slogans of the Nazi collaborationist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and a new heightened reverence for Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera. In the polarized public discourse, anyone criticizing the presence of such elements in the official narratives risked being accused of being sympathetic towards anti-Ukrainian narratives. The conflict with Russia exponentially increased the influence of the far-right in shaping the narratives of national commemorations of the Second World War, as witnessed by the competition between the alternative narratives streamed on Instagram by the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and Ukrainian far-right groups.

Other Eastern European far-right groups also succeeded in establishing their narratives on a mainstream level, sometimes due to a more constant online mobilization and a more innovative use of the old interwar discursive repertoires. This has been the case for Lithuanian far-right activists who run the revisionist online platform “Pro Patria”, about whom Justine Smalkyté (Science Po) presented the paper Politics of Selective Remembering in Post-1990 Lithuania: A Case Study of Postfascist “Pro Patria” Mnemonic Discourse. The presentation focused on the mnemonic discourse elaborated by “Pro Patria”. The platform, established over the last decade, evolved from a secluded far-right hub into a mainstream nationalist organization. In 2018, it attempted to establish a new post-fascist party. Smalkyté pointed out that the platform has disregarded mainstream topics exploited by the other Lithuanian far-right groups, focusing instead on the German occupation and Lithuanian anti-communist resistance. The “Pro Patria” authors would like to establish a continuity with the nationalist discourse of the 1930s and 1940s, whose main exponents are described as examples of national pride and inspiration for future generations. Interestingly, Pro Patria did not cooperate with other Eurosceptic and nationalist parties in Europe, and it even criticized other far-right groups, expressing sympathy instead for the illiberal regimes of Poland and Russia while still holding anti-Russian and anti-Polish sentiments.

A similar method for emerging and becoming mainstream has been implemented in the Czech Republic by the far-right Workers’ Party for Social Justice, about which Ilana Hartikainen (University of Helsinki) presented the paper Wait, Who Were the Collaborators? Analyzing the Discourse of the Czech Far-right in the last panel of the Workshop (Panel 4: Far-right Identities. From Analogical to Digital. Chair: Steffen Werther. Discussants: Madeleine Hurd and Steffen Werther). The party was established in 2010 after the Czech courts banned its precursor, The Workers’ Party, which openly promoted neo-Nazi ideology and violence. Thus far, the new party has not been censored, despite promoting a virtually identical ideology. With its online activism, the party succeeded in obviating its most embarrassing problem: it is a neo-Nazi party in a country whose mainstream historical narratives unanimously regard the Nazi occupation as being a breach of national sovereignty, and the Nazi collaborators as national traitors. These neo-Nazis found a solution by presenting the party as the ultimate defender of the Czech Republic and in constructing the European Union and immigrants as the “new invaders”, multiculturalism as the invaders’ ideology, and the other Czech parties as collaborationists of the new “occupying” powers. Hartikainen analyzed the party’s Facebook posts and discovered that the vocabulary used for describing present-day politics has a strong historical connotation: the wording is drawn from a revisionist account of the Second World War.

The studies presented in the workshop have contributed to identifying some of the complexities engendered by the nexus between far-right activism, memory politics and the internet. Overall, the European far-right has demonstrated that the internet and social media are easily weaponized in the attempt to globalize the messages of secluded groups. However, in contrast to the legitimate voicing of the grievances of civil society online, far-right digital revisionist narratives and online memory work are attempts at normalizing toxic content. It is worth noting that preserving narratives that glorify the Nazis and their wartime collaborators is not necessarily a characteristic of present-day far-right groups, although many of them still share these narratives. Instead, to exculpate the nation of its responsibilities for violence and persecutions and to present it as the victim of evil foes is a trait that unites them all. Such toxicity is not always obvious to the public at large: at first glance, far-right groups may seem devoted to commemorating their comrades who have fallen a long time ago or innocent victims of present-day street violence; in other cases, they may be perceived as “talking/writing about history”. As shown by the papers presented in the workshop, European far-right groups have succeeded in expanding their wartime and postwar revisionist discourse in order to better address mainstream politics, of readapting their messages to avoid legal hurdles, and of normalizing their discourses by drawing on the memory frameworks of an online Europe.


The International Workshop Far-right Memory Politics in the internet Era was organized by Francesco Zavatti with an endorsement and financial support from the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies (CBEES), with the kind collaboration of Andrej Kotljarchuk, Madeleine Hurd and Steffen Werther and with the vital support of CBEES staff.

This workshop report has been written in connection with the activities of the research project Memory Politics in Far-right Europe: Celebrating Nazi Collaborationists in Post-1989 Belarus, Romania, Flanders and Denmark, funded by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies and based at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University, 2018–2021. Website:


[1] While the approach of AFD in constructing German victimhood does not involve an explicit positioning towards the Nazi past, the neo-Nazi movement in Germany still openly commemorates Hitler’s hierarchs as heroes. For such an aim, the internet is a safe environment, in the face of strong societal opposition and legal and juridical obstacles to “offline” commemorations, as shown in the contribution Commemorating Rudolph Hess – From the Streets to the internet, submitted by Fabian Virchow (University of Applied Sciences – Düsseldorf), which focused on the commemorative activities surrounding the Nazi hierarch Rudoph Hess. The opposition to the commemoration of Hess in the Bavarian town of Wunsiedel has forced the neo-Nazis to establish web-based places of commemoration.

[2] Competing discourses in online environments are also constructed by faking history and image substitutions, as shown by the paper Image substitutes and visual fake history: Historical images of atrocity of the Ukrainian famine 1932-1933 on social media, submitted by Ekatherina Zhukova (University of Copenhagen), focused on Instagram posts that address the Ukrainian famine from 1932–1933. Such falsifications are constructed by using images of Soviet and South Asian famines that embed anti-communist and antisemitic connotations.

  • by Francesco Zavatti

    PhD, is presently a researcher at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies and at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University, Sweden. He is a historian of contemporary European history, specialized in the history of East-Central Europe and of Romania in particular, and interested in transnational history and memory studies. His most recent research article on the memory politics of the Romanian far-right was published in Memory Studies in early 2021.

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