Far-Right Memory in the Digital Age

Katarina Ristić, Global and European Studies Institute, Leipzig University; Anne-Linda Amira Augustin / Freya Leinemann / Susanne Fischer, InRa-Studie “Institutionen & Rassismus”, Leipzig University
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
08.06.2023 - 10.06.2023
Therese Mager, Research Centre Global Dynamics, Leipzig University

While research on collective memory has long investigated tensions between national amnesia regarding past conflicts and transgressions on the one hand and calls for self-critical awareness and commemoration practices on the other, the role of far-right stakeholders in these processes remains under-researched. Far-right actors nonetheless weigh in heavily in such debates, impacting discourses on past state crimes and troubled historical eras through political action, mass media, and online engagement. Motivated by a variety of ideologies, including radical ethnonationalism, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, these far-right stakeholders seek to produce via commemorative discourses and practices what Rosenfeld (2021) calls “illiberal” memory, and to foster a number of counter-narratives. In the making and spreading of these discourses and practices, digital media and forums such as Reddit, Twitter, 4Chan, and TikTok play a vital role.

Bringing together over a dozen young researchers from around the world, the Collaborative Research Centre 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” at Leipzig University and the InRa study “Institutions & Racism” (funded by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Home Affairs by decision of the German Bundestag) sought to address the importance of digital media in the dissemination of far-right memory discourses via an interdisciplinary workshop.

Greetings were given by far-right extremism expert OLIVER DECKER (Leipzig), director of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik-Institut in Leipzig. In a subsequent keynote presentation, ANNA WAGNER (Bielefeld) and CHRISTIAN SCHWARZENEGGER (Bremen) addressed the use of humor in digital far-right activist milieus. The speakers highlighted the function of satire and humorous images – notably in the form of memes – in the context of far-right memory practices, from making extremist ideas more digestible and easy to circulate, to normalizing revisionist histories and counterfactual narratives.

Workshop organizer KATARINA RISTIĆ (Leipzig) then outlined numerous questions at the heart of the workshop, exploring the differences between “illiberal” and fascist memory practices. With regard to the memorialization of crimes against humanity in any given national or regional context, she emphasized a distinction between stakeholders seeking to downplay or rehabilitate the past – such as right-wing populist politicians – and those seeking to celebrate and even glorify it. Her lecture pointed to the role of online forums in disseminating this second type of memorialization, and drew attention to the transnational, bottom-up nature of right-wing extremist digital engagement.

The workshop continued with a series of four panels. Kicking off the first panel, NED RICHARDSON-LITTLE (Erfurt) focused on the German far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with a presentation about the party’s Twitter memorialization of carefully selected anniversaries in East German (or GDR) history. On the one hand, he noted, the AfD pointedly celebrates dates like the 1953 East German uprising or the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall as a means of vilifying present-day left-wing parties in Germany, associating them with the dictatorial regime of the GDR. On the other hand, the party appropriates the memory of anti-authoritarian struggle in order to raise its own profile and attempt to identify with those oppressed by the GDR.

FEEZA VASUDEVA (Helsinki) discussed the growth of a powerful online contingent of Hindu nationalist stakeholders who develop, disseminate, and defend (especially on social media) content offering a circumscribed or falsified reading of India’s history and origins. Noting the influence of the National Socialist ideal of “blood and soil” in their discourses, she also suggested that these online actors are strongly motivated by ressentiment, a Nietzschean term meaning an emotional drive which centers on the notion of victimhood.

JAZMINE CONTRERAS (Baltimore) delved into the online content produced by the Dutch far-right, anti-establishment Forum for Democracy (FvD) party, with a particular focus on party leader Thierry Baudet’s English-language YouTube videos. She outlined Baudet’s whitewashed approach to Dutch history, his embrace of declinist conspiracy theories, and his declared opposition to globalization. In aiming his videos at non-Dutch viewers, she asserted, Baudet seeks to build transnational alliances, contributing to a growing white-nationalist “civilizationalist” trend that has accompanied the recent rise of European far-right parties.

Opening the second panel, ANDREAS DAFNOS (Munich) described his team’s research on Holocaust memory within reactionary conservative activist circles. Basing his analysis on the notoriously far-right 4chan “/pol/” forum between 2020 and 2023, he mapped out the key terms evoked in threads with the word “Holocaust” in their subject line. In addition to discussing his methodology, he shared visualizations of his early results, which pointed to the influence of current events on the prevalence of certain terms and topics in the forum.

ADINA MARINCEA (Bucharest) highlighted the present-day conditions in Romania – from the electoral success of the right-wing populist party Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR) in 2020, to the overnight development of a network of alternative right-wing (social) media channels – which have emboldened neofascist groups and normalized the rehabilitation of interwar fascist figures. In particular, her research showed how a network of intertwined Telegram channels created by neofascist organizations, nationalist Orthodox groups, football ultras, and supporters of right-wing senators, together with right-wing alternative media, have strategically mobilized, both online and onsite, to whitewash the memory of war criminal Mircea Vulcănescu.

ANASTASIYA PSHENYCHNYKH (Loughborough) explored the struggle over commemorative monuments that has unfolded on Ukrainian territory (and beyond) since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. While pro-Ukrainian stakeholders have sought to remove or damage Soviet and Russian monuments wherever possible, pro-Russian actors have responded by re-erecting and restoring them. Demonstrating that these real-life struggles are reflected on social media, she presented a multimodal critical discourse analysis of digital battles over monuments and memory that have been taking place on Ukrainian and (pro-Russian) Crimean Telegram channels.

In the third panel, which focused on extreme-right violence, PHILLIP STENMANN BAUN (Aarhus) outlined the global history imagined by the Christchurch terrorist, as reconstructed through the many references to the past and present emblazoned on his weaponry. Through the shooter’s use of numerous cultural icons signifying a “heroic struggle” between Christian Europe and Islam, he sought on the one hand to canonize himself within a larger “holy war”, and on the other hand to incite future terrorism through the promise of hagiographic remembrance. Stenmann Baun also analyzed digital far-right memory of the 2019 Christchurch shooting and similar attacks, showing how perpetrators have become mnemonic signifiers in a wider complex of “memories of violence”.

FATIH BAHADIR KAYA (Bochum) discussed which action-guiding and latent meaning structures shaped the Hanau shooter in the lead-up to the 2020 terrorist attack in Hanau, Germany. Based on the shooter’s letter of confession, Bahadir Kaya examined the structures that influenced both the shooter and the New Right milieu (Neue Rechte). He then focused on the importance of the (symbolic) invocation of the Knights Templar for the New Right milieu, as well as for the shooter. Finally, he demonstrated how the Hanau shooter sought to associate himself with the tradition of the Knights Templar, creating a place for himself in far-right memory as a figure of reference.

NICOLÁS ALBERTO LÓPEZ PÉREZ (Salerno) examined the continuity of memory practices that glorify the 1973 coup d’état in Chile (which resulted in the Pinochet dictatorship) over the last fifty years. Above all, his research emphasized the period since Chile’s return to democracy in 1990. In the face of the primacy of an antagonistic vision of the recent past as promoted by right-wing and far-right parties, López Pérez explored an agonistic approach to the construction of memory, with the aim of applying a more nuanced and holistic understanding to Chile’s troubled history.

The fourth and final panel dealt with digital memory wars. JOHANNA MAJ SCHMIDT (Leipzig) examined how heroism is represented in the context of the meme-based online campaign launched by far-right supporters of Donald Trump in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, ironically called the “Great Meme War” by its participants. She found that, in contrast to the unambiguously serious approach to the heroic in “traditional” Nazi and neo-Nazi propaganda, many memes from the Great Meme War exhibit an ambivalent relationship to heroism. Using visual examples, she asserted that while these self-deprecating memes appear to be in jest, they in fact convey their creators’ genuine desire for heroism, which is then denied by means of irony.

ANDREAS NIEGL (Kassel) described and decrypted Hyperborean Mashup, a category of video memes that emerged in 2020 and is steeped in far-right concepts, conspiracy theories, symbolism, and lore. Based on a sense of victimization, hopelessness, and longing, Hyperborean Mashup targets despondent and alienated teenagers as well as young adult males, and is part of a larger, amorphous far-right network that may encourage violent action. Niegl outlined numerous influences for this meme subgenre, such as the writings of reactionary philosopher Julius Evola or the Italian neo-fascist Ordine Nuovo organization, showing how Hyperborean Mashup and related types of memes fit into the broader tradition of esoteric fascism.

DANA DOLGHIN (Amsterdam) described the digital community of “tradwives” (short for ”traditional wives”), which, via an ecosystem made up of social media platforms and blogs, has become an important curator of far-right, anti-feminist, nativist, and natalist digital content. Emerging from the anti-feminist digital environment in 2013, the tradwives community celebrates homemaking as an emancipatory personal choice for women and increasingly seeks to challenge the political “liberal script”. Dolghin noted that tradwives platforms serve an important role in digital far-right circles, as they both engage women and assist in “mainstreaming” far-right values.

Closing the final panel, HANNA-SOPHIE RUESS (Augsburg) scrutinized the weaponization of memory and history by far-right activists in digital media spaces. She first delineated how the construction of memory and history has been transformed by digital media. She then outlined how history and memory are communicatively weaponized by (radical) far-right actors, and why digital media and particularly social media are well-suited to this purpose. Finally, she provided examples of this digital weaponization, offering insights into contemporary research on populist memes as well as her own team’s empirical work on far-right women activists.

This workshop made a valuable contribution to understanding the transnational, multifaceted, and grassroots nature of various digital far-right communities. Importantly, it also highlighted the myriad discourses and diverse strategies employed by these digital stakeholders to distort, reframe, and celebrate violent historical events or eras. Workshop participants made it clear that while far-right digital stakeholders may turn to the past for inspiration, nostalgia, and invention, their sights are often set on impacting future outcomes by hijacking the direction of cultural (and, by extension, political) discourse. Finally, as became clear during the post-panel and final discussions, the workshop benefited strongly from its transdisciplinary and international character, with participants able to share methodological practices as well as identify parallels between their (albeit highly varied) case studies.

Conference overview:

Opening: Oliver Decker (Leipzig)

Welcome: Katarina Ristić (Leipzig)

Keynote Lecture

Anna Wagner (Bielefeld) and Christian Schwarzenegger (Bremen): The Past as a Laughing Stock and Battleground. Humor, Memory and Far-Right Revisionism in the Digital Age


Katarina Ristić (Leipzig): Far-right or Fascist Memory?

Panel I: Far-Right Memory Politics

Ned Richardson-Little (Erfurt): Far-Right Anniversary Politics and Social Media: The Alternative for Germany’s Contestation of the East German Past on Twitter

Feeza Vasudeva (Helsinki): Ressentiment, Affective Memory and Right-Wing Politics Misinformation in India

Jazmine Contreras (Baltimore): Memory Across Digital Borders: Forum for Democracy (Netherlands) and the Spread of Conspiracy Theories on YouTube

Panel II: Far-Right Memory of World War II

Andreas Dafnos (Munich): Holocaust Memory in the Digital Far Right

Adina Marincea (Bucharest): Taking Stock of a Fascist Centenary: Mapping Romanian Far-right Memory Production in the Digital Age

Anastasiya Pshenychnykh (Loughborough): Digital Memory Wars over Monuments on Ukrainian and Crimean Telegram Channels

Panel III: Far-Right Violence, Perpetrators and Memory

Phillip Stenmann Baun (Aarhus): Far-Right Memory: The Case of the Christchurch Shooter

Fatih Bahadir Kaya (Bochum): What Lies Behind the So-Called Psychosis of the Confession Letter of the Hanau Assassin?

Nicolás Alberto López Pérez (Salerno): De-Archiving the Perpetrators: 50 Years After the Coup d’État in Chile

Panel IV: Memory Wars in the Digital Age

Johanna Maj Schmidt (Leipzig): Fake History Memes in Honour of Meme Warriors – Historiography and Heroes in the Context of the Great Meme War

Andreas Niegl (Kassel): From Kekistan to Hyperborea: Meme Metapolitics And The Traditionalist Reactionary Imaginary

Dana Dolghin (Amsterdam): Nostalgia and Loss in the Digital Community: #Tradwives

Hanna-Sophie Rueß (Augsburg): Deformed, Devalued and Distorted: Transfigurations of Memory in Far-Right Commemorative Populism

Closing discussion

Methodological and Theoretical Considerations for Research on Far-Right Memory in the Digital Age