On August 13, 1977, roughly 500 neo-Nazis were planning to march through Lewisham, a London borough with a sizable black community. They were there to protest against a so-called black crime wave. In the end, the far right weren’t able to march, thanks to the arrival of 4,000 counter-protestors. Vastly outnumbered, the neo-Nazis, after furious clashes, were led away by police through the streets and onto waiting trains. It was an embarrassing defeat.
By the 1980s, European neo-Nazis were keen to move on from street-protest activism. There was growing consensus that the route to power lay in electoral politics instead. Switching tactics, they rallied around the idea of “suits, not boots” to sow “respectability” in countries like the UK, France, and Sweden.
But on the 40th anniversary of the so-called “Battle of Lewisham,” on the other side of the Atlantic, a gathering by hundreds of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and the so-called “alt-right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, may have inspired a sharp break in that consensus. Across Europe, neo-Nazis have celebrated the US far-right’s return to the street.
Alexander Reid Ross, a lecturer at Portland State University in Oregon and the author of Against the Fascist Creep, says the events in Charlottesville marked ”the rebirth of the US fascist street movement,” which “has come out into public with numbers for the first time since David Duke’s Knights of the [Ku Klux] Klan.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Duke started his KKK offshoot in 1975 and sought to ”put a ‘kinder, gentler’ face on the Klan, courting media attention and attempting to portray itself as a modern ‘white civil rights’ organization.” Duke ran twice for US president in the 1980s. Back then, Ross says, members of US fascist groups were “far more concerned about maintaining the appearance of propriety.”
Those concerns were absent in Charlottesville, where demonstrators—Duke included—exhibited what Ross describes as a “new and ‘improved’ version” of the neo-Nazi street movement that Europeans know only too well.
For the last two decades, American neo-fascism, inspired by classical fascism from the 1930s with the ideas applied to modern social and economic circumstances, existed largely on the internet. In online communities hiding in plain sight, neo-Nazis were quick to weaponize irony and humor to spread their ideology. It was common to come across so-called “ironic Nazis” who shared jokes about the holocaust and genocide—and could insist, when called out on it, that it was all done in jest.
Meanwhile, the loose use of the term “alt-right” managed to clump together very different groups—from teenagers with Pepe avatars (the green frog that has become a symbol of the alt-right) but no real ideology to outright neo-Nazis. This, plus the irony defense, allowed more ardent elements of the alt-right to operate with a certain amount of ambiguity, says Angela Nagle, author of the new book Kill All Normies.
That ambiguity is now over after Charlottesville, Nagle says. “That argument about irony will never be made by a serious person ever again.”
The mask indeed has slipped. If previous, smaller marches by the alt-right and neo-Nazis were mobilized on the street under the banner of free speech—inspired by the riotous protests in February that shut down an event with right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California-Berkeley—the group that marched in Charlottesville was clear about its white nationalist goals and 1930s-style politics. The demonstrators in Virginia shouted neo-Nazi slogans (“blood and soil”), wore Nazi arm bands, carried fascist flags, and marched with tiki torches (another important piece of Nazi symbolism).
And then there was the bloodshed. A counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed and dozens were injured after a car driven by a white supremacist plowed into a group of pedestrians.
“The events of Charlottesville have forced everyone to fully realize to what it is that they’re advocating,” Nagle says. “The reality is that the goals of the alt-right would necessitate violence on a massive scale.”
In one particularly shocking video by Vice, a proud white supremacist is said to be inspired by Golden Dawn—a neo-Nazi party that has terrorized migrant communities in Greece.
This isn’t particularly surprising, says Ross. “The US fascist scene and the European fascist scene are historically intertwined.”
But there’s something that makes fascism a far more dangerous threat in the US than in Europe: gun laws.
In the US, “guns are part of the ball game,” says Mark Bray, a Dartmouth University lecturer and author of the forthcoming book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook.
While protesting a speech by Yiannopoulos in Seattle in January, an anti-fascist activist was shot by a Trump supporter. During the protest at Charlottesville, many white supremacists openly bragged about carrying guns and were joined by the armed-militia movement. Bray notes that some anti-fascists are discussing arming themselves as well. “It has the potential for escalation,” he says.
While neo-Nazi marches and violent street brawls have largely dissipated in Europe, there are still attempts to have a presence on the streets. This weekend, 500 neo-Nazis are planning to march in Germany to commemorate the death of Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess. But per German law, they will be banned from shouting Nazi slogans or bearing swastikas. They also have to follow a strict code of conduct that includes a ban on media interviews, alcohol, and mobile phones.
Meanwhile, in the US, where no such restrictions exist, far-right groups have planned at least nine rallies around the country for this weekend alone. The largest are expected at the “March on Google” demonstrations planned for Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere, protesting the firing of Google employee James Damore over a controversial anti-diversity memo he wrote. (Damore has distanced himself from the alt-right and said he’s “likely not” to participate.)
The marches no doubt will have the attention of fascist-movement organizers in Europe. After Charlottesville, a British website for white nationalists posted a video of the clashes, with the note: “Goodnight left side! Well done white nationalists.” The Nordic Resistance Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in Northern Europe, also offered up its congratulations to the protestors. Swedish far-right activist Simon Lindberg wrote that the rally was “something I had been waiting for—white Americans who are really fighting for our cause.”