The Radicalization of the Extreme Right: Charlottesville August 2017 and Chemnitz August 2018
In Germany, as in the United States, we are confronted with growing right-wing radicalism. Right-wing populists or radicals “offer” “solutions” by addressing perceived or real weaknesses or even crises in the social sphere and the political and party system, unleashing rage and addressing it to defined scapegoats; referring to right-wing authoritarian attitudes and traditions in sections of the population, evoking violence; and reinforcing them and ultimately endangering liberal democracy and the rule of law at its core.
Democracies have to deal with dangerous outbreaks of violence by right-wing radicals and neo-Nazis, such as those that happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and in Chemnitz, Germany, in late August/September 2018. Even if these phenomena vary according to national characteristics, they endanger democracy and its values of freedom, equality and human rights, and the dignity of man.
Against this background, it is of interest to reconstruct two right-wing extremist events—in Chemnitz and in Charlottesville—and to compare them for similarities and differences. Case studies in political and social science reconstruct the respective cases and their manifold aspects, profiling differences and similarities and gaining insights into the nature and course of events. With regard to the extreme right, it is important, first, how they have taken up and radicalized social, political, or cultural perceptions of crises. In both the Charlottesville and Chemnitz cases, they mobilized and electrified parts of the right-wing scenes and parts of the population. Second, they were not immediately contained by security forces. And third, in both cases there were enormous public and political effects, but the consequences have been very different. It is of interest how society and politics dealt with it from a democratic point of view. This essay will address the similarities and differences in neo-Nazi ideology and practice and their different development; the behavior of the security authorities, particularly during the events; and public and political reactions. It will offer a few brief reflections on how to deal with these challenges for the respective democracies.
The trigger of an outbreak of extremist violence was the alleged killing of a German-Cuban by refugees from the Middle East: A dispute on the morning of Sunday, 26 August 2018, ended with the death of the German-Cuban. Within a few hours, a hooligan group of the Chemnitz FC football club, propelled by social media, abused the mourning of this death and activated almost 1,000 demonstrators, who then marched through the streets with slogans glorifying National Socialism. They directed their rage against all refugees, used slogans that revealed a racist general suspicion, and threatened refugees with acts of violence at night. Interviews with observers conducted the following week on the occasion of another demonstration of right-wing extremists in Chemnitz revealed that further activities took place on the same evening, after the official end of the demonstration: an uncounted series of serious bodily injuries, hunts for different-looking people, and threats made against Antifa and the press. In the following week, the violence exploded.
Among the slogans of the approximately 1,000 demonstrators on Sunday, and 6,000 on Monday, were: “Merkel must go away!”; “Resistance! Resistance!”; “We are the warriors, we are the fans, Adolf Hitler, hooligans”; “Germany to the Germans”; “Foreigners out!”; “We are colorful until the blood splashes!”; and “This is our city.”
The radical right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), a Bundestag party with 12.6 percent of seats in the parliament, joined in under the leadership of the ultra-radicals Björn Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz, and organized a demonstration on the following Monday, 1 September. The fact that a radical right-wing party in the Bundestag is unreservedly and demonstrably in unison with the extreme right—in an already heated political climate—is new and has not existed since 1945. Furthermore, their action served to unify the extreme violent right of neo-Nazis and the so-called new right around Götz Kubitschek and the “Identitarians,” similar to the AltRight in the U.S.
The fact that a radical right-wing party in the Bundestag is unreservedly and demonstrably in unison with the extreme right—in an already heated political climate—is new and has not existed since 1945.
The neo-Nazis felt empowered to commit a chain of attacks and crimes that continues to this day. In the following few months Jewish, Turkish, and Iranian restaurants and a sports facility were attacked. Since the events of Chemnitz, everyday racism has continued to spread. In September alone, 93 incidents were recorded in Germany. The attacks also became more violent at the end of the year.
On the night of November 9, the day of remembrance of Kristallnacht 80 years ago, a dozen so-called “stumbling stones” (Stolpersteine), bronze cobblestones inserted into the pavement to mark and remember Jews persecuted and killed in the Third Reich, were attacked in Chemnitz.
The neo-Nazis in Chemnitz do not formally belong to any right-wing extremist organization, but form an established milieu and network with partial, semi-secret neo-Nazi cadres. They reference the ideology of the Third Reich and the anti-democrats and fascists of the Weimar Republic like Moeller van den Bruck and Ernst Jünger. This extreme milieu and network established itself in a widespread wave of racist violence beginning in the early 1990s, following the huge upheavals in the unification process and the far-reaching social and cultural disappointments not only of those who grew up at the time, but also of their parents’ generation. It was an anomic situation: in two years, 69 percent of the previous jobs were lost. In eastern Germany, where the confrontation with the Nazi regime had largely been externalized to the West, far-right ideology started to take hold.
The security agencies failed in Chemnitz in particular, but also throughout Saxony; they showed decisive weakness in the first two days of the Chemnitz events. Although they were officially informed by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the police units did little to nothing to stop a violent escalation, presumably from a lack of interest in a suitable police operation.
However, the police could have acted based on specific legislation: it is illegal to show the Hitler salute, to praise him and his atrocities; there are laws that prohibit criminal and terrorist organizations who plan violent acts or want to destroy the republic.
Immediately after the events, racist violence was publicly and decisively condemned, first and foremost by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said that the violence in Chemnitz “has nothing to do with our civil state.”
Despite the waves of attacks by the AfD, the international right-wing populists, and right-wing radicals, the number of those who belong to the center and follow a non-nationalistic “democratic patriotism” remains far over two-thirds of the German population.
The government’s critique represents a basic belief of a broad majority in Germany: Despite the waves of attacks by the AfD, the international right-wing populists, and right-wing radicals, the number of those who belong to the center and follow a non-nationalistic “democratic patriotism” remains far over two-thirds of the German population. Nearly 80 percent fear a further rise in right-wing extremism and oppose it across the borders of heterogeneous interest groups. In this sense, this part of the German population—certainly against the background of a good economic situation—has drawn its democratic lessons from its history.
On October 13, a quarter of a million people rallied together under the mantel of #unteilbar (#indivisible) and demonstrated in Berlin against the extreme right. Other than the events of 1989, this was the largest gathering in Berlin since the celebration of John F. Kennedy in front of the Schöneberg City Hall on 26 June 1963, and highlights how the struggle for democracy and its value of human dignity has reappeared in the meantime.
The “Unite the Right” rally, organized by extreme-right political activists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, occurred on 12 August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Misusing the “freedom of speech” defense, the organizers called for the rally on the premise of objecting to the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
This neo-Nazi demonstration was directed against African-Americans and Jews; it was racist, anti-Semitic, and violent. It also included terrorists. Demonstrators called out slogans such as: “The Jews will not replace us!”; “White Lives Matter”; “Blood and soil!”; and “Sieg Heil” while giving the Nazi salute.
The organizers had “succeeded” in bringing together members of the AltRight and the National Policy Institute of Richard Spencer, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) its former leader David Duke, the National Socialist Movement, all white supremacists, and various right-wing extremist militias and terrorists, overtaking small, liberal Charlottesville. Supporters of Identity Evropa, an offshoot of the Identitarian Movement, also took part. Speeches were made by white supremacy activist Richard Spencer, among others.
The pretext of the right-wing extremist escalation of violence in 2017 in Charlottesville is obviously a different one than in the case of the escalation in Chemnitz. As far as the immediate prehistory is concerned, it goes back to 2015, to the traumatic massacre committed by a white supremacist of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church. The perpetrator wanted to impose unconditional white supremacy against African-Americans and others by force. It was such a traumatic event that then-president Barack Obama attended the memorial service in Charleston.
The massacre sparked a movement to remove the symbols of slavery and segregation, including those that glorified the American Confederacy.
The massacre sparked a movement to remove the symbols of slavery and segregation, including those that glorified the American Confederacy. The removal of statues commemorating Confederate generals and leaders started to occur across the South.
This in turn mobilized the extreme right. When the Charlottesville City Council decided to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee, right-wing initiators declared their intention to defend the Charlottesville monument and called for the “Unite the Right” demonstration. They were further propelled by what they saw as their great success in Donald Trump’s election at the end of 2016.
In the months before the rally, the initiator of Unite the Right had worked closely with the right-wing Republican Corey Stewart in the first steps of his campaign against City Councilor Wes Bellamy, who had advocated the removal of the monument.
On 13 May 2017, around 150 alt-right demonstrators led by Richard Spencer conducted a torch rally in Charlottesville, chanting “blood and soil.” The AltRight, similar to the extreme new right in Germany, chanted Nazi codes.
On 8 July 2017, there was a KKK event in Charlottesville. Already the signs of escalation were emerging, with the appearance of a KKK group from North Carolina, one of them fantasizing about the death of 11 million immigrants.
Another escalation took place the day before the rally, on the evening of 11 August, when an angry torchlight procession crossed the liberal university campus. Even then there were provocative attacks that the authorities did not oppose. They did not even inform the students.
Given these factors, the extent of the escalation in the morning and noon hours of 12 August was foreseeable.
However, the Commonwealth of Virginia declared a state of emergency too late. The police had announced that they would only intervene at a certain threshold. They had neither a plan for keeping demonstrators and counter-demonstrators apart, nor suitable communication processes between city and state police—not even radio contact. The police had already encouraged the people of Charlottesville to stay at home—an absurd idea vis-à-vis a heated public discourse. The police drove the right-wing demonstrators to the counter-demonstrators in an almost chaotic back and forth. After the ordered end of the right-wing demonstration, the demonstrator James Fields, connected with the group Vanguard America, raced his car into the group of counter-demonstrators, injuring thirty-five and fatally injuring Heather Heyer.
President Trump, who was himself massively supported by parts of the AltRight movement through his connection to Steve Bannon in the election campaign and afterward, failed to convincingly criticize the escalation of the extreme right. On the contrary: Trump spoke of “fine people on both sides,” was then persuaded by advisors to make a harder statement, and then finally withdrew that statement and was emphatically praised for it by David Duke, a former KKK leader. Trump was perceived as vindicating the extreme right; he blamed the victims. Trump’s attitude was hailed by the extremists and has been interpreted as a kind of vindication since then.
However, the reaction in the public was otherwise almost unanimous. Republicans across the spectrum—from Senator John McCain to Senator Marco Rubio to Senator Orrin Hatch—as well as the general public and the media all decried the rally and resulting violence.
The public condemnations were perceived by the initiators of Unite the Right as a defeat.
The public condemnations were perceived by the initiators of Unite the Right as a defeat. In any case, the group disintegrated—as a group, but not in substance—in a dramatically short time. Some of the groups involved were accused in court, others broke up due to internal, partly private, struggles. Jason Kessler’s attempt to repeat the rally in Washington, DC, a year later, was unsuccessful.
Paradoxically, danger from the far right is by no means contained. The extreme ideologues have established themselves particularly within the last few years and are using social media to grow their audience and adherents.
An FBI press release from mid-November revealed that in 2017, hate crimes in general increased by 17 percent—and against Jews by a third—due to an escalated aggressive rhetoric unleashing rage and hatred against all minorities, including Jews.
A PBS documentary, also from mid-November, described the level of organized terrorist groups active in the Charlottesville demonstrations. Whether individuals and small groups, they display a mood of leaderless resistance. They have intensified their violent acts in the last few years. They act against a backdrop of aggressive attitudes toward minorities in the public, epitomized by the killing of eleven Jews inside a Pittsburgh synagogue on 27 October 2018—the worst ever attack on Jews in the United States.
Two violent actors who participated in the Charlottesville demonstrations were identified in the PBS documentary: R.A.M. (Rise Above Movement), a new white supremacy group, and the terrorist group “Atomwaffen Division.” Other Charlottesville participants included Jeffrey and Edward Clark, known as the Clark brothers, who attended Charlottesville with Vanguard America. Jason Kessler, rally organizer, tweeted in June 2017, “These [the Clark bros] are some of my favorite people! #MAGA.” In mid-November 2018, police arrested Jeffrey for illegal gun possession; not only was he in close contact online with Kessler and “Atomwaffen Division,” but also with the accused Pittsburgh shooter. The Clarks operated below the radar of the DC Metropolitan Police until recently. After family alerted the FBI, Jeffrey is now in prison and his brother Edward committed suicide shortly after the Pittsburgh massacre.
The revelations about the Clark brothers, who lived in the heart of Washington, DC, point to a terrorist milieu and network that is actively engaging on the Internet and cooperating with each other as secretly as possible via social media. The Pittsburgh shooter, while an individual, communicated with others on the Internet; the concept of lone wolves is too simple for the reality of violent white supremacists.
Lone wolves, the presence of terror groups, the lynching tradition of the KKK, the spread of racist violent ideas, and aggressive rhetoric from the very top together form the “Achilles heel” of the United States.
Differences, Similarities, and Challenges
First, as the events in Charlottesville and Chemnitz show, we see a similar ideological orientation with appropriate communication between far-right extremist groups in Europe and the United States. Both reference Nazi ideology and espouse a new extreme right, be it Identitarian, AltRight, or the like—and is often a mix, as we have seen in both cases.
Yet there are significantly different organizational forms in the cases of Chemnitz and Charlottesville. The events of Charlottesville were a defeat for the representatives of Unite the Right, but not at all for the extreme right with their different, often neo-Nazi and violent organizations; there are a large number of terrorist organizations. Existing or new networks are quickly organized nowadays thanks in part to social media. The atmosphere toward minorities remains aggressive and latently violent in considerable parts of the U.S. population. In Chemnitz, we saw a well-established violent neo-Nazi scene, with roots in terrorist networks.
The events of Charlottesville were a defeat for the representatives of Unite the Right, but not at all for the extreme right with their different, often neo-Nazi and violent organizations
Second, the behavior of the security authorities during the events is similarly weak, but under varying pressure: While in Saxony the weaknesses are still coming to light, only small efforts are being made to remedy them. Other German states are better prepared, like Lower Saxony.
The lack of security activities around Charlottesville is a scandal that has not been adequately explained. Furthermore, journalists and other citizens identified individuals who acted violently, and only a few have been charged after they were publicly revealed. In early December 2018, James Fields, the man who drove the car into the crowd in Charlottesville, was convicted of murder. How institutions should deal with ideologically-explosive posts and statements on social media and potential individual perpetrators or lone wolves, however, is not clear.
Next, the public struggle for a greater recognition and defense of the rights of minorities in Germany depends on, first, whether civic engagement is intensified, pragmatic reasoning in executive action is achieved, and the minimal consensus of the German constitution (Grundgesetz) is actively defended against right-wing radical parties. Second, the struggle for memory of the Nazi past is particularly topical because it is fundamentally attacked by the AfD. Nearly 80 percent of the population shares the belief that the constitution, with its inalienable human and civil rights, has to be defended. Third, including a social-caring dimension of the constitution (sozialer Rechtsstaat), we are reminded: there is no democracy without it being a socially committed one. This is also a consequence of the Nazi period. Indeed, Franz Neumann shows a tradition of German postwar political science and its normative reflections when he warned in 1954 in Angst und Politik, “Don’t use fear as a means of politics.”
The struggle for memory of the Nazi past is particularly topical because it is fundamentally attacked by the AfD.
In the United States, the president and parts of his party are turning vehemently against minorities. It would be desirable if there were the political will and legal regulations, both of states and federal institutions, to decisively curb these well-known and largely intercommunicating terrorist groups. More legislation seems to be needed on domestic terrorism in the hope that the authorities will thus deal more decisively with an increasing danger as it seems as though the FBI at present does not prioritize going after homegrown terrorism. It is only a matter of time before the next bombs explode and the next attacks are carried out.
The question in the U.S. is whether the country will remain divided and allow the erosion of the substance of the democratic fabric of checks and balances. Can the lawmakers, the media, and the public succeed in effectively curbing the aggressive, violent rhetoric and policy?
Will the country face up to the historical legacy of slavery, racism, and segregation (and its economic, political, and cultural consequences)? The striking presence of that legacy is enormous—and was present again during the 2018 midterm election campaign. Can America win the “American Memory”?
Fourth, the two cases have shown: The challenge to defend basic human values against the wave of bigotry, racist attitudes, and violence needs more, here and there. It needs an integrated approach of arguing for the democratic basics, convincing media and public and those democrats in the political arena to act accordingly. It is becoming a question of defending democracy and its values as such.
Supported by the DAAD with funds from the Federal Foreign Office (FF).
For their help and insights, I thank Lily Gardner Feldman, Sandy Hausman, Jack Janes, Konrad Jarausch, Christiane Mudra, Nina Farida, Niklas Helwig, Ufuk Topkara, Volker Rein, Susanne Thelen, Jeff Rathke, Susanne Dieper, Jessica Hart, Liz Caruth, and Yixiang Xu.
 See Lars Rensmann, Steffen Hagemann, Hajo Funke, Autoritarismus und Demokratie: politische Theorie und Kultur in der globalen Moderne (Schwalbach: Wochenschau, 2011).
 Interviews conducted by the author in Chemnitz on September 7, 2018.
 Violent extremists in the region feel empowered to commit a chain of attacks and crimes that continues to this day.
 Seventy-two percent of Germans are proud of the democracy and 77 percent of its constitution. See Andreas Zick, Beate Küpper, Daniela Krause, Gespaltene Mitte – Feindselige Zustände: Rechtextreme Einstellungen in Deutschland 2016 (Bonn: JH Dietz Verlag, 2016): 157.
 According to Jason Kessler in interview with the author in Washington, DC, on November 1, 2018.
 See Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018).
 It was astonishing that the initiators had succeeded in gathering in Charlottesville both the extreme new-right, violent neo-Nazis, and the terrorist KKK, which has been active to varying degrees for 150 years. The new-right also describes itself as the AltRight and had an advocate in Steve Bannon. The neo-Nazis, including a “National Socialist movement” formation, are strictly oriented to National Socialist ideology. The neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic group “Vanguard America” participated; James Fields, the murderer of Heather Heyer, joined them in the rally.
They are all united by the idea of a White Supremacy. Since the right to freedom of speech is interpreted very extensively, violent statements as well as a corresponding propensity to violence can be found in demonstrations and above all in social media. All these movements see themselves encouraged by the election of Donald Trump and feel called upon to show their racism more strongly and to demonstrate for it. For more detail on these groups, see Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018).
 Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018): 118f.
 Ibid.; Christopher Parker, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan chapter in North Carolina that attended in Charlottesville, stated on July 8 2017: “We killed 6 million Jews, 11 million (undocumented immigrants) is nothing,” in a video by Univision Noticias.
 Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018): 123-125.
 Hunton & Williams LLP, “Final Report: Independent Review of the 2017 Protest Events in Charlottesville, Virginia,” November 24, 2017.
 Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018): 21.
 One of Trump’s quote was: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides – on many sides” (August 12, 2017). See Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018): Ch.29 and 30, and Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018): 133-136.
 Bob Woodward, Fear: Trump in the White House (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018): 315f.
 According to Jason Kessler in interview with the author in Washington, DC, on November 1, 2018.
 Hawes Spencer, Summer of Hate (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018).
 “2017 Hate Crime Statistics Released, Report Shows More Departments Reporting Hate Crime Statistics,” FBI News, November 13, 2018. See Seth G. Jones, “The Rise of Far-Right Extremism in the United States,” CSIS Briefs, November 7, 2018: “Right-wing extremism in the United States appears to be growing. The number of terrorist attacks by far-right perpetrators rose over the past decade, more than quadrupling between 2016 and 2017. The recent pipe bombs and the October 27, 2018, synagogue attack in Pittsburgh are symptomatic of this trend. U.S. federal and local agencies need to quickly double down to counter this threat. There has also been a rise in far-right attacks in Europe, jumping 43 percent between 2016 and 2017.”
 Paul Duggan, “James A. Fields Jr. sentenced to life in prison in Charlottesville car attack,” The Washington Post, December 11, 2018.
 Franz Neumann, Angst und Politik (Tübingen: Mohr, 1954).
 Konrad Jarausch, “American Memory Wars between National Pride versus Critical History,” 2018 (unpublished).
Alex Bloomfield, “The Chemnitz/Charlottesville Era and Readjusting What to Expect of Government,” AICGS, September 7, 2018.
Saul Friedländer, When Memory Comes (New York: Other Press, 2016).
Hajo Funke and Christiane Mudra, Gäriger Haufen: Die AfD: Ressentiments, Regimewechsel und völkische Radikale. Handreichung zum demokratischen Widerstand (Hamburg: VSA, 2018).
Lily Gardner Feldman, “Germany’s Confrontation with Its Colonial History: Are There Lessons from Grappling with the Nazi Past?” AICGS, October 4, 2018.
David Neiwert, Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (London: Verso, 2017).
Claudrena Harold and Louis Nelson, ed., Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2018).
Michelle Obama, Becoming (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018).
J.D.Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2016).