Editor’s Note: Lev Golinkin came to the United States as a child refugee from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov (now called Kharkiv) in 1990. He is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Millions of Americans are shocked by the recent displays of white supremacy on US soil. But it’s not just America that is seeing these types of demonstrations.
This Saturday, an estimated 60,000 people marched through Warsaw on Poland’s independence day, with some of the marchers burning flares and carrying banners that read “White Europe” and “Clean Blood.” Far-right symbols from the darkest corners of European white supremacy were proudly worn. One marcher said in a television interview that his goal was to “remove Jewry from power.” To be clear, Polish leaders afterward said they condemned the hateful messages and stressed many thousands were there to celebrate the country’s holiday.
Images from Warsaw immediately bring to mind this summer’s deadly rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, and for good reason: A thread of anguish and hatred connects white supremacists across the Atlantic with the ones in America. Indeed, one of the most underreported stories of Charlottesville is that Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Matthew Heimbach – three prominent rally organizers – have all been involved with European white nationalist individuals or organizations.
White supremacy, like nearly everything else, has been fundamentally altered by globalization. Charlottesville – actually, the entire United States – is just one battleground in a far larger war. Unless America understands the full scope of this conflict globally, we will remain vulnerable to white supremacist ideology spreading within our borders.
In the 21st century, no ideology exists in a vacuum. The Nazis and Nazi sympathizers of old were often constrained by nationalism: “Deutschland Uber Alles” for the Third Reich, “America First” for US isolationists in 1940. Today’s neo-Nazis have been freed from the fetters of nationalism by social media as well as by an overarching goal. Charlottesville was an American manifestation of what Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center call transnational white supremacy. In some neo-Nazi circles it has been described as a “reconquest,” a nod to the Reconquista crusade by Christians to reclaim Spain from Muslim rule in the Middle Ages.
The warriors of the modern Reconquista see themselves as engaged in an existential struggle for the future – for the very survival – of their people. The slogans from Warsaw and the “Jews Will Not Replace Us” chants heard at Charlottesville are an expression of this fear of extirpation, as is the infamous “Fourteen Words” slogan of white supremacy: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
This shift to a borderless global struggle is what separates today’s white supremacists from their predecessors. A victory for the white race in Charlottesville or Warsaw could empower white supremacists everywhere. It’s all part of the same torchlight march.
Dylann Roof, the murderer of nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, is a perfect example of hate adopting the “act local, think global” paradigm. “You’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country,” Roof said as he shot his black victims. The rape-of-white-women myth has been a staple of Southern bigotry for over a century. But Roof was concerned with far more than white women in America: Writings that Roof is thought to be the author of are filled with anguish over the minority takeover of Europe, “the homeland of White people.” Roof, a native of South Carolina, acted locally, but his manifesto betrays a mindset operating on an astonishingly global scale.
The connection to European fascism is even stronger in the case of the Charlottesville leaders. Heimbach – chairman of the group that organized last year’s bloody anti-immigrant rally in Sacramento, California – made a tour of Eastern European far right groups, including Golden Dawn in Greece and the Czech Workers Party in the Czech Republic, before bringing his hate back home.
Earlier this year, Buzzfeed reported that Spencer was partnering with Swedish white supremacists to create a far right media network.
Iin 2006, Duke gave a lecture, which the Forward described as “Anti-Semitism 101,” at the Inter-Regional Academy of Personnel Management in Ukraine, a university that has been known to produce anti-Semitic material.
Far more disturbing than ideology is the way conflict in Ukraine has provided white warriors with deadly experience. Just as the deserts of Iraq and Syria have drawn jihadists to learn battleground tactics, the trenches of Ukraine have attracted white supremacists from three continents. The Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian National Guard unit with a heavy neo-Nazi contingent, has been caught recruiting in France, and, it is believed, Brazil.
On the other side of the battlefield, Swedish extremists who trained with the Russian-backed rebels in St. Petersburg bombed a refugee shelter in Gothenburg earlier this year. White radicals from a score of nations are gaining combat experience in Ukraine; where they’ll take those skills is anyone’s guess. Welcome to the new Reconquista.
None of this is to suggest America’s racism is imported. Indeed, in the wake of the Charlottesville attack, Americans were reminded of the long and often whitewashed chain of institutional and cultural racism – from slavery to Jim Crow to inner city police shootings – which forms an inseparable part of the nation’s past and present. But if the goal is to confront the far right threat, ignoring the reality that today’s white extremists are obtaining training, inspiration and aid from overseas hate groups is just as dangerous. In a way, it’s just as tinged with white privilege; we often fail to consider overseas ties of radicals named “Richard” or “Matthew.”
Some Americans may feel that until Donald Trump is out of the White House, there’s little our government can do to combat the white supremacist threat. On the contrary – and this is the silver lining here – there is so much Congress can, and must, do.
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The September 11 terrorist attacks exposed a key vulnerability of American defenses: the lack of communication between domestic and foreign counterterrorism experts. The same perilous segregation still exists with regard to white supremacy. Watchdog groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center are consummate experts on homegrown neo-Nazis, while US Jewish organizations such as the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry have their finger on the pulse of European anti-Semites. In-between looms a dangerous gap.
Addressing this must begin with congressional hearings aimed at expanding our perception of transnational white supremacy, asking intelligence officials to detail what resources are devoted to monitoring white hate groups abroad, and working with watchdog organizations to unearth the ties between domestic and foreign white supremacist networks.
Above all, it will require America to realize that it won’t be able to fight white supremacy without acknowledging that the marches in Europe are not only connected to the march in Virginia but are, in essence, the same march. We can choose to learn that lesson from Charlottesville – or we can wait until an even worse attack forces us to do so in the future. The sooner we learn, the better: The cost of these lessons is steep.