For years now, researchers of the far-right have been pointing at the online use of satire, irony, and humour by extremists “as a way of creating emotional resonance in audiences” – to facilitate engagement. Examples include memes most prominently, but also images, gifs, and stickers, being employed from the far-right to jihadists. Experts say that the far right “have stormed mainstream consciousness by weaponizing irony, and by using humour and ambiguity,” which has strategically enabled them to “disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still spousing them.” Such humour is often directed to an ethnic or sexual minority group, and it is aimed to inspire violence against it. This is what creates the so-called humor-hate nexus. Despite a growing amount of literature on the far-right ‘meme culture’ and the dangers of using humour to reject accountability and stir hatred against minorities, there seems to be no questions asked regarding the far-right’s use of humour targeting fascist referents. Indeed, there is a movement online led by the far-right that uses fascist historical imagery in unpredictable ways; ways that are more effective in circumventing hate speech policing. Why would anyone criticize them for mocking fascists?
After observing the activity of a large and mainly American white supremacist group on Reddit for 12 months, I noticed that a big part of their feed (and almost 50% of their most popular posts) were pictures of fascist leaders and militants of the twentieth century. These were mostly from the 1930s, and mostly related to Nazi Germany. The pictures wouldn’t be edited in any way, as it often happens with memes or gifs, but they would be posted under a title aimed to mock or make fun of those portrayed in the photo. Sometimes the title would be accompanied by a brief note on historical context and the date the picture was taken. Of all the historical pictures shared that constituted a reference to the fascist regimes of the past century, not one offered a title that invited users to take the authoritarian leaders or their followers seriously. For example, a photograph depicts a sheep wearing a German Wehrmacht helmet sometime in the 1930s, and is entitled “Most superior Aryan in the Wehrmacht.” At first glance, this is an image that seems to invite users to ridicule Nazi Germany and their ideas on racial purity. However, the conversations around the image quickly become more serious. Instead of encouraging comments regarding the sheep itself and the informality surrounding the picture, the humour framing the image triggers references to eugenics, or the practice or advocacy of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits; and even responses about the sheep representing (even if only metaphorically) the Aryan ideal: “… white, so pure.” In other words, a sheep with a Nazi helmet became, in a matter of minutes and because of the humorous way in which it was presented, a discussion on race and racist politics that didn’t question the veracity of Nazi ideology. Rather, it used the ‘playful context’ allowed by humour to share information on it that otherwise would have been reported as inciting hatred against groups of colour.
Many of the images shared have to do with the physical appearance of Nazi leaders, namely the fact that their features do not necessarily fit the Aryan model as the users understand it. For instance, we see photographs of the Commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Wilhelm Goering with titles that point at his being overweight (“The great buff personification of the Glorious Aryan race”); of the Reichsminister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, making references to his extremely slim constitution (“Joseph Goebbles looks like if Skeletor had flesh”); the Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS) Heinrich Luitpold Himmler, wearing traditional outfits that would allegedly challenge the expected ‘manliness’ of the German people (“Master Race”); the Holocaust architect Reinhard Heydrich, introduced as “an alien” looking individual; of Irma Grese, a brutal Auschwitz guard, described as aged badly (“Auschwitz guard was hanged in 1945 at age 22. Looks more like 52”); and of Adolf Hitler himself, whose photographs are shared along with comments that point at his symptomatic tics resulting from drug abuse (“Hitler looking cool and in control”), or the Führer’s unsuccessful attempts to appear hyper masculine: “Adolf Hitler was so embarrassed by this photo of himself in lederhosen that he had the picture banned, calling it ‘beneath my dignity’.”
Such photos would appear to belong to a space in which Nazi Germany is questioned, as well as its leaders and ideals, but instead conversations around them use humour to teach fascism. In every one of those cases, at least one user would use the platform to share biographical details about the Nazi leader depicted in the image, and in some cases that would include hyperlinks that could lead users to rabbit holes of Nazi Germany history and, potentially, extremist propaganda. When posting comments around the image of Reinhard Heydrich, for instance, a user pasted a long quote from Heinrich Himmler describing the Holocaust architect as highly intelligent. The quote was followed by “lol.” That ‘lol’ of course works for the user to deny accountability for spreading the Nazi message, which justified the mass murder of Jews on the basis of an alleged biological hierarchy that put Aryans at the top, and Jews at the bottom. Similarly, a conversation about Auschwitz guard Irma Grese, which begins with users sharing details about her life – including the torture and rape of both women and men in concentration camps – ends with this statement: “A fine Aryan woman that any white man would be lucky to marry.” Finally, jokes about some “Hitler’s handsome Aryan specimens” in a Christmas photo leads users to conclude that the title reflects the fact that only one of the men in the photo is blond: “There is just one decent looking guy surrounded by gimps.” This discussion, which at first seemed ironic, implying that that many Germans looked rather unlike the Aryan ideal, featured antisemitic comments like this: “I am starting to think that Nazis are like the Black Israelites who are Jews who hate other Jews because they think they’re fake Jews.”
Humour even leaves room for conspiracy theories – this time targeting Nazis themselves, but in a way that benefits their memory. An example of this is the discussion surrounding a photo that depicts Allies reading a newspaper announcing that Hitler is dead (“The Master of the Master Race Flexing Those Superior Genes by… Killing Himself”). Comments include the denial that Hitler ever died, a discourse that attempts to outweigh users insisting that Hitler killing himself was a sign of weakness and cowardice. In fact, it is argued by some on this Reddit group, Hitler “died peacefully in his bed in South America years later.” Death by suicide seems to be something reproachable at Germany’s defeat in 1945, as the conversation about an image of Goebbels demonstrates. In it, a user insists that the Minister of Propaganda’s death was “embarrassing and shameful,” this time not trying to make things better for the Nazi leader but instead putting Germany’s Nazi goals, and sacrifice for the fatherland, above all.
It is worth mentioning the various videos that this far-right group shared. Specifically, anti-Nazi propaganda British Pathé videos were posted and praised as allowing to laugh at Hitler’s Germany. At the same time, they allowed the sharing of images depicting life in the regime that include information on Nazi military formation and organisation, and speeches by leading Nazi figures. There is also a minute long video of Italy’s Fascist leader Benito Mussolini talking to the masses. The video was posted with the title: “Fascist crowd manipulation is performance art. Its theater designed to impress the simple minds. Check out Mussolini’s body language. He looks like a clown performing for children.” While at first glance it looks like whomever posted the video is mocking Mussolini’s performance, the clip is in fact a reference on how to successfully convince an audience that your message is worth listening to – a visual playbook in populism. More importantly, the careful attention that users paid to such videos leads discussions to an informal comparative analysis between the performing techniques of Hitler, Mussolini, and Trump. Their conclusion? Mussolini was the master, Hitler the student, Trump their contemporary expression. And for those who wish to delve into the study of effective staging for radicalising audiences, a user posted six YouTube links depicting different fascist leaders and right-wing extremist speakers from the twentieth century doing their best to convince others that the ‘race war’ is desirable.
Given the above, what looks like anti-fascist humour by the far-right seems to have been able to achieve three important things. The first one is 1) circumventing hate speech policing by sharing fascist imagery ‘with humour’. In apparently criticizing rather than openly praising fascism, the far-right is able to 2) freely share and promote information on the leadership of Nazi Germany, their racist ideals, their speeches, and their organisational structure. As I see it, having the far-right cause a reaction by using fascist imagery framed by an anti-fascist discourse is a more powerful radicalising technique than most memes. This is because here the far-right laughs at unpredictable targets, targets which social platforms would not be concerned about. With no concern, there is no reporting. Perhaps this is the way the group keeps growing. Finally, because humour allows for the space to learn and debate about the nature and success of fascism, it also creates a platform for users interested in fascism (but not necessarily extremists) to be exposed to radical ideas. In other words, humour becomes the path for 3) new ways of radicalisation and recruitment that are less obvious but could be as effective.
Observing how anti-fascist humour is used by the far-right to lure users into spaces that more easily expose them to radical ideas should be incorporated into our counterterrorist efforts. This practice suggests that the far-right’s taste for ‘meme culture’ was only the beginning of a new way of radicalising online users. It implies that humour has become a main means to share, teach, and debate fascism in ways that incite violent rhetoric and engagement in extremist groups. There needs to be reliable, and more accessible, alternatives for those interested in the history of Nazism and fascism to find accurate information without being exposed to violent extremism.