Watching armed neo-Nazis and other extremists violently storm the Capitol building on Wednesday, my first thoughts weren’t of reaction in Washington D.C. Instead, I wondered who was watching in Belgrade, Bratislava, and Budapest.
Many, in the past few days, have compared the sacking of the Capitol to events Americans unthinkingly associate with faraway countries with inferior democratic values. I thought of these places for a different reason: because I knew that neo-Nazis and white supremacists waiting in the wings around the globe would see the events in Washington as proof that they, too, could violently seize power when the time came. Wednesday showed them that their fantasies of waging a race war were within reach.
What happened at the Capitol matters far beyond the U.S. And now, the only way to limit the damage is through accountability, and by taking the far-right threat far more seriously going forward.
Far-right folks in Europe can hardly shut up about the insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol. It’s top news on Italy’s neofascist CasaPound Italia’s news site, as well as on the website of German neo-Nazi group Der Dritte Weg (the Third Way). The Nordic Resistance Movement, or NRM, a violent neo-Nazi movement based in Scandinavia and Finland, posted an antisemitic cartoon referencing the “stab in the back” conspiracy theory that Germany was betrayed by Jews in World War I—but with Trump’s face pasted over the face of a caricatured Jew stabbing a red-helmeted MAGA “soldier” in the back (a reference to Trump’s ambiguous video during the riot, repeating incendiary myths while asking his supporters to go home).
A big part of my work writing about the far right in Eastern Europe involves monitoring channels on Telegram, the social media app that’s been called a “safe haven for pro-terror Nazis.” During the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, it seemed like Telegram channels a world away, posting in French or Russian or German or a number of other languages, barely talked about anything else, stoking paranoia about a war on white people.
Now international far-right extremists are ecstatic about what took place at the Capitol. Robert Rundo, the American co-founder of the Southern Californian alt-right fight club known as the Rise Above Movement is currently holed up in Serbia avoiding potential prosecution at home, as well as building a new base. He wrote on his Telegram channel Wednesday that the events were an opportunity and urged on rioters.
Several Ukrainian far-right channels this week referenced with praise the 1975 American neo-Nazi tract The Turner Diaries, in which white supremacists hang politicians from light poles—something at least some of the insurrectionists on Wednesday may have been hoping to enact, given photos of one rioter carrying flex cuffs, and multiple nooses hung up on the Capitol grounds during the riot. A British neo-Nazi channel portrayed Ashli Babbit, who was shot by Capitol police as the mob was trying to break into the House chamber, as a martyr, saying she “lived as a patriot, died as a patriot, never to be forgotten.” On several accounts, I saw images of Russian neo-Nazis laying flowers at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in her honor.
They won’t just be encouraged by what happened on January 6; they’ll also study what worked and what didn’t work, for if—and when—they try the same thing. Photojournalist Ron Haviv, who followed the mob through a broken window into the Capitol while documenting the riot, told Bob Moser Thursday that “if people had actually known what they were doing … [and] actually had some plans, the police would have obviously been overwhelmed” more quickly and thoroughly. Far-right groups worldwide are absolutely going to realize that and learn from it.
In many ways, European neo-Nazis are much more organized than their counterparts in the U.S. Many U.S. far-right groups have in fact visited groups in countries ranging from Hungary to Ukraine and attended their rallies and conferences. They’ve come over to learn about everything from how to use mixed martial arts as a recruitment and training tool to how to use “meta-political” strategies to help far-right ideas become more popular over time. They’ve bemoaned the “politically correct” culture and left-wing media and politicians they face in the U.S., which aren’t quite the same in Eastern Europe.
Watching the disorganized mob swamp Capitol Police on Wednesday, I thought of the fastidiously organized and regimented Hungarian neo-Nazis I saw at their march last year in Budapest. I thought about Ukrainian far-right extremists linked to the country’s Azov movement who have proper military and tactical training. I thought about the Swedish neo-Nazis from NRM who have allegedly trained in Russia with an organization banned as a terror group in the U.S. What happens the next time something like this happens (there will be a next time), and instead of a gaggle of disorganized thugs, there’s a more disciplined, armed gang with combat sports or paramilitary training?
That’s why holding the rioters—and Trump—accountable for what happened on January 6 isn’t just in the best interests of Americans. Too often around the globe, the far right is able to do what it wants without fear of consequences. The U.S. needs to demonstrate that there will be real accountability for actions like this on its own soil, and make sure everyone on the far right gets the message: Don’t try this again.
In Ukraine, human rights observers have long warned that attacks by far-right thugs continually go unpunished. Far-right hooligans in Serbia have beaten people up and intimidated minorities, claiming to do so in support of animal rights, while their organization continues to operate openly. Neo-Nazis in Bulgaria have been allowed to march annually for years through the streets of the capital, Sofia (until last year, thankfully, when authorities finally banned the march). Far-right hooligans in Hungary were allowed last year to break Covid-19 regulations for an anti-Roma march.
The far right doesn’t succeed without being enabled by mainstream actors. It doesn’t succeed without law enforcement turning a blind eye to or outright sympathizing with its actions—or without public figures who downplay the threat, whether because of the extremists’ clownish actions or because public figures perceive the far right as commanding little to no broad public support. It doesn’t succeed without media outlets treating far-right leaders as figures worthy of a platform and taking their lies at face value, or without politicians like Donald Trump aping their rhetoric and whipping them into a frenzy. The far right has both unwitting and witting collaborators.
If the perpetrators of Wednesday’s attempted insurrection aren’t punished and held accountable, their friends at home and abroad will think, Hey, maybe we can get away with this kind of shit. If what happened on Wednesday isn’t condemned and treated as an uniquely unacceptable act in a democratic society, many will think it’s worth trying again. That’s true not just in the U.S., where some have already threatened violence on Inauguration Day, but in places thousands of miles away.