On September 5, 2018, a documentary was aired on Belgian-Flemish TV on the extreme-right wing and Flemish-nationalist youth organization Schild en Vrienden. The program shocked the country and led to an explosion of outrage on social and mass media as well as to criminal inquiries by the security services.
Schild en Vrienden exposed
The program, based on generous amounts of evidence, exposed Schild en Vrienden as a double-headed beast. Schild en Vrienden is of course a radically nationalist movement - its name refers to a mythical episode in which 14th century Flemish militias killed French inhabitants of Bruges, using the phrase "Schild en Vriend" as a shibboleth enabling the identification of French accent (and attaching lethal consequences to it). So far so good: nationalism, including radical and nostalgic versions of it, are nothing special in Flanders.
But the documentary showed how behind a public appearance of trendy and well-groomed middle class boys, there was an online-offline secret universe of hidden chatrooms replete with brutal racism, antisemitism and sexism, with appeals for violence against immigrants and 'lefties', obscure financial flows, strong international connections with other New-Right and Alt-Right organizations worldwide, organizing boot camps, close combat training and automatic weapons target practice. There was talk of civil war and armed resistance, and a strict ranking system was exposed, with 'normies' below and 'fighters' on top, and with an alpha-male as undisputed leader: Dries Van Langenhove.
There was talk of civil war and armed resistance, and a strict ranking system was exposed, with 'normies' below and 'fighters' on top, and with an alpha-male as undisputed leader.
Van Langenhove's ostensibly small organization was also shown to have worked its way up into circles of power and influence. Van Langenhove himself had won a seat on Ghent University's Board of Directors, his fellow fighters volunteered as security agents at public appearances by the controversial State Secretary for Migration and Asylum Theo Francken, and leading members of right-wing parties N-VA and Vlaams Belang had repeatedly expressed sympathy and support for the movement. Several members of Schild en Vrienden had, in addition, made it onto the candidates' list of those parties for the local elections of October 2018.
Old wine in new bottles?
While several measures curtailing the movement were instantly taken, analysts and experts were quick to minimize the phenomenon. The argument was simple. Schild en Vrienden are merely another version of an old phenomenon: the 'black fringes' of the Flemish movement, stretching back to Flemish fascist organizations in the interbellum, collaboration with Nazi Germany during WW2 and neofascist organizations and militias after that War, all connected by nostalgia for the golden era when Adolf Hitler ruled our world.
This association with an extremist tradition suggested that Schild en Vrienden was a marginal thing, nothing to be really worried about.
This association with an extremist tradition suggested that Schild en Vrienden was a marginal thing, nothing to be really worried about and nothing that should cause concern over the fundamental structures of the Belgian political field. A bunch of silly male students playing stupid and politically incorrect games, fooling around with automatic guns and jokingly donning SS uniforms - that's all.
It's an example of how we continue to address 21st century phenomena by means of 20th century ideas. For in this analysis, several crucial things were conveniently left aside. One element is that Schild en Vrienden operated as a digitally-native propaganda force on social media, causing echo chamber effects of considerable scale - they were entirely au fait with the new infrastructure for public debate and political practice that characterizes contemporary politics. Another element, also connected to this new infrastructure, is the transnational network maintained by Schild en Vrienden, connecting small cells of like-minded activists in numerous countries, supporting each other in online campaigns and serving as a collective learning environment of substantial size. If Schild en Vrienden must be called marginal, one should realize that this margin is very, very big.
Breivik, the model
A third element is that Schild en Vrienden got its inspiration from a variety of sources, one of which is distinctly 21st century: Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik, as we know, was the 'lone wolf' who killed over 70 people in a thoroughly planned terror attack in and around Oslo in the summer of 2011. Most of his victims, remarkably, were members of the Norwegian Workers Youth League - white Norwegian but left-wing victims.
Breivik, convicted as a common criminal in 2012, left us with a 1500-plus page manifesto outlining his political worldview and offering large amounts of practical information on the manufacturing and use of explosives, the use of weapons and body armour and the organization of an armed resistance movement, including methods for clandestine fundraising, financial invisibility, secret communication and propaganda techniques, and mobilization for violent action. Note that all of the information he collected and compiled in that work was gathered online. Breivik is a distinctly 21st century phenomenon.
Breivik's main sources of inspiration are post-9/11 and post-Huntington sources articulating New Right views.
The main argument of the manifesto can be summarized as follows.
- Europe is under threat of Islamic genocide, an effect of mass immigration of Muslims;
- This is due to the activities of local 'traitors': left-wing multiculturalists, 'cultural Marxists' and feminists. They operate as an overrepresented elite nationally in the media, politics and academia, as well as transnationally through the EU, NATO and the UN.
- In order to turn this trend around, we need to raise a new army of highly committed fighters; we need to prepare and arm them for a major and protracted war.
- This war will lead to a 'purified' nation, that is:
- All Muslims will be deported or killed;
- The left-wing traitors will be killed as well.
Since the war against Islam could not be immediately won, the first step in the plan must be to eliminate the enemy within, the left-wing traitors and collaborators of Islamization. Which is what Breivik did in July 2011.
In Breivik's manifesto, references to Hitler and Nazi Germany are rather rare; in fact, Breivik dismisses Nazism as a useless ideology. His main sources of inspiration are post-9/11 and post-Huntington sources articulating the type of New Right views also articulated by the likes of Wilders (often quoted and referred to by Breivik), and later by Baudet and similar contemporary political trends in Europe. The transnational network into which Schild en Vrienden was integrated, in short - Van Langenhove attended Baudet's Summer School and his report of a meeting with Hungary's Viktor Orban was an instant hit on social media.
Not Hitlerjugend but Breivikjugend
The facts shown in the documentary all fit into the template eleborately developed in Breivik's manifesto, adjusted to a new generation of online instruments: agressive online and offline action targeting left-wing 'traitors' and aimed at eradicating such 'collaborators' of mass immigration, combat training and weapons practice in view of armed confrontation with these enemies, secret military ranks and command structures, elaborate propaganda and influencing techniques, name it. It's all there.
Those who wish to dismiss all of this as a joke gone out of control, as an alpha-masculine testosteron wave, as rowdy and rude student behavior, would do well keeping Breivik in mind. When Breivik embarked on his lethal walkabout in Oslo, he was an entirely unknown, 'marginal' person who had lived below the radar for years, meticulously constructing his online political-ideological and military universe. That this universe was not 'virtual', not fictional and not illusory is shown by the 70-plus victims he left behind.
This universe has not disappeared. The text of his manifesto is still online, and Breivik has become a format for a particular type of new, 21st century politics, and rather than another version of Flemish Hitlerjugend, Schild en Vrienden must be seen as a Breivikjugend.