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Antifeminism in Europe
A Political Tool: Misogyny and the Radical Right

An illustration of a woman and two male hands which are handing her an apron and whisk.
Illustration: © Rosa Kammermeier

Anti-feminist narratives are mainstays of the radical right. They enable anti-democratic and authoritarian movements to catch on even in mainstream society. In his letter, Tobias Ginsburg shares observations from his undercover investigations of far-right groups and organizations, and points up the importance of misogyny and toxic masculinity as a political tool.

By Tobias Ginsburg

Your reports from Brazil, my dear Giovanna, are alarming and sad. But what’s most alarming is how much of it has a familiar ring to me, even from a European perspective, how similar the current right-wing backlash is all over the world. Sure, attacks on democracies and open societies often start by targeting the rights of women and sexual minorities – that’s nothing new, it’s a well-established practice straight out of the authoritarian playbook. But over the past decade, ever since the global rise of the far right, even the details of their anti-feminist narratives and anti-democratic strategies have converged. European enemies of human rights do tend to express their hatred more cautiously, half-heartedly cloaking it in rhetoric about fighting for the “traditional family” and “real masculinity” and against “political correctness” and “gender ideology”. Yet, it is precisely this framing, by now broadly socially accepted, that makes these narratives so dangerous: as a result, the radical right reaches an immensely broad spectrum of people, including for a long time already men from the so-called bourgeois middle-class center of society. By now the all the angry and aggrieved crusaders of patriarchy, I’ve been dealing with over here for such an awfully long time, are pretty much from all walks of life.

The Glue that Holds the Far Right Together

It’s been thirteen years since I started my strange occupation: I infiltrate the kind of fanatical groups – especially those on the right-wing fringe – that one really should steer clear of whenever possible. I have lived among neo-Nazis, have joined sects and right-wing militias, and followed conspiracy theorists. My object is to venture a glimpse behind their menacing self-displays, to suss them out as human beings, to figure out what drives them to all this hate and what makes that hate so damn effective.

Anti-feminism can, of course, be found throughout society, so there’s no need to infiltrate any fascist groups for that. But what all these testosterone-fuelled groups have in common is their crusade against feminism and against “gender ideology”, coupled with a political cult of masculinity. These are integral and inextricable elements of far-right ideology. And they have mainstream appeal, which is what makes them really dangerous. This fanatical crusade isn’t merely the glue that holds the various far-right scenes together: it’s also capable of drawing adherents from all walks of life. For many people, sniffing this anti-feminist glue is becoming a gateway drug.

The Legitimisation of Hate

I experienced this vital importance during my very first undercover investigation. Naively and almost by accident, I’d stumbled upon a far-right network of well-funded institutions, think tanks, publishing houses and fraternities that was to gain notoriety just a few years later under the misleading label of the “New Right”. These are neo-fascists who publicly disavow the Hitler regime and couch their nationalism in slightly more polite terms – and that’s the whole trick, the only thing setting them apart from the “Old Right”. Curiosity got the better of me: I rang them up under an assumed name – and before I knew it, I was invited to an evening event at a fascist fraternity.

That’s my privilege as a white man: I can walk right up and take a close look at whatever frightens me – besides, as a German Jew I’m used to assimilating anyway. So soon enough there I was, sitting sheepishly amongst young college students decked out in nostalgic costumes, and watching their martial masculinity rites, which date from the century before last. It’s really quite a spectacle, what with the men sitting there lined up in a strict pecking order, sporting the facial scars – another tradition – of fencing and bleeding together, whilst their chairman orders them around all evening. Striking the table with his sabre and barking out orders in a commanding tone, he has his little regiment stand up and sit down, chant and fall silent, bawl out jingoistic songs and, above all, gulp down one glass of booze after another in a disciplined, ritualised fashion.

I was perfectly aware that quite a few of these traditional fraternities are radical right-wing, I just didn’t realize what that meant. The fact that patriotic barroom braying culminates in chanting Nazi slogans is hardly surprising, but I’d never experienced hatred of this kind before. Racism, misogyny and anti-Semitism may be rampant everywhere, but the contempt for other people I found here was cold-bloodedly rationalized and garnished with footnotes. I learned that one of the core arguments adduced to legitimise their hatred is their belief in a “Cultural Marxist conspiracy”: the notion that feminism, political correctness and “diversity” are all part of a grand plot to “feminise” the nation and bring about its “degeneration”, part of a war on Men, the Family and “das Volk”.

Spreading Right-wing Conspiracy Myths and Terror

That was back in 2009. How strange and alien, how crude and extreme it all seemed to me then! Since then, however, this madness has come to permeate German society in the wake of large-scale right-wing campaigns. Scraps of these ideas have now flooded the internet and crop up in bestsellers and national newspapers as well as in speeches by politicians and even heads of state – whether Russian, Hungarian or, until recently, American. And then there are all the right-wing terrorists of recent years: remember the mass murderers of Christchurch, Utøya, Halle in Germany and, most recently, Buffalo in the United States to name just a few. All of them said the struggle against feminism and feminisation was the chief motive for their heinous crimes, thereby making abundantly clear what this ideology boils down to at the end of the day.

And yet, this mainstay of radical right-wing thought is by and large ignored in German debate – perhaps because it has become so socially acceptable. Perhaps because its basic promise appeals to such an alarmingly numerous contingent of men who fear for their privileges: If social progress were to be scaled back and the old hierarchies re-established, then you, the average male, would be restored to power. This is also, in a sense, the basic promise of patriarchy: You might still be getting the short end of the stick now, but eventually you’ll be back on top, cracking the whip.

Anti-feminist Strategy Advice

This is a glittering promise: power. A promise which, in turn, can be used to gain power. This is roughly how a senior staffer at the Ordo Iuris Institute, an alarmingly influential far-right think tank in Poland, explained it to me. It was this organisation (founded, incidentally, by Tradição, Família e Propriedade, a sect-like right-wing organization from Brazil) that spearheaded the large-scale attacks on women and queer people in Poland and masterminded the legislation to strip them of their civil rights, for example a de facto total ban on abortion and the creation of so-called “LGBT-free zones”. Furthermore, Ordo Iuris is embedded in a transnational network of fundamentalist reactionary forces, ranging from US evangelicals to Russian oligarchs with close links to the Kremlin. And this anti-democratic network is spreading.

Masquerading as a radical right-wing politician, I was received in Warsaw, where they were only too eager to advise me on how to import Polish “successes” into Germany. It was a bona fide strategic consulting session. Yes, my advisors were firm believers in the righteousness of their crusade against Cultural Marxism, feminism and “degeneration”, though they were also well aware that this creed is a powerful weapon, too. A weapon that can be adapted, applied and extended to various societies, and that I could use in Germany to win over segments of civil society for the struggle against women’s and human rights. The preconditions for this undertaking are already in place, they assured me, and the network is keyed up and ready to go. I was advised to hound trans people in particular… because that sort of thing goes down well everywhere.

Despite all the menacing recent developments, people in Germany, as in most European countries, are still basically optimistic. They have this feeling that all the social progress and increasing participation in society are a sure thing. But they’re not. These advances are as precious as they are fragile. And their enemies are active, and their inhumane ideology has long since permeated latter-day society. We have to finally grasp this threat if we wish to hold on to our hard-won liberties.

Bo-Myung Kim will be next on our chain letter, and I’m eager to hear about the reactionary backlash and feminist resistance in South Korea.


About the project:

In the last few years, the topic of antifeminism has gained attention. But what is antifeminism and what are its manifestations?

Anti-feminist positions are diverse and reach from a critique of the scientific discussion of gender to a rejection of gender equality. They are often directed against the strengthening of female self-determination and support the idea of a binary gender identity with a classical division of gender roles.

Behind the various manifestations of antifeminism are usually sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and anti-Semitic views. These can lead to a threat to central values of an open and liberal society.

In an exchange of letters, our authors from Brazil, Germany, South Korea, India and Mexico describe the anti-feminist developments they observe in their countries. They present a local perspective on the question: “To what extent does antifeminism threaten our democracy?”