'The Right to be Different'

Jan van Boeckel

(partly published in INDIGO, magazine of Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples, Jan./Febr. 2000)

The alarming interest of the ''New Right'' for indigenous peoples

A well-known expression of indigenous peoples is: ''The Earth does not belong to us, we belong to the Earth.'' Man is only a small part of Creation, and he should not be its ruler. This view communicates a respectful, humble attitude towards nature. But with some evil will, this expression of relatedness with all that lives can easily be associated with dangerous ''Blut und Boden''-thinking. In this regard, it could be instructive to look back in history to see how feelings of connection to nature have been misused in pre-Second World War Germany. Today, again, radical-rightist groups are standing up which pride themselves in saying that their conduct is being guided by ''the laws of nature''. Next to that, they claim to be big proponents of cultural self-determination, even - or expressly - for indigenous peoples.

Inspired by Romanticism, a broad interest in protecting nature developed in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century. Nature was regarded as something pure and transcendental, the antipole of the modern world which had broken adrift. Something in their traditional character as a people was to give Germans a special touch with that nature. The word ''Volk'' (people) was a concept infused by myth, with which a special bond was expressed with a transcendental ''essence''. Via the Volk, the individual knew he or she was related to the wider cosmos. This bond, or so people thought, was of real influence on their deepest inner being. Life was given meaning by being member of a large whole, the ''Volks-gemeinschaft''. The so- called Völkisch-movement of before and after the turn of the century was the most outspoken expression of this sentiment. To counter the very real uprooting that the triumph of industrial capitalism brought about, the Völkisch thinkers preached a return to the country side, to the simplicity and the wholeness of a life attuned to nature. Scapegoat for the environmental pollution and the feelings of alienation and uprootedness was the ''homeless Jew''. ''The Germans'', according to historian Ludy Dawidowicz, ''were in search of a mysterious wholeness that would restore them to primeval happiness, destroying the hostile milieu of urban industrial civilization that the Jewish conspiracy had foisted on them.'' Within the Völkisch movement modern materialism, urbanisation, rationalism and science were regarded as the source of all evil, alien to the essence of the Volk.
In this context, a broad ''back-to-nature'' movement popped up during the first decades of 20th century, the so-called Wandervögel, aptly described by writer Peter Staudenmaier as ''right-wing hippies''. In the beginning, this movement did not set out in a dark direction. It was hoped that art could restore legitimacy, harmony, and meaning to a society undermined by analytic rationality, abstract market forces, and industrial technology. One idol of this nature worshipping movement was writer Herman Hesse. hesse was suffering from the phenomenon of a technical-rational world and the modern civilisation which had become a goal in itself, and thereby a threat to the spirit and soul of man. ''The thought of the emptiness lurking below our feet, the feeling of being threatened by nearby catastrophes and wars'' was tormenting him. Even leftist sympathizers were part of the Wandervögel, among whom even the young Walter Benjamin, The youth movement regarded itself as an a-political answer to a deep cultural crisis. Direct emotional experience was regarded as more important than social criticism and action. The changes that were needed, they believed, could not be brought about by political means, but only by improving the individual. At the occasion of a special gathering of the Wandervögel in 1913, the philosopher Ludwig Klages wrote the essay: ''Man and Earth'', which had a profound influence on the youth movement. In the text, klages anticipated just about all the themes of the contemporary ecology movement. it decried the accelerating extinction of species, disturbance of global ecosystemic balance, deforestation, destruction of aboriginal peoples and of wild habitats, urban sprawl, and the increasing alienation of people from nature. Even the environmental destructiveness of rampant tourism and the slaughter of whales were condemned! Nevertheless, Klages was an arch-conservative figure and a venomous antisemite, ''an intellectual pacemaker for the Third Reich''. At a Wangervögel conference that was held a year later, the decision was taken to allow local sections the right to exclude Jews from membership. The die was cast. Eventually, most Wandervögel joined the Nazis, From worshipping nature they shifted to worshipping the Führer.

With the pair of concepts ''Blood and Soil'', the National Socialists referred not only to the special tie they felt between people and fatherland, but also to the bond between individual and the natural order. It was the Nazi-reich minister for agriculture Rudolf Darré who first introduced the term. Darré, who made Naturschutz to a high priority for the state and who introduced organic farming methods (''lebensgesetzliche Landbauweise'') on a large scale, believed that ''the German race'' was in all of it fibres tied to the forest-rich German soil. An important source of inspiration in that were the writings of Roman historian Tacitus, who wrote almost 2000 years earlier about the Germans as follows: ''in the peoples of Germany there has been given to the world a race unmixed by intermarriage with other races, a peculiar people and pure, like no-one but themselves.'' Beyond all other peoples, Tacitus seemed to be saying, the germans were true indigens, sprung from the black earth of their native land. This fictional idea of Germanentum, of a biologically pure and inviolate race, as ''natural'' to its terrain as indigenous species of trees and flowers, featured in much of the archaeological and prehistorical literature both before and after the First World War, according to historian Simon Schama.

The National-Socialists promoted a return to a more simple, healthier and natural lifestyle, and introduced the concept of a ''Nordic peasantry'' organically tied to the earth. part of that came a scientifically grounded Volksreligion, which proclaimed the sacredness of nature, and which celebrated man's immanent unity with the ''mysteries of the blood''. It was Hitler himself who declared that men ''owe their higher existence ... to the knowledge and ruthless application of nature's stern and rigid laws.'' One Nazi author put it this way: ''man is a link in the chain of living nature just as any other organism.'' This ''religion of nature'', the roots of which go back to German Romanticism and Idealism, was a core element of National Socialist ideology. An ideology which was based on anti-modern sentiments, but nevertheless formed the base for building a technologically ultra-modern, extreme nationalist and genocidal state.

It is tempting to think: this is over and done, now we know better and we are warned. But the disturbing news is that today, in their propaganda, ultra-rightist groups are again appealing to themes strongly reminiscent of the Völkischmovement from before the Nazi era. And they also claim to have an ''ecological'' alternative to today's society. A case in point in this regard is the thinking of Herbert Gruhl, a former Christian Democratic member of the German parliament. In the early Eighties, Gruhl participated in the formation of the German Greens with a new political group he had founded, Green Action Future (GAZ). It was gruhl who created the slogan ''We are neither left nor right; we are in front.'' After a power struggle among the Greens, Gruhls GAZ was defeated and he subsequently founded the extreme right Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP). Gruhl states that if the culture of a society were set up according to the laws of nature, it would institute prescriptions against those who deviate from the existing norms, since ''in the hunting grounds of the wilderness, if an animal breaks the unwritten law of the herd and goes its own way, it generally pays for this independence with its life.'' Moreover, cultures should be kept separate from another: ''When many cultures are all jumbled together in the same area, the result will be that they live alongside each other, in conflict with each other, or ... they will undergo entropy, becoming a mixture whose value lessens with every intermixing, until in the last analysis it has no more worth.'' According to this brown-green politician, the laws of nature determine as well that over-population of the earth will be halted naturally because Death will act as correcting factor. Luckily, the peoples in the Third World will accept this ''solution'', because their lives ''rest on a completely different basic outlook on life from our won: their own death, like that of their children, is accepted as fate.''

Similar patterns can be discerned in the Netherlands. In 1998, Eric Krebbers of the organisation ''The Fable of the Illegal'' wrote a notable article with the title: ''With the 'New Right' against globalisation?'' In it, Krebbers warned against the intellectual vanguard of the extreme right, which is vowing its solidarity with Indians and is strongly pro cultural diversity. Ordinary racism and hate against foreigners are - that is: for the outside world - totally taboo for these ideologists, who present their programme neatly as ''New Right''. Krebbers' attention is particularly focused on articles of the chief editors Rüter and Veldman in the discussion magazine ''Studie, Opbouw en Strijd'' (SOS, ''Study, Building and Struggle'') of the New Right organisation ''Voorpost''. Rüter wants to cut through the existing ''leftist-liberal consensus'' which has been forced upon us by ''big capital''. His alternative is that our thinking opens itself for New Right nationalism. In light of that effort, Rüter declares his opposition to globalisation: ''global capitalism is selling the culture'' and ''colonizes imagination''. The chief editor of SOS fears ''a homogenization of ways of living'' and a ''uprooting of collective identities and traditional cultures''. His colleague chief editor veldman explains, in his contribution, why he is against belief in the idea of progress: ''The most fundamental political line of division today is not any longer between ''left'' and ''right'', but between on one hand the proponents of unlimited economic growth ..., those who see human beings firstly as consumers and the earth as a use product, and on the other hand those ... who want to share the whole cosmic living space with animals, plants and matter, and who want to pass her on unharmed to the coming generations.'' The New Right ideologist further declares himself in solidarity with ''peoples who fight a struggle for keeping their identity and with all those who fight against the destruction of flora and fauna''. Especially the North American Indians can count on Veldman's sympathies. Their culture and identity are being destroyed by the ''mass influx of aliens, who have no regard for the culture and religion of the indigenous population''. After mentioning NANAI, a support group for Indians in the Netherlands, he subsequently declares: ''It doesn't make sense that they prize the distinctness and expression of own identity when it pertains to almost completely extinct and exterminated minorities or absolutely 'not dangerous' mini-peoples, but immediately denounces or declares as suspect the very same values when they are feeding a militant nationalism among a little bigger people.'' And with that, we are back at a more familiar extreme right theme of ''Own people first!'' Veldman quotes with approval from Stella Braam's book ''Stemmen van de Aarde'' (''Voices of the Earth''), which was published by the Netherlands Centre for Indigenous Peoples: ''The earth is the foundation of existence [of indigenous peoples]. It keeps the roots of their civilisation and the sacred places of the forefathers.'' Veldman's comment on the quote is revealing: ''In light of the fact that so many well-meaning people apparently regard the culture and world view of indigenous peoples as immanently meaningful, it is surprising that europeans who, in their turn, oppose the western myth of progress and who go back to their own cultural roots and identity, often encounter so much distrust and resistance from those who claim to share their values.'' The New Right longs back to a mythical Golden Age, of before civilisation, says Krebbers, in which everybody still knew his by nature prescribed place, a time when peoples were still ethnically pure. Today's man is uprooted and cut off from his natural origin. ''People, what-ever they are and where-ever they live'', says Marcel Rüter, ''are connected with a country, a piece of earth, which they regard as theirs. They are willing to fight to keep its independence and integrity.'' The New Right author speaks in this regard of ''a right and duty to self-defence on the level of the different natural communities of which every man is part, beginning with the family.'' ''It is the drive to keep the ethnic and cultural diversity, against the process of diminishing and equalizing, and monolithic structures.''
It is remarkable that the New Right formulates its hatred against immigrants so intently in terms of respecting of cultural differences. Racism is presented as a respectable act of ''loyalty to people of one's own kind'', as a form of legitimate ''cultural self-defence''. They are defending ''cultures'', not ''races''. An ideal in this regard is a ''Europe of the Fatherlands'', with self-determination for all of its peoples. Just like the Turks should live in Turkey, and the Senegalese in Senegal, Germans should live in Germany, according to the New Right. Researcher Janet Biehl found as characteristic of the New Right the view that the destruction of the environment and the repression of nationalities have a common root in ''Semitic'' monotheism and universalism. More specifically, Christianity, and its later secularized forms, liberalism and Marxism, are the big wrong-doers. Just like Judeo-Christian universalism with its christian missionaries was destructive for ''authentic cultures'', so too is modernity eliminating ethnic and national cultures. Moreover, through the unbridled technology to which it gave rise, this modern universalism is said to have perpetrated not only the destruction of nature but an annihilation of the spirit. The destruction of nature is regarded as life-threatening in the spiritual sense as well as the physical, since when people deny pristine nature, their access to their ''authentic'' self is blocked. The ingenuous element in the line or reasoning of the New right is that they portray opponents of racism as ''universalists'' who are out on erasing differences between cultures, while the ''differentialists'' (they themselves) are the big defenders of cultural rights. ''Culture'' is regarded as an all-encompassing and determining factor in human conduct. Cultural identities of people are presented as un-moving, and humanity is said to be comprised of closed cultures. And those cultures should be kept separate, since mixing would only cause ethnic violence. Sociologist Renata Salecl gives a good idea of how this, what she calls meta-racism, means in practice: ''How would a meta-racist react to a Neo-nazi attack on Turkish women? After expressing his repulsion at the Neo-Nazi violence and sincerely condemning it, he would be quick to add that these events, deplorable as they are, must be located in their context. They are perverted expressions of a real problem, namely that in our contemporary Babylon he experience of belonging to a clearly delimited ethnic community which provides meaning for the individual's life is fast losing ground. The true culprits are, therefore, the cosmopolitan proponents of 'multiculturalism' who advocate the mixing of races and thereby set off natural self-defense mechanisms.'' An anonymous author has put a neo-nazistic pamphlet on the Internet in which the same kind of ''newspeak'' finds expression: ''National Socialists believe that a People's right to choose how they live with whom they choose to live - the right of self-determination - is the most fundamental, inalienable human right. National Socialists believe in genuine human rights for all Peoples. The well-being of the Aryan Race is always our first concern, but as feasible, we support and aid other Nations and Races in their efforts to build societies conducive to their happiness and prosperity and appropriate for their unique characters.''

In France, the New Right is proclaiming loud and clearly ''the right to be different''. The concept of ''difference'', so en vogue among post-modern Parisian philosophers, takes centre stage. The Groupement de Recherche et d'Etudes pour la Civilisation Européenne (GRECE), a think-thank of rightist intellectuals which in some case have strong ties to neo-fascist groups throughout Europe, twist ''the defence of the right to be different'' so as to serve the cause of ethnic apartheid. The ''differentialist'' racism of GRECE and other groups on the New Right rarely makes claims for the biological superiority of one ''race'' over another. On the contrary, it is prepared to concede that the concept of ''races'' as isolatable biological units is flawed, ''racial identity'' being the product of contingent historical circumstances. The New Right does not aim to exterminate ''the Other''. No, it is all for ethnic and cultural diversity and cherishes the differences as they exist between people. The New Right can be regarded as an effort to make racist sentiments more acceptable to the public at large, it is ''racism with a respectable face.'' Internal GRECE documents describe the group's overall objective as ''the intellectual education of everyone in whose hands the power of decision will come to rest in the coming years''. Conscious that its views, if stated in the raw, would be unacceptable to the public, the group stresses the need to disguise its real objectives: ''The political aims may under no circumstances be exposed. We have to present our aim particularly as an intellectual and moral revolution, and must be extremely careful in the political strategy.'' Before departing to le Front National, Guillaume Faye, a leading light in GRECE, declared: ''In keeping with the core of the right to difference doctrine, we must reject multiracial society and envisage, together with the immigrants themselves, their return to their country of origin.'' Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of Le Front National, says it even more candid: ''To be harmonious, a nation must have a certain ethnic and spiritual homogeneity ... The problem of immigration [must] be solved for the benefit of France by a peaceful and organized return of immigrants.'' The ultimate goal of the New Right in France is to have her views carried into French political and intellectual life. For that purpose, active effort is made of finding links with other movements, of which particularly the Greens are of interest. Through the ecology movement, GRECE us trying to find new entrances for Blood and Soil ideas. In the beginning of 1998, the first colloquium of the New Right environmental organisation ''Le recours aux forests'' (back to the forests) took place. The ''indo-germans'' would ''from nature be forest peoples'', while for the semitic peoples the desert was their natural territory. The president of the new organisation, Laurent Ozon, is also head of the environmental department of GRECE.

In an excellent essay on thinking in terms of ''Blood'' and ''Culture'', Nicholas Hildyard of the British organisation CornerHouse writes that ethnicity is indeed a very real social factor. But, as he directly adds to that, it is founded on imagination, it is a ''social construction'', and, through that, an expression of power relations in a society. The well-known British sociologist Stuart Hall has - short and concisely - explained what he regards to be the core of the slippery concept of ''ethnicity '': ''We all speak from a particular place, out of a particular history, out of a particular experience, a particular culture, without being contained by that position ... We are all, in that sense, ethnically located and our ethnic identities are crucial to our subjective sense of who we are.'' It is, adds Nicholas, to deny that ethnicity is rooted in biology, destiny or in some ''authentic'' set of unchanging cultural traditions and to insist that its form is always historically contingent and constantly changing. Members of an ethnic community may think themselves that their own group is distinct and unique, but in reality it is continuously affected by change. The ''we'' and the ''they'' are re-defined endlessly, depending on the circumstances. The supposed ''ethnic identity'' provides a fertile political terrain on which to mobilise. In some cases, such mobilisation may be directed towards liberatory ends, like the struggle against oppression. In others, it may be used towards ends that are repressive. Hildyard illustrates his point by referring to the history of Africa. Whatever the nature of ethnicity in pre-colonial times, he writes, it is clear that the colonial powers made ethnic distinctions a fact of everyday life. Under colonial rule, ethnic identity cards were introduced, fixing identities - regardless of social context - on the basis of spurious racial science, such as skull size and nose measurements. Ethnicity in contemporary Africa is not something primordial, something given, something which defines identity exclusive of all other factors. On the contrary, it is shifting, fluid and constantly being reworked in response to changing political, economic and social circumstances. Nor are there fixed, pre-colonial ethnicities waiting to be liberated. Indeed, the notion that Africa consists of ready-made, authentic, tribal ''states-in-waiting'' which have only to be hewn out of the national edifices imposed by the colonial powers rests largely on historical fiction, says Nicholas Hildyard. To support this viewpoint, he cites Terence Ranger, Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University: ''Almost all recent studies of nineteenth-century pre-colonial Africa have emphasized that far from there being a single ''tribal'' identity, most Africans moved in and out of multiple identities, defining themselves at one moment as subject to this chief, at another moment as a member of that cult, at another moment as part of this clan, and at yet another moment as an initiate in that professional guild.'' This is not to say, Hildyard quickly adds, that the ''tribe'' did not feature as a political and social unit in pre-colonial Africa: ''It sometimes did. But many of the tribes that exist today are less survivals of a pre-colonial past than the products of the administrative or economic practices of colonial powers.''
In the case of Rwanda, for example, the categories of Hutu and Tutsi were largely occupationally defined: whoever acquired a sizeable herd of cattle was called Tutsi and was considered highly. The Belgian colonial powers needed the Tutsis as their allies to maintain a fundamentally unjust political dispensation. Because of that, they were granted privileged positions in the government and army - at the expense of the Hutu's. Hildyard stresses that embracing the ''right to be different'' does not have to entail a one-way trip to cultural separation. Nor does the rejection of enforced cultural separation as a political ''solution'' to ethnic violence necessarily entail the embrace of forced integration. He pleads for ''pluralism'', for cherishing not only the differences between ethnic groups, but also what they have in common. Key to that is equity, since plural societies where power relations are inequitable will almost inevitably lead to the domination of one group by another. Hildyard calls for nurturing those cultural, social and economic relationships and practices that enable disparate groups to live together as equals within a wider commonwealth. He sees an urgent need for a politics that respects and relies on difference but which is open to change and the reworking of traditions; that is inquiring, open to debate and respectful of other opinions and ways of living.

And indigenous peoples themselves, how do they look upon the New Rightist embrace? At the end of 1998, the famous North American Indian leader Russell Means eagerly accepted an invitation to speak at the colloquium ''Rootedness, Anchoring. Foundations for the 21st century'', which was organized in the Belgian city of Antwerp by the New Right organisation TeKos (linked to ''Vlaams Blok'', an extreme right party). Eventually, Means did not come, but had his presentation read out by somebody else. One wonders to what extent indigenous peoples are acquainted with the kind of overtures the New Right makes in their direction - left alone if they have any idea of the wider political context in which they are made. Without having expressly wanted it to be like that, indigenous peoples themselves may have contributed to setting the conditions. For example in their fierce reaction against the so-called Wannabe's, Westerners who, out of lack of an own spiritual frame of reference try to become ''Indian'' or ''Aborigine'' themselves, and who organize sweat lodge ceremonies, medicine wheels and vision quests. Angered about this form of ''spiritual colonization'', indigenous leaders give their spiritually misguided guests the urgent advice to rather seek for their own ancestral and pre-christian roots. That is: the traditions and mythologies of the Celtic and Germanic tribes. But after the perilous misuse that the nazi's have made of this heritage, it seems that this well has been poisoned forever.

Sources (a.o.):

- Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience. Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier, AK Press 1995. The complete text is also on Internet:
- ''Blood'' and ''Culture''. Ethnic Conflict and the Authoritarian Right. Nicholas Hildyard, CornerHouse Briefing, 11 January 1999.
- Met ''Nieuw Rechts'' tegen de globalisering? Eric Krebbers. De Fabel van de Illegaal, 1998.