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It’s Hitler’s birthday. Here’s why so few antisemites are celebrating

While some still look up to the Nazi leader, appreciation among many far-right extremists is steeped in irony

On March 12, prominent far-right troll Nick Fuentes took to his Telegram channel to make an important announcement to his followers. 

Spurred by a recent stunt from fellow travelers-in-hate from the Goyim Defense League, Fuentes was contemplating a shift in his rhetoric. 

Makes me want to tone down the Hitler thing going forward,” he wrote. “It’s funny and edgy and there’s an important point within there, but you see what that kind of message attracts, and the connotation.”

Fuentes had often dropped references to Hitler into the Telegram channel, even saying on multiple occasions that he “loved” him. Despite that stated love, on Thursday, which would have been Hitler’s 134th birthday, Fuentes was true to his word: There was no mention of the former leader of Nazi Germany. 

In fact, the lack of birthday wishes held true for many Telegram channels popular among right-wing extremists. 

There were a few isolated messages. On a channel run by the Empire State Stormers, a New York-based group whose biggest claim to fame is a protest outside the Broadway revival of Parade, a play about the real-life lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia, a picture was posted of cupcakes with swastika icing in front of a portrait of Hitler. Another channel run by White Lives Matter had the message “Happy Birthday” along with pictures of flyers bearing the group’s name and bigoted messages pasted in public areas in Washington state. 

According to a report sent to the Forward by Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that conducts public-interest research, the Aryan Freedom Network has a celebration planned for April 22 that will include “Speakers – Raffle – BBQ – Swastika Lighting at Dusk.” The Aryan Freedom Network is a Texas-based hate group with chapters in 23 states.

In years past, white supremacists would often celebrate by holding parties or distributing literature on April 20, said Mark Pitcavage, a historian and senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Both of those have declined, not because of any changing opinions about Hitler but because racist skinheads have declined and traditional neo-Nazi groups have declined,” he said. 

Now, the far right has splintered in numerous different factions, ranging from those who explicitly align themselves with the ideology of the Third Reich to others like the Goyim Defense League which, despite espousing antisemitic views, doesn’t appropriate any of the symbols or ethos of Nationalist Socialism. Still other individuals or groups are like Fuentes, using memes of Hitler for shock value but who are so steeped in irony, it’s difficult to suss out what, if anything, they believe in. Thomas Main, a professor at Baruch College and author of the book The Rise of the Alt-Right, compares groups like the GDL to the 1960s social activist Jerry Rubin, who became well-known for using outrageous stunts to draw attention to his causes. 

“I see kind of two ways in which Adolf Hitler is sometimes raised,” said Main. “One is in a Yippie-style type of performative offensiveness, then these more serious references to AH.”

Fuentes and predecessors like Richard Spencer, the far-right figure who became well known in the mid-2010s for putting a more presentable face on far-right ideology, may make winking references to Hitler and spout antisemitic rhetoric. But they also are looking to reach as wide an audience as possible in order to have their ideas infiltrate the mainstream conservative movement. (Fuentes has held political conferences attended by members of Congress such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, though both politicians have sought to distance themselves from him following his widely publicized dinner with Kanye West and Donald Trump.)

But even among other extremist groups that aren’t seeking a mass audience, there is a tendency to reject an overt link to Nazism, even if they hold similarly xenophobic views, said Arie Perliger, a professor of security studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who studies political violence and extremism.

“They understand that it doesn’t really help them in terms of mobilizing support and recruitment and because it’s not really essential to their ideology,” he said, adding that where committed remnants of skinhead and Nationalist Socialist movements in the U.S. still exist, “you definitely see a reduction in terms of the level of activities.”

Pitcavage notes that many of the most explicitly neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. have suffered from infighting and are now shadows of their former selves. In the wake of their collapse, those who would be most likely to tie themselves to Hitler have become far less visible than their edgier, more ironic and more media-savvy contemporaries.

So while April 20 might be celebrated in a few isolated corners of the country, Jews shouldn’t expect anything more offensive than a few sad swastika cupcakes, marked with dimly lit birthday candles slowly burning out.

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