February 2022 was a crucial turning point in human affairs. For two years, all matters Covid-19 dominated the public sphere, yet within a few days, public health concerns were overtaken by #standwithukraine. True, such seismic shifts in the media landscape, while apparently sudden and virtually hegemonic, do not occur in all contexts at the same time: they may be more appropriately compared to an avalanche or a bout of incipient mass hysteria, by which is meant that often unnoticed events, once ‘critical mass’ is reached, explode onto the scene. This is a fascinating spectacle to observe and analyse, especially given legacy media’s capabilities—cognitively and morally—to turn a proverbial game of chicken into a stampede as the political and journalistic ‘herds of independent minds’ shift gears at a moment’s notice.1
The scale and scope of these changes appear sudden to many observers and most casual readers, yet they are not. Ever since Sars-Cov-2 appeared on the world stage, the public was (is) fed an astonishing amount of information of all kinds, yet it is probably no exaggeration that much of it is beset with hypocrisy and false equivalences, in addition to heavy doses of virtue-signalling. This essay is an enquiry into documented cases of far-right extremism in the context of both ‘Covid-19’ and Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. In both cases, the presence of ‘far-right extremists’ is central to the media narratives, yet the analysed articles are trying to make two very different, if not outright contradictory, points.
Using Austrian legacy media of both state and non-state provenance as an example, I will be looking at how accusations of far-right extremism, however far-fetched or contrived, are used to both discredit any protest against Covid mandates while, at the same time, Vladimir Putin’s declared aim of ‘denazification’ of Ukraine is dismissed out of hand by the very same media personalities and institutions.
Each are dealt, in turn, with chronicling the rank hypocrisy that has come to characterise both topics. As such, the following showcases—in a perhaps ironic adaptation of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s considerations—how far-right extremists, including Neo-Nazis, are ‘unworthy’ in one case (protests against Covid mandates) while they are deemed ‘worthy’ in another (Ukraine). The study of how legacy media presents a certain trope (far-right extremism) highlights two concrete examples of media bias that use the same ‘argument’ (the presence of far-right extremists in anti-mandate protests and in Ukraine) in two completely contradictory ways . In exposing the double standards, this study holds up a mirror to the crude stereotypes, employed seemingly at-will as long as they serve a certain narrative, by state and non-state media in a European country in an age of plague and war.
Points of Departures, Sources, and Methods
It is obvious that any large-scale and, above all, sustained shift in across-the-board media coverage is the first tell-tale sign of concerted efforts. For example, when a tsunami hit the Japanese nuclear power station in Fukushima, of course world-wide headlines ensued—but, like the big waves that hit the shore in March of 2011, Western media attention shifted away from the calamity within a few days.
This is decidedly not the case with accusations of far-right extremism, which are frequently used to slander individuals, demonise entire groups, or discredit any argument grounded in pure logic. Known as ‘playing the Nazi card’, the phrase reductio ad Hitlerum was coined by Leo Strauss in 1953 in his Natural Right and History. Tucked away in his lecture on the ‘distinction between facts and values’, Strauss postulated that once one followed any thought to its logical conclusions, it would inevitably arrive at ‘a point beyond which the scene is darkened by the shadow of Hitler…that in the last decades has frequently been used as a substitute for the reductio ad absurdum: the reductio ad Hitlerum’. Yet, as Strauss was quick to point out:
A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to be shared by Hitler.2
It is noteworthy that Strauss wrote those lines in the immediate aftermath of WW2, and I find it equally telling that this nugget of wisdom has been transplanted into the internet age. Known as ‘Godwin’s Law’, replete with its inescapable Wikipedia entry, its creator, Mike Godwin, maintained that ‘its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust’. Concluding his reflections, Godwin recalled his horror
“to see an advanced, highly civilized nation warp itself into something capable of creating such a horror…our challenge as human beings who live in the period after that inflection point is that we no longer can be passive about history—we have a moral obligation to do what we can to prevent such events from ever happening again.” 3
With these preliminaries out of the way, let us now turn to seek answers to the following guiding question: what is the role of far right-wing extremism in current politics and its reflections in mainstream media?
More often than they are not, allegations of far right-wing extremism are tantamount to a strawman argument, by which is meant that guilt by association—presumed, factual, or both—is deployed at-will to discredit any argument or individual. As such, the powers that be in politics and legacy media will (ab)use such allegations in cases where it protects and serves pre-established narratives about any given topic. In other words: accusations of (typically) far right-wing extremism are part and parcel of the political and propagandistic toolkit of those who wield political power and their fellow-travellers in Western mainstream media.
In terms of research approach, three issues should be noted:
In this essay, I compare two pieces of legacy media output on the subject matter in terms of their content (visuals and text) and highlight certain aspects of their language use (discourse analysis and historical semantics).
Second, while the below comparison focuses on two media items, I wish to stress that this is not about pointing fingers at state broadcasters vs. private, or corporate, media outlets. Both sides of this non-argument—state media = bad propagandists, private broadcasters = venerable guardians of accuracy—employ these reprehensible practices, and given governments’ influence on private media via, e.g., subsidies, ‘leaks’, preferential access, and the like, their distinction relates to differences of degree, not of kind.
Third, I shall look closely at the two media items that were published within a few days of each other on 12 and 27 February 2022, respectively. Such close temporal association suggests that the content-creators and the respective editorial boards can be reasonably assumed to have had certain knowledge of both topics.
In what follows, I am comparing the following two media items (sources):
On 12 Feb. 2022, Austrian left-of-centre daily Der Standard published what they hold to be an ‘analysis’ of the anti-mandate protests that rocked Vienna and many other cities back in the depths of winter. In their piece ‘Corona Protests: Flying Dangerous Flags’, Colette M. Schmidt and photographer Marie E. Mark present several far right-wing themes (or memes) they encountered covering anti-injection mandate rallies from November 2021 through early February 2022.4
On 27 Feb. 2022, Christian Körber’s article ‘Putin’s Nazi Tales about Ukraine’ appeared on Austrian state broadcaster ORF’s website, which focused on Russia’s justification of its ‘special military operation’. In it, Mr. Körber tries his hands at dis-assembling what he calls ‘selective information, disinformation, and, as it must very well be called, [Russian] propaganda’.5
Do note that given the scale of both events, this cannot be but a qualitative undertaking. Part of the associated limitations stem from this being an enquiry into current affairs, in addition to the sheer amounts of potential sources and the naturally incomplete nature of the available documentation. Future historians may be the ultimate arbiters on the veracity of any of the claims made by these authors.
Note, finally, that these media items were originally published in German: all translations and, if not noted otherwise, all emphases are mine. Credit for all original content belongs to the respective authors and photographer.
Far Right-Wing Extremism and (vs.) Covid Mandates
Colette Schmidt’s analysis is more a photographic essay with only the briefest of introductions. Most information is conveyed in the captions of the photographs, in and of itself a questionable approach as the casual reader takes in pictorial evidence first, hence the cognitive connection between ‘extremism’ and anti-mandate protesters becomes imprinted on the readership well before the explanatory text is read.
In her brief introductory paragraph, entitled ‘the symbols of right-wing extremists among anti-mandate protesters’, Ms. Schmidt holds the following to be self-evident:
“It is no coincidence that right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis are at the forefront of protests against Covid mandates and vaccinations. They have always appeared on the scene worldwide when they see a crisis as an opportunity to destabilise democracies in order to install fascist regimes, be it the refugee crises [of 2015], climate change, or a pandemic. Issues are secondary. For those who justify their participation in these demonstrations by saying they are only resentful of government actions but have nothing in common with Nazis, it is worth taking a closer look at the symbols under which they march.”
Note that this is not an analysis. Ms. Schmidt engages in arguably the worst kind of virtue-signalling, by which is meant overly general statements (‘no coincidence’, ‘always appeared…worldwide’) unsupported by any specifics, details, or facts. These labels appear throughout the rest of the article.
We note, further, that the use of similarly general pronouns (they, those) is in fact de-humanising, for it makes ‘them’ a rather amorphous number of individuals that lacks, and I would add conspicuously so, any of the distinctions between all the individuals that make up the mass of protesters. In other words: this is a textbook example of what in the Humanities and Social Sciences is called ‘Othering’, by which is meant, as (even) Wikipedia correctly holds,
“the reductive action of labelling and defining a person as a subaltern native, as someone who belongs to the socially subordinate category…[which] excludes persons who do not fit the norm of the social group.” 6
Moving on to the third major theme in Ms. Schmidt’s introduction, we note the conflation of legitimate grievances with what the self-declared juste milieu deems off the reservations, that is, non-discrimination against fellow protesters.
I wish to stress that I do not share most views espoused by some of the participants of these anti-mandate protests, yet it is hard, if not outright impossible, to avoid the following logic alluded to by Ms. Schmidt: we must carefully vet any kind of protests and monitor every potential participant each and every time to ensure that no-one deviates from the pre-approved ways and means of expressing previously-cleared opinions in the public sphere. Of course, such a setting is simply impossible to find outside a Leni Riefenstahl choreography, such as the Nazi Party Rallies in 1930s Nuremberg.
What Ms. Schmidt and the editors over at Der Standard are calling for is nothing but a kind of ‘safe space’ for publicly-voiced dissent, which, by its very definitions as both noun and verb (via OED), is literally impossible.
Without much further ado, here is a selection of the captions of three images written by Colette Schmidt. In the first instance, a photograph is shown depicting the Museum of Natural History just outside the city centre. It is, I would submit, taken at a quite carefully chosen location, the ‘Square of Human Rights’ (Platz der Menschenrechte), and it shows some protesters, one of whom flies an Austrian flag (for reasons of copyright infringement, these images may not be reproduced here; the reader is advised to head over to the article and check out this and the other pictures as well).
“At first glance, many may simply recognise the Austrian flag. The fact that [the flag] is flown upside down by participants of the anti-mandate protests is not coincidental, but it is a common code among anti-state activists. [So-called] state rejecters [Staatsverweigerer] had already come into existence years before the Covid-19 Pandemic, and they are part of an anti-democratic, often right-wing extremist movement that does not recognise the existence, or legitimacy, of the [Austrian] state. After several trials against supporters in Austria, it had become quieter around them in recent years, but now they are reappearing, sometimes at protests, against the Covid-19 mandates and the injection mandate.”
The next image shows protesters sporting a banner with a URL, held up by an individual sporting a Guy Fawkes mask—like the ones used in the 2005 movie V For Vendetta. It is accompanied by the following caption:
“Often, a faction with banners of the ‘Querfront’ [lit. Cross-Section] leads the protest. Behind the name is one of Austria’s best-known right-wing radicals, Gottfried Küssel. A self-described Neo-Nazi with multiple bespoke convictions [based on the anti-Nazi legislation enacted after WW2], regularly participates in the rallies. His influence also extends over ‘fluid milieus’ of the ‘Tanzbrigade’ [dance brigade], the martial arts association ‘Noricum’ [the name of a de facto paramilitary group named after a Roman province] or football hooligans of the big Viennese clubs, according to journalist and extremism expert Michael Bonvalot. Some of them continue to operate under the name ‘Alpen Donau’ [Alps Danube]—like Küssel’s Neo-Nazi website, which was taken offline. They [presumably all] recruit followers at the demonstrations.”
Note that there’s a lot of other images, which feature ultra-conservative Catholic factions in combination with allusions to the ‘Identitarian’ movement, iconography from US discourse (of the ‘don’t tread on me’ and ‘Q-Anon’ garden varieties), and the like, but the third example I’d like to point to is a reference to ‘anti-mandate leftists’, which differs significantly from the previous pictorial and verbal ‘analysis’ offered by Ms. Schmidt.
It shows a much smaller number of protesters at a mid-winter protest (in the first two examples, no protesters wear gloves and winter gear; in this image, they do) carrying red flags with or without five-pointed stars, with the caption reading as follows:
“Often, there’s also a handful of men and women identifying themselves as ‘Free Left’ who have been spotted at anti-mandate protests. They first appeared at the ‘Querdenker’ [lit. Cross-Thinker] protests in Germany, and now they also exist in Austria. What exactly about them—apart from their self-referential name—is supposedly left-wing remains a mystery because nobody in the left-wing scene knows them, and they are not working together with [the known left-wingers] either. Also, they first appeared at anti-mandate protests after allegations surfaced that Neo-Nazis were leading and organising them, the group’s name could be a misleading false flag operation.”
Do note what is going on here: anyone who marches against the Covid mandates is presumed to be a right-wing extremist, at least by associative implication of being in the same crowd of protesters at least 40,000 strong each week, as admitted to by government advisors recently.
Furthermore, for the self-identifying juste milieu over at Der Standard it is apparently inconceivable that there could be new left-of-centre groups that exist beyond the already established ‘left-wing’ formations that so prominently figure in virtually all ‘acceptable’ protests, be it against the World Trade Organization summit Seattle (1999) or the G8 meeting in Genoa (2001), as well as the riotous inclination of Antifa or the Black Bloc; this is not to say that there is no far-right violence, yet again, the above-mentioned double standards are equally widespread.7
Finally, there’s the—of course unsubstantiated—allegation of Neo-Nazis as being behind these ‘Free Left’ groups, with the additional less-than-subtle ‘hint’ of their presumed participation in a ‘misleading false flag operation’, by which is (presumably) meant that any kind of ‘extremism’ that positions itself against the mandates in public might ultimately be connected to Neo-Nazis and right-wing extremism.
I would encourage any reader to check out the other pictures and captions in Der Standard’s piece. If you do not read German, machine translations of the captions by Google Translate or DeepL do a fairly good job of rendering them readable in English.
Neo-Nazis in Ukraine: Admissions by State Media
After the announcement of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Eastern Ukraine, which commenced on 24 February 2022, Austrian state broadcaster ORF apparently felt obliged to publish a long article to dispel one of the Kremlin’s core justifications, de-Nazification.
Entitled ‘Putin’s Nazi Tales about Ukraine’, Christian Körber tries his hand at dis-assembling what he calls ‘selective information, disinformation, and, as it must very well be called, propaganda’. Published online on 27 Feb., the article opens in the following way:
“War always goes hand in hand with selective information, disinformation, and quite likely also propaganda by all involved parties. In this context, the strategy of Russian President Vladimir Putin to explain the attack on Ukraine to his compatriots is a telling example: he repeatedly emphasises the aim to ‘denazify’ Ukraine.”
Leaving aside the salient, if unmentioned, terminological implications of ‘war’ under international law, it is worth noting that the other justification for Russia’s military intervention was the safeguarding of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. We further note, albeit in passing, that unilateral declarations of secession are compatible with international law, as an advisory opinion on this subject matter issued on 22 July 2010 by the International Court of Justice holds. Written at the request of Serbia on the occasion of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence on 17 Feb. 2008, the ICJ unanimously held that the adoption of this instrument ‘did not violate general international law, [UN] Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) or the Constitutional Framework. Consequently the adoption of that declaration did not violate any applicable rule of international law.’8
In other words: Russia’s argument that Western support for the creation of an independent Kosovo created a dangerous precedent is quite accurate, in particular once its principles are applied to the Ukrainian situation. Both Crimea in 2014 and the two Donbass republics acted in accordance with international law when they unilaterally seceded from Ukraine.
This leaves the Kremlin’s other major justification, the alleged genocide of the Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine. Here is Mr. Körber’s description:
“Aided by Western forces and NATO, Ukraine was threatening Russia and committing ‘genocide’ in the ‘People’s Republics in the Donbass’. The [Russian] offensive was therefore an act of defence and an aid to these ‘people’s republics’.”
The ORF piece then quotes Vladimir Putin’s speech given on 24 Feb. 2022 as follows, but Mr. Körber does so leaving out most of the background presented by the Russian president (which you can read over at the Kremlin’s website or, if your government blocks access to Russian websites, over at, e.g., Bloomberg News). From the transcript of Mr. Putin’s speech as quoted by ORF Online:
“The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation…”
“I would also like to address the military personnel of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Comrade officers, your fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did not fight the Nazi occupiers and did not defend our common Motherland to allow today’s neo-Nazis to seize power in Ukraine. You swore the oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people and not to the junta, the people’s adversary which is plundering Ukraine and humiliating the Ukrainian people.” 9
This selective quotation is followed by the briefest of summaries of what has been going on in Ukraine since at least 2014, courtesy of Mr. Körber:
“Putin tries to draw parallels to WW2 and compares the situation in Ukraine, which is supported by the West, with Nazi Germany. Mr. Putin also suggests that Neo-Nazis are in power in Ukraine or could soon take over. Even if these statements are based on a tiny core that is actually true, Mr. Putin’s argument does not accurately reflect facts on the ground. [His] narrative is not new, either: this leitmotif was heard and seen again and again during the Crimean crisis, including on billboards before the Crimean referendum in 2014. Still, back then it had a bit more truth to it.”
On the one hand, Mr. Körber and ORF are to be commended for quoting primary source materials (Vladimir Putin’s speech), yet it is equally worth pointing out that these comments were taken completely out of context: in his speech, Mr. Putin repeatedly decried NATO expansion, the re-shaping of international law since the end of the Cold War, and the ‘illegal use of military power against Iraq, Libya, and Syria’ well before addressing the issue at-hand, the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
Yet, on the other hand, Mr. Körber advances an arguably even more insidious argument made by Austrian state broadcaster ORF: it is the rather uncomfortable, if not outright painful, admission that there are Neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, yet their power and influence was allegedly ‘a bit more’ pervasive in 2014 than it is in 2022.
For context, we shall turn again to Mr. Putin’s speech from 24 February, which contains any number of certainly comparably uncomfortable arguments, such as the following quotes:
“On February 21, 2022, I spoke about our biggest concerns and worries, and about the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia consistently, rudely and unceremoniously from year to year. I am referring to the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border…”
“It is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an agreement with the leading NATO countries regarding the principles of equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we invariably faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail, while the North Atlantic alliance continued to expand despite our protests and concerns…”
“Why is this happening?…In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union grew weaker and subsequently broke apart. That experience should serve as a good lesson for us, because it has shown us that the paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete degradation and oblivion. We lost confidence for only one moment, but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world…”
“As a result, the old treaties and agreements are no longer effective. Entreaties and requests do not help. Anything that does not suit the dominant state, the powers that be, is denounced as archaic, obsolete and useless. At the same time, everything it regards as useful is presented as the ultimate truth and forced on others regardless of the cost, abusively and by any means available. Those who refuse to comply are subjected to strong-arm tactics.”
None of these issues play a role in Mr. Körber’s article, and it is well worth re-iterating that his platform, ORF Online, is provided by Austria’s state broadcaster. Still, and in spite of these significant omissions (by design?), Mr. Körber is at least partially honest about the existence of far right-wing extremism in Ukraine today:
“In fact, there were and are connections to the international Neo-Nazi scene in Ukraine. And indeed, there were and are several extreme right-wing extremist groups in Ukrainian politics and the Ukrainian military, even though they have lost a good deal of their influence in recent years, especially in the political realm.”
“The political arm of the ultranationalist and largely far-right scene is the Svoboda [Freedom] Party, which serves as a rallying point for several groups. In 2012, the party achieved more than 10% in the parliamentary elections. In 2013, the party was instrumental in the Euromaidan protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, who was loyal to Russia. Together with Vitaly Klitschko’s pro-European UDAR and Yulia Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Association ‘Fatherland’, they formed a three-way alliance.”
And just like that, Mr. Körber—in a way that seems quite incidental, if not accidental—admitted that Mr. Putin’s argument (which Körber cited in his piece) was, at least ‘in part’, true.
What is even more telling is the fact that Austrian state broadcaster ORF admits that ‘the ultranationalist and largely far-right’ Svoboda Party ‘was instrumental in the Euromaidan’ coup d’état against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The latter’s crime was, of course, that he ‘was loyal to Russia’, hence the less-than-subtle allegation of treasonous behaviour.
At this point, a brief detour is necessary to explain the Maidan putschists’ allegations of treason—which, it is well worth remembering, was one of the key drivers of the anti-government protests—on part of Mr. Yanokovych. For crucial background, we shall turn to the Kyiv Post (‘Ukraine’s Global Voice’) to learn directly from Mr. Yanukovych about this momentous decision of the Ukrainian government:
“President Viktor Yanukovych reaffirmed on Nov. 26 his refusal to sign a political association and free trade pact with the European Union until he gets a better deal… Reuters quoted him as saying the EU offer was humiliating: ‘We don’t have to be humiliated like this. We are a serious country. A European one.’…”
“Yanukovych made clear he wasn’t going to reverse the government’s decision: ‘Do we have to go blindfolded and run anywhere? We already were running very fast. We overcame in a short period a very big distance. We may get problems’, he said in the televised interviews. ‘As soon as we reach a level that is comfortable for us, when it meets our interests, when we agree on normal terms, then we will talk about signing’, Yanukovych said, adding that he doesn’t know when it will happen.” 10
Here we have yet another example of the double-standards employed widely across ‘the West’, at least when the exercise of sovereignty is leading certain countries—such as pre-Maidan Ukraine—to act in their own interests. This is particularly crucial as it was this concatenation of events that led to the coup d’état in February 2014, which afforded the far-right extremists and Neo-Nazis the opportunity for a much-enlarged role in Ukraine.
Some background on these antecedents is well worth our time: it is well-known that the arrangements prior to EU accession, so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) in Brussels-speak, would establish a ‘deep and comprehensive free trade area’ between two very unequal partners, which is why Mr. Yanokuvych’s government ultimately elected to renounce this avenue. Furthermore, the obligations imposed by both the EU and a wide array of comparable ‘Western’ institutions, such as the World Bank and the IMF, cannot be considered anything else but very onerous for the weaker ‘partner’ in these dealings.
At the same time, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Commission’s announcement to exclude Ukraine from its own arrangements in the case of ratification of the SAA constitutes the flip side of this coin: Mr. Yanukovych was offered a veritable Hobson’s Choice. Ukraine was (is) sitting in-between the EU-spearheaded ‘Western’ and the Russian-led ‘Eurasian’ blocs, hence the Kiev, or Kyiv, government may only choose between them, instead of, say, a trilateral arrangement. In other words: a false choice, which ties in neatly with the fake history peddled by ‘Western’ legacy media, to which we now return.
Here’s Mr. Körber again, who reassures his readers that ‘after Mr. Yaukovych’s ouster’, the ‘Right Sector was marginalised again’. As a memory of these good ol’ days in downtown Kiev back in February 2014, ORF uses a picture that shows ‘members of the “Right Sector” blocking the [Ukrainian] parliament in 2014’.
On the existence of far right-wing extremists and Neo-Nazis in the Donbass, Mr. Körber explains:
“While the far right is now politically practically irrelevant and, above all, has nothing to do with the [Zelensky] government, some military and paramilitary groups remain in action: first and foremost, the Azov Battalion. It was founded in 2014 by far-right politicians to support the Ukrainian military in the fight against pro-Russian units in the east as a volunteer outfit. Back then, the Ukrainian government incorporated the regiment into the National Guard. From a military point of view, this was perhaps understandable, but politically it turned out to be a big mistake.”
It is quite unfortunate, it is implied here, that the post-Maidan Ukrainian government did so, but they did so, apparently, for a reason: ‘the fight against pro-Russian units in the east’. This admission is crucial, as these paramilitary formations grew well beyond the growth rate of the regular armed forces, as explained by Prasanta Kumar Dutta, Samuel Granados, and Michael Ovaska in a piece that appeared in Reuters on 26 Jan. 2022: there were no such formations in 2014, and while Ukraine’s armed forces grew from 64,000 soldiers to 145,000 in early 2022 (up 126% over eight years)—paramilitary units, which did not exist eight years ago, numbered 102,000 men and women.
The notorious ‘Azov’ formation was part and parcel of this (para)military build-up, and its problematic associations with far right-wing extremism is explained by Mr. Körber in the following way:
“The [Azov Regt.] openly uses Nazi and Neo-Nazi symbols [and insignia] and soon became a rallying point for the militant right-wing extremist scene in Europe, including and especially from Germany. At the same time, ideologically like-minded mercenaries from all over the world joined the force, including, incidentally, individuals from Russia, as the Canadian journalist and author Michael Colborne recently noted in an interview with the online platform Belltower.”
ORF writer Christian Körber provides his source for this insight. It is indeed a curious confluence of circumstances that the presence of far-right extremists and Neo-Nazis, which, as the first article argues, discredits the entire anti-mandate protests, is relativised in the Ukrainian context. Again, we can observe the Herman-Chomsky paradox of (un)worthy Nazis, as Mr. Körber clearly argues that, yes, there are ‘some Nazis and Neo-Nazis’ present in Ukraine, but they are there seemingly co-incidental and, of course, fighting for a worthy cause, that is, against Russia.
Consequently, this twisted logic, if not outright contradictory, argumentation leads us to the related questions: who is Michael Colborn and what is this online platform Belltower? Furthermore, to enquire about the proximate origins of this particular bias, we may as well ask who funds Belltower?
Belltower News and the Amadeu Antonio Foundation
Michael Colborn is ‘a journalist in eastern Europe’, according to Foreign Policy, and he frequently writes about right-wing extremism. Note here that FP is an outfit of Slate Magazine, which itself is owned by the Washington Post group, which is owned by multi-billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This, you probably knew.
Belltower News, however, is a more recent creation by the ‘NGO’ Amadeu Antonio Stiftung (foundation), an institution funded by both donations and the German government, according to independent journalist Thomas Röper:
“More than half of this [Amadeu Antonio] foundation is financed by the [German] Federal Government, the rest are donations. It became known [in 2018] mainly for its important role in the implementation of the controversial Network Enforcement Act [legislation here, Wikipedia guidance here]. This act is ostensibly about combatting ‘hate-speech’ online and in particular in social media. And the [Amadeu Antonio] foundation is more or less the referee here, because there is no court of law that decides what constitutes ‘hate-speech’, but this is de facto what the foundation is there for.”
Belltower News, according to their website, is ‘operated by, with full responsibility for content, the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’. That means that a foundation that styles itself an NGO, which receives about half its funding from the German government, publishes materials that ‘helps’ legacy media outlets determining whether there are, in fact, right-wing extremists among the Ukrainian forces. Mind you that this is in addition to the fact that the Amadeu Antonio Foundation is the functional equivalent of an online inquisitorial service that affords its governmental (co)funders—which, by the way, remain unmentioned on its website—something like plausible deniability. Note, furthermore, that the long-serving (now former) chairwomen of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’s board, Ms. Anetta Kahane (bio via Wikipedia), worked as an informer for the GDR’s State Security (Stasi) from 1974-82.
You can check out the Amadeu Antonio Foundation’s early history here, courtesy of the Wayback Machine. While I won’t go any further down this particular rabbit hole, I will point out that the Foundation was established in 1998 and, only one year later, ‘then Speaker of German Federal Parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, bec[ame] the official patron of the Foundation’. This is quite telling in and of itself, as it testifies to the long-standing ties enjoyed by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation to the highest offices of the German state.
With this arguably essential background information—which Mr. Körber either knowingly or unwittingly elected to ignore—that ORF Online piece moves to summarise Nicholas Potter’s recent piece in Belltower News, richly illustrated with an image showing members of ‘the Azov Regiment at a Rally in Kiev in 2020’.
As to future prospects, Mr. Körber holds that it remains ‘unclear how the Russian public will view [Mr. Putin’s] tales about the invasion’ of Ukraine, while noting that
“the vast majority of media are under the Kremlin’s direct control [gleichgeschaltet, i.e., Nazi terminology] and will therefore hardly voice any critical comments. How Russia deals with protests was demonstrated again on Thursday [24 Feb.] evening. Anti-war protests, which were called for on social media, were broken up by large police forces in St. Petersburg and Moscow. In Moscow alone, 1,800 people were arrested.”
There’s more in terms of illustrations (a woman, of course masked, being manhandled by police), which is suggestive of a trope discussed earlier in this article (Covid mandates), which constitutes another meta-informational connection between them. The picture intimates that the protesters are, in fact, doubly ‘worthy’: on the one hand, they are masked, by which is meant that they are following all non-pharmaceutical interventionist guidelines ostensibly to fight Covid (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) while, on the other hand, they are also protesting against the Mr. Putin’s war. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
In light of the above-discussed article, it is quite interesting to read such a comment from a journalist working for a ‘Western’ state broadcaster. Yet, after 2+ years of Covid-related censorship, conventional allegations of media censorship in Russia don’t carry as much water as before, to say nothing of the rank hypocrisy involved.
Still, this isn’t all there is. In conclusion, Mr. Körber specifically highlights the visible ‘protests’ by the creative classes before expressing his hope that Mr. Putin’s days may be numbered—because of his sagging popularity. According to (of course state-run) polls, the Russian president had a ‘measly 73% favourability’ rating, which indicates, for unspecified reasons and without any evidence given, a high probability of an impending collapse of the Russian régime.
At that point, Mr. Körber has reached an intellectual cul-de-sac: in the first instance, he breathlessly denounces Russian media as being ‘directly controlled’ by the Kremlin, an irony that may be lost on someone writing these lines who works for the Austrian state broadcaster. Yet, two paragraphs below, the same argument of Mr. Putin’s allegedly sagging poll numbers—as touted by that very same Russian media—are all but ridiculed, indicating, it appears to me, that the Russian régime can’t even properly fix polling date. Hence, only time will tell, Mr. Körber states in closing, what will happen in the next Russian presidential election scheduled for 2024.
Good vs. Bad Kinds of Far Right-Wing Extremists
This piece set out to enquire about the slanted, if not outright biased, reporting on Covid-19 and the Russian military operation in select Austrian media pieces, focusing on the trope of far right-wing extremism.
As regards sustained anti-mandate protests throughout late autumn and winter 2021/22, Austrian authorities and media outlets first downplayed the numbers of participants before moving to denounce the protests altogether. The way this has been done is by linking most protesters to a comparatively small number of (far) right-wing activists who were also present.
If one reads through legacy media outlets, however, as exemplified by Ms. Schmidt’s piece in Der Standard, these few bad apples spoil the entire barrel of anti-mandate protests. By contrast, as detailed in the article by Mr. Körber in ORF Online, there are comparatively far more right-wing extremists, including many armed Neo-Nazis, fighting for Ukraine’s much-enlarged paramilitary ‘territorial forces’ whose presence, while certainly regrettable, is justifiable presumably because they fight for the ‘right’ cause, i.e., against Russia. In other words: the possible, or even presumed, presence of far-right extremists renders any kind of protests borderline illegitimate.
To sum up: even one potential (far) right-wing extremists among tens of thousands of anti-mandate protesters renders the entire demonstration problematic, if not borderline illegitimate and thus ‘unworthy’. At the same time, the established and well-documented presence of far right-wing extremism in Ukraine—see, e.g., items that appeared in The Nation, The Times of Israel, USA Today, or the US Army’s Combating Terrorism Center at West Point—is still denounced as ‘Russian propaganda’ across ‘Western’ legacy media outlets. In other words: the confirmed presence of, and hand in, Ukrainian political affairs as well as their role in the current armed conflict is apparently ‘worthy’—or ‘worthier’—of Western sympathy and material support.
This latter point is exemplified by the egregious lies peddled by German daily Die Welt in spring 2022. On 22 April, Anton Shekhovtsov published a piece entitled ‘The Lie of the “Neo-Nazi” Battalion and the Sin of the West’—illustrated with an image that contained no less than four symbols also used by the ‘original’ German National Socialists before and during WW2.
German-born independent journalist Thomas Röper, who lives in St. Petersburg, Russia, and runs the website anti-spiegel.ru, posted about this in the wee hours of 23 April (at 00:41 a.m., Moscow time). This led to Die Welt changing not only the illustration—literally overnight—but also the title and the URL on 24 April. Yet, in its current version, Mr. Shekhovsov’s article, now entitled ‘Today’s Azov Regiment has no more ties to the Neo-Nazi Battalions’, has been backdated to 22 April, and all of this is easily traceable via the Wayback Machine.
As an aside, some of the insignia shown in the original article included the so-called Wolfsangel, a kind of double-hook or crampon, that was traditionally used in wolf traps and appears on a number of heraldic signs, but, according to (even) Wikipedia, it was extensively used by numerous Wehrmacht and Waffen SS formations. The symbol itself is considered a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Other insignia shown in the original illustration of Mr. Shekhovsov’s article include the Black Sun, which, again according to (even) Wikipedia, was used by the mystic-esoteric wing of the Waffen SS.
Conclusion: A Tale of Worthy and Unworthy Neo-Nazis
Still, what does this tell you about what scholarship refers to as ‘cognitive dissonance’ between objective reality (the existence of Neo-Nazis in both contexts) vs. their ‘selective information, disinformation, and quite likely also propaganda by all involved parties’, as decried by Mr. Körber in Austrian state media?
It is, indeed, quite interesting to observe the absurdities this kind of coverage entails, to say nothing about the distinctions made between ‘worthy’ and (vs.) ‘unworthy’ far-right extremists the analysed legacy media. This is perhaps best encapsulated by Mr. Körber’s introductory statement:
“War always goes hand in hand with selective information, disinformation, and quite likely also propaganda by all involved parties. In this context, the strategy of Russian President Vladimir Putin to explain the attack on Ukraine to his compatriots is a telling example: he repeatedly emphasises the aim to ‘denazify’ Ukraine.”
Now, this isn’t merely a telling example of rank hypocrisy and journalistic double standards, to say nothing about professional ethics. It’s also a truism, i.e., this is something one doesn’t need to point out, and the fact of the matter is that Mr. Körber—remember: he works for the state broadcaster—does so is ample proof that Austrian state broadcaster ORF engages in precisely this kind of activism.
In other words: ‘Western’ legacy media has managed to become the proverbial pot that’s calling the kettle black.
The only thing that might serve as saving grace for Austrian state and de facto state legacy media may be their ignorance of the above facts.
- Harold Rosenberg. (1948) ‘The Herd of Independent Minds: Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?’ Commentary Magazine. https://www.commentary.org/articles/harold-rosenberg-2/the-herd-of-independent-mindshas-the-avant-garde-its-own-mass-culture, accessed 29 May 2022.
- Leo Strauss (1953), ‘Natural Right and the Distinction between Facts and Values’. In Natural Right and History, edited by Leo Strauss, 35-80, at 42-43. University of Chicago Press. https://press.uchicago.edu/sites/strauss/natural_right/transcript_Strauss_six_lectures_1949.pdf
- Mike Godwin. (2008) ‘I Seem To Be A Verb: 18 Years of Godwin’s Law’ Jewcy, 30 April 2008. https://jewcy.com/arts-and-culture/i_seem_be_verb_18_years_godwins_law, accessed 25 June 2022.
- Colette M. Schmidt and Marie E. Mark. (2022) ‘Corona-Demos: Unter gefährlichen Flaggen’ Der Standard, 12 Feb. https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000133302828/corona-demos-unter-gefaehrlichen-flaggen, accessed 25 June 2022.
- Christian Körber. (2022), ‘Putins Nazi-Erzählungen über die Ukraine’ ORF Online, 27 Feb. https://orf.at/stories/3249151, accessed 25 June 2022.
- This is no place to itemise. For guidance, incl. a select bibliography, see Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi. (2019) ‘Phenomenological Approaches to Self-Consciousness’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 30 May. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/self-consciousness-phenomenological/, accessed 25 June 2022.
- As an aside, I have lived in Switzerland for a decade, and there were substantial riots, illegal ‘protests’ every 1 May. These were carried out by what Swiss media outlets routinely describe as ‘autonomous groups’, including the two above-related formations. These protests would typically see windows smashed, dumpsters lit on fire, and hands-on engagements with police. More on the point, there were also considerable clashes between Antifa and anti-mandate protesters in Vienna, Austria, early last year. While those left-of-centre condemned police for their perceived leniency (see, e.g., this posting of Twitter by an ironically-named user ‘Antifa Princess’), the conflation of anti-mandate protesters with far-right extremists is widely diffused, in particular among academics, as can be seen in a piece by Johannes Waldmüller, Ph.D., a self-described human rights and peace activist and academic anthropologist (University of Vienna) with extensive work experience in the Global South, who described the protesters as follows: ‘Neo-Nazis, anti-Covid measures dissenters and obscurantists [he uses the term Esoteriker in the original, i.e., a somewhat more ‘academic’ word for ‘deplorables’ and ‘anti-vaxxers’], fundamentalist “Christians”, and in fact concerned citizens’.
- International Court of Justice. (2010) ‘Advisory Opinion on the Accordance with International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo’. Case overview available at https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/141, for the opinion see https://www.icj-cij.org/public/files/case-related/141/141-20100722-ADV-01-00-BI.pdf, both accessed 25 June 2022.
- Vladimir Putin. (2022) ‘Address by the President of the Russian Federation’, 24 Feb. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/67843. Alternative transcript available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-02-24/full-transcript-vladimir-putin-s-televised-address-to-russia-on-ukraine-feb-24, both accessed 25 June 2022.
- Oksana Grytsenko. (2013) ‘Yanukovych Confirms Refusal to Sign Deal With EU’, Kyiv Post, 26 Nov. https://www.kyivpost.com/article/content/ukraine-politics/yanukovych-confirms-refusal-to-sign-deal-with-eu-332493.html, accessed 25 June 2022.
(Featured Image: “the hands of a magician” by eschipul is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)