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From sensation to a sense of purpose: the draw of the far right

What makes people in the Netherlands join radical and far-right groups? PhD candidate Nikki Sterkenburg followed several activists. ‘Some feel it is their duty to defend the Dutch nation.’ PhD defence on 19 May.

Right-wing extremists in the Netherlands have become more active in recent years: they threaten on internet forums to burn down refugee centres, they break the windows in mosques and they fantasise in app groups about carrying out attacks. The risk of terrorist attacks by individual right-wing extremists is increasing, as the General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) warned in its recent annual report.

Nazi groeps

External PhD candidate Nikki Sterkenburg is fascinated by why people join and remain a member of such groups. ‘This is the first time in 20 years that such an extensive study has been carried out in which the voices of right-wing extremists themselves are heard.’ For three years, from 2015 to 2018, she followed and interviewed 36 activists. And she kept in touch with them afterwards. They were active in groups such as Identiteit Verzet, Erkenbrand, DTG or small neo-Nazi groups, or were a kind of freelancer that didn’t belong to any one group. Sterkenburg: ‘I spoke to them about who they are, what preceded their activism, what they do and why they choose this.’

Motives of activists

The interviews enabled Sterkenburg to distinguish different motives for joining: ‘The thrill seekers want to provoke. The political seekers are disappointed in politics and are seeking alternatives. The social seekers want friendship with kindred spirits and the ideological seekers see joining as the ultimate self-realisation.’ The activists that she followed come from different backgrounds and have levels of education. Most were between the ages of 25 and 40. ‘There doesn’t seem to be an influx of younger members.’

Mission to save the Netherlands

The motives for joining are generally wide-ranging, but those who remain active tend to be driven by a sense of purpose: they want to give meaning to their life and do something that counts, says Sterkenburg. ‘Even if this causes arguments with their family and problems with their employer. They feel that it is their duty to defend the Dutch people, by which they mainly mean the native white Dutch population.’

Violence or not

There are great differences between the activists when it comes to their ideological beliefs and opinions on whether violence is justified. ‘Some interviewees see violence as a legitimate means and use it too, for instance fighting in the street with people from a migrant background. But other interviewees stick to demonstrations and non-violent action.’

Win trust of activists

Sterkenburg spent years going to demonstrations, protests and meet-ups to get to know the group better. ‘Coming into contact with a closed world is a question of perseverance, particularly if you make it clear from the off that you’re a journalist and researcher. In the end I was able to win the trust of dozens of activists, although it did take two years for some of them to agree to an interview.’

Online threats

The research went fairly smoothly, says Sterkenburg, but just recently she has received intimidating reactions. Sterkenburg: ‘I was never scared of my own research group. I always made clear agreements with activists and they know I don’t share their ideology. But I’ve since received a number of threats from the online right-wing extremist world.’ She prefers not to discuss the nature of these threats.

A popular version of the dissertation will be published on 20 May by DasMag publishers: ‘Maar dat mag je niet zeggen’

Banner photo ANP/Joris van Gennip: photo of a far-right demonstration in The Hague

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