Manichaean Manipulation – Europe between Apocalypse and Redemption in the Imaginary of the Radical Right

An eternal fight between Good and Evil fuels the imaginaries of the European Radical Right (ERR) in a psychology of continuous panic-mongering. Is Europe the bulwark and pinnacle of Western civilization, the safe haven of Christianity, tradition and family values or has it turned into a dystopian oppressive dictatorship of ‘globalist’ Eurocracy? The imminent end of European civilization as we know it has received many names in the ERR such as the ‘breaking point’ in UKIP-rhetoric, ‘systemkollaps’ in Swedish (the ‘breakdown of the system’) or ‘Asylflut’ in German (the ‘refugee deluge’ – a biblical trope of scourge).

Contemporary discourse on Europe is infused by a powerful figure of Manichaean manipulation, a dualistic political cosmology, where light and darkness are engaged in a seemingly endless battle for dominance. But can the Continent be rescued from its final Armageddon? In ERR discourse, at least, it is seen as a matter of choice by ‘the people’ between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’.

Woodcut (1475) from Augustine’s ‘City of God’

Witnessing the collapse of the West Roman Empire, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) wrote down a key interpretation of Christian doctrine, “The City of God Against the Pagans” (De civitate Dei contra paganos, 426 AD). Augustine’s major aim was to free Christianity from any accusations of having furthered the fall of Rome, sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD. In “The City of God” Augustine launches a powerful image in which the City of Man and the City of God are placed in an eternal conflict, destined to end in victory for the latter. However, human prospects to make a free (and informed) choice between good and evil are very dim in Augustine’s theology, the above mediaeval wood carving illustrated the cities as potential destinations for pilgrims. The City of God (Zion) is inhabited by peaceful angels, its gate is wide open towards nature and life, prospering outside. A shepherd represents Abel, who with his blood laid the foundations of the angelic city. He is opposed by a rough man with a pickaxe in front of a steep, downward pointing, stony road. He symbolizes Cain, the founder of the sealed “Seat of Satan” (Babylon) surrounded by barren nature, where demons, wicked and horned creatures, half-women, half-animals throw rocks, poke their tongues and open fire on untroubled angels pointing to heaven.

Image disseminated in social media during the Czech presidential election campaign 2017-2018

In the apocalyptically charged atmosphere of contemporary political discourse, the return of Augustine’s Manichaean dualism does not surprise. In its most blatant form it was employed during the Czech presidential campaign in early 2018 where the candidates Drahos and Zeman were opposed as candidates of Good and Evil. In the above image, the liberal candidate Drahos is displayed against a disparate array of images: Stars and Stripes, a nuclear explosion, the US army, ISIS, Death in general, Taliban fighters, a capitalist Uncle Sam, an invasion of gawking refugees of African origin, Lucifer/Baphomet, all-engulfing fire and a soldier in combat. The far-right populist Zeman stands for the Czech national crest, a piece of nature flying in the sky (a flat earth? Paradise lost? Or a reference to the green meadows in the Czech national anthem?), a white dove (or seagull?), two heart-shaped and interlaced clouds, a happy and healthy nuclear family, delicious fruits, a toddler sleeping quietly together with a dog, an abundance of four-leaved clovers and bees (!). In the middle of the scenery we find a bald man dressed in a suit, pictured from behind beneath the motto (coloured in red to the left and blue to the right) “Vyber si cestu” – or “Choose your side”. His choice is either to walk on a paved, dark and blood-stained road to the left or on a bright and shiny road to the right. Of course, we do not know what effect this image had for the tiny victory of Zeman (with 51.8% of the vote in a second round runoff against Drahos), but it is representative for the rhetoric haunting the political climate in the Visegrád-countries in general.

Slovak image circulated in social media in connection with the hashtag ‘#AntiSoros’

Only shortly after the Czech presidential election, a similar image surfaced in Slovakia. Under the heading “Slovensko, ktorou cestou sa vyberies?” – “Slovak – which side do you choose?” we find an equally Manichaean representation, however with a more profound anti-EU edge. What are the choices of the Slovak (non-bald) man, likewise dressed in a dark suite and placed above the hashtag “#AntiSoros”? Should he turn to the left, he would encounter a world behind a fence guarded by CCTV and immersed in industrial pollution, represented by the image of the Tower of Babel. A gallery of six evil men is displayed of which I only could identify Soros in the centre and German social democrat (former President of the EU-parliament) Schulz. The lower part of the imaginary displays war, the refugee crisis, a kissing gay couple, a queer emo boy and batches of banknotes (USD?). A banner on the fence displays the slogan “Nato = legal terrorism” and beneath the colours of the EU, the Nazi flag is revealed. Turning to the right, the Slovak man would without limitations reach the Carpathian Mountains, get inspired by a line-up of Slovak military, religious and political leaders (all male), get his electricity from renewable energy (wind power) and dance traditional folk dances. He would also enjoy the fruits from the hands of a hard-working farmer and encounter a healthy and happy nuclear family, for some reason identical with the Czech family.

In the Czech case the satanic anti-American imagery is predominant and explicit and appears in general (in parallel to diverging stances on Israel) as one of the ideological dividing lines in the ERR. The Slovak imagery is more complex. It attacks at the same time ecological pollution, human pride, manipulative politicians and lobbyists, war and terror (orchestrated by the NATO), the refugee crisis and LGBTQ, paired with a critique of profiteering, a fenced-off surveillance society and the EU as an evil Nazi dictatorship. At the core of the visual narrative is a campaign directed against George Soros (the Slovak image is to be found on the Facebook-page of “#AntiSoros” and thus linked to the prevalence of anti-Soros conspiracy theories in the entire macro-region). The positive imagery in both cases is charged with references to a clean and prosperous nature, family values, culture, history, harvest and harmony. Somewhat odd is the Slovak preference for wind-energy and the Czech statement in favour of bees. Both images are ripe with religious overtones which in yet a third image circulating in Eastern Europe reaches a pinnacle.

A Ukrainian placed within the existential choice between the ‘West’ and the Slavonic ‘East’ – image widely spread in Russian and Ukrainian social media

Presumably of Ukrainian origin (hinted at by the traditional haircut ‘chupryna’ and shirt ‘vyshyvanka’), the choice is here between a dystopian world covered in blue and ruled by the devil or a shiny red world of radiant visions of the past. The devil, with a fat belly, openly displays genitalia and is dressed in stay-ups, invites to his blue realm in which Adolf Hitler is placed next to the European and Pride flags, a middle section with queer people, a kissing gay couple and a lower section with drugs and possibly some Euros. To the right, a Slavic angel points the seeker towards a bizarre imagery uniting Slavic ancestors, the Orthodox church, the Soviet space program and Air Force, a nuclear family with three times the number of children as in the Czech and Slovak cases and finally a typical Soviet tank monument.

Perhaps all of these three images interrelated, perhaps not, however they all communicate a worldview of existential division within Europe and the geopolitical ‘West’ more widely. The Ukrainian and Slovak images make use of the idea of ‘Gayropa’, European queer depravity, underscored by the blue colour in the Ukrainian case – and underpinned by the Eurasian writings of Putin’s court philosopher Dugin. Gayropa is symbolised by the Pride flag, kissing gay couples and apparently emasculated emo boys. Furthermore, both make the statement about the similarity between Nazi Germany and the EU. The devil appears also as a clear signature of Drahos. Whereas there are no negative references to war and terror in the Ukrainian image, the Czech and Slovak visual representations are obvious: the USA brings about death and destruction and, following a popular conspiracy theory, it can also be read into the image that ISIS is an American creation and that the refugee crisis likewise is orchestrated. In the Slovak case, the NATO in general is pointed out as representing ‘legal terrorism’. The Czech image has only a slight reference to culture and historical past through the national crest, in the Slovak case, both folklore and a gallery of national leaders connect to history. The Ukrainian nostalgic gaze incorporates a stunning mix of space age and sacred references and a positive connotation of military force with references to WWII. Here an angel also points to heaven and space – reifying the technological and the spiritual. Religious references are more hidden in the other cases, apart from the Tower of Babel. When it comes to the environment, both the Czech and Slovak images idealise nature and harmony. What stands out is the weird piece of land flying in Czech air space and Slovak references to pollution and clean energy. All images hail the heteronormative nuclear family with between two and six children.

As bizarre these images might appear, they all relate to central ideas in the ERR repository of rhetorical tropes. Facing the immanent collapse of the ‘West’, European people are placed in the position of existential and Manichean choice where one path obviously will lead to Augustine’s City of Man (i.e. decadence, death and destruction) and the other a City of God that promises restoration, redemption and reintegration. Once this apocalyptic dividing line is established, the wider political mythology can be assembled accordingly – creating its own form of order between ‘good’ Christians and ‘bad’ Muslims, the ‘pure people’ and ‘corrupt elites’, and, finally, the ERR bête noir, native in-groups and out-groups.

Credit: Associate Professor Önnerfors would like to thank Peter Larsson and Hynek Pallas, who made him observant of the Czech and Slovak images and discussed their content with him.


Dr. Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Associate Professor in History of Ideas at the University of Gothenburg. See his profile here.

© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).