Practicing the Radical Right Exit: The Case of the Völkisch Settlers

Völkisch Settlers

“What’s your opinion on Völkisch settlers?” This question caused a heated debate in the esoteric neo-Nazi forum in autumn 2016. Most of the international users on the site had probably heard of this peculiar current of the German radical right for the first time. They were attracted by pictures of traditional clothes, Germanic rituals and an idyllic life in the countryside; by people who have left their ordinary lives in the cities behind in order build up autonomous communities pursuing a völkisch ideology intended to operate as blueprints for an authoritarian transformation of society.

The settlers’ anti-urban, agrarian lifestyle – combined with an engagement with esoteric cults, racist conspiracies and historical revisionism – departsstrongly from what we recognise as contemporary radical right activism. Appropriating whole villages, the Völkisch settlers follow their own rules ignoring those by the German state authorities, and prefiguratively embody their ideal of the national community (Volksgemeinschaft) in its basic unit: the grand family.

Despite their growing numbers, there are few studies on the Völkisch settlers. This should not come as surprise. Most studies of the radical right are dedicated to parties, transnational movements or subcultures that publicly voice their demands in order to gain broader support and engage public discourse. Beyond the overall focus on populist radical right parties, demonstrations, intimidation and violence understandably receive the most attention. That social withdrawal is an option for the radical right is largely neglected. This text tackles the former by approaching the characteristics and historical roots of the Völkisch settlers as an exemplary case of radical right autarky.

The radical right ‘exit’

The study of political extremism overlooks those who withdraw from the public sphere in order build up their own communities. While collective political action is commonly understood as a kind of resistance, a social exit is instead frequently considered a mute gesture of individual escapism. When drawing upon Albert Hirschman’s concept of exit, voice and loyalty; however, the study of radical right activism can be framed differently. For the conscious decision to leave conventional spheres of politics can be an option for both radical left and radical right activists to transform their ideas into practice– one that is fundamentally different but no less political than demonstrations, petitions or political violence.

In the context of the radical right, there are few studies that focus upon collective attempts to establish homogeneous communities away from the political mainstream. Simi and Futrell devoted some attention to “private Aryan communities” in their book American Swastika, first published in 2010. They understand these compounds as “hubs for white power networking. Activists make pilgrimages to the communities, which host large gatherings where devotees experience a ‘pure’ Aryan settlement. These communities serve as way stations for traveling WPM [White Power Movement] activists, some of whom are on the run from authorities” (p. 99). In contrast, we find that settler activities in Germany have followed historical paragons in that country, and are therefore strongly dyed in völkisch ethno-nationalism and neo-Nazi ideology.

The Völkisch Settlers …

The socio-political spectrum of the Völkisch settlers is diverse, often contradictory and hard to grasp. Above all, very few people consider themselves to be Völkisch settlers, or would self-identify as such to outsiders. Moreover, there are key regional differences: “While we find true settlements only in East Germany, in West Germany it is rather individual farms, which appear more concentrated in individual regions”, says Marius Hellwig, who works for the anti-racist, Berlin-based Amadeu-Antonio-Foundation. In a recent study, his foundation estimated the number of Völkisch Settlers at 1,000 dispersed across Germany, with particular hotspots in the Northeast and Lower Saxony. These numbers are necessarily estimations, as Hellwig underlines, since it is difficult to pinpoint settlers and differentiate them from other radical right milieux.

Once established in sparsely populated areas, Völkisch settlers typically establish themselves as small-scale organic farmers, skilled artisans and helpful neighbors in the village community, merely trying to win adherents through their righteous way of life. The topic of nature conservation, which engages activists across German society, proves to be a bridge builder here. For the radical right, as Bernhard Forchtner has recently argued, protecting nature simultaneously serves to preserve the German ‘national community’ and its ‘living space’. What unites them is a romanticized vision of living in the countryside and a rejection of late-modern lifestyles, alongside attempts at economic underpinned by racist ultra-nationalism. They choose sparsely populated, rural areas in order to raise children undisturbed in allegedly racially-pure environment.

“Today’s settlers can be clearly assigned to the radical right-wing milieu”, asserts Laura Schenderlein, an expert on radical right extremism in the rural context. She continues: “There are no programmatic writings of a unified movement. Recently, we can see New Right umbrella organizations like 1 Prozent trying to co-opt the settlers’ efforts to strive for cultural hegemony and political dominance in neglected communities.”

… and their historical paragons

Sometimes more and sometimes less explicitly, Völkisch settlers refer to the Artaman movement of the 1920s that also followed a back-to-the-land praxis. Indeed, the development of ideologically and ethnically homogenous communities were awarded a privileged status by leading National Socialists like Himmler.As Laura Schenderlein explains: “The development of new ways of life took place motivated out of opposition then and now: in the days of the Artamans in opposition to the conditions in the Weimar Republic and today as part of the ‘National Opposition’ of the radical right.”

Yet there are historical divergences as well Schenderlein notes: “Although many of today’s settlers within the network of the radical right in Germany – and especially here by the membership of national youth associations – were politically socialized, there is no unified organization to the settlement “from above” as it existed in the Artaman movement.” Nevertheless, the Artamans remain a central point of reference in the constitution of several settler communities. And the historical connections fascinates global responses by the radical right. Of late, there has clearly been a revival of Artaman texts and aesthetics that are shared via social networks. Likewise, international neo-Nazi forums have discussed these autarkic developments in Germany – and feel strongly inspired by them.

From public to academic interest

There are few phenomena receiving such broad media coverage and at the same time so little academic attention as the Völkisch Settlers do. Only two months ago, the famous German detective television series Tatort (Crime Scene) boasting some 8 Million viewers, a whole episode to a criminal case around a völkisch community in the Black Forest, while a village in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern served as venue for the recent novel ‘Die Sippe’ (The Kin) that received widespread attention in Germany.

But the Völkisch settlers are not just material for esoteric crime scenes. They operate in areas that are estranged from party politics, offering a sense of community that is frequently absent in these regions. At the same time, they advocate an extreme world view practiced in direct oppositions to the perceived ills of today’s consumerist world, which they see in gender mainstreaming, homosexuality, feminism and globalization. In this sense, they undermine broader social cohesion and advance an ethno-nationalist microcosm based upon (pseudo-)Germanic traditions, authoritarian structured parallel universe and the indoctrination of children. The hierarchic structures and normal in these communities are hardly questionable and are meant to put the collective permanently beyond the individual in order to serve the wellbeing of the ‘racially pure’ community. Academia is far from acknowledging the dimension these socialization processes take. To grasp the radical right withdrawal as a radical form of politics would be a first step toward including these forms of radical right activism in our wider research agenda.

Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Political Science in Goethe University Frankfurt. See his profile here:

© Maik Fielitz. 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).