SIMBACH — This small German town looked like a war zone. Streets were torn open, houses abandoned, containers stuffed. Torrential rain had completely destroyed this corner of western Germany. Images of the destruction went around the world. But since German officials hadn't yet provided proper support, members of the so-called "Identitarian Movement," which goes by the German acronym IB, quickly put together a team of 30 young people who helped clean up.
Soon there were pictures of it on the Internet. The video was clicked on more than 13,000 times on Facebook. A father reported how the wave hit them, how he had tried to save his belongings and get his children out of harm's way. IB members shovel mud and clear away rubbish. The message is clear: They're not afraid to get their hands dirty.
"The community grows together, and you do something useful," says the Bavarian head of IB, Sebastien Zeilinger. "After all, we're doing this for our home country, our people."
So far, so good? There's nothing wrong in doing good deeds and talking about it. But Identitarians, as the movement's members call themselves, don't just carry dirt away, they put it somewhere else. Like in front of the Munich headquarters of the Green Party.
The group's most striking operation took place in Vienna, Austria. When refugees got on stage during a play written by Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinke, the group stormed the theater and spilt fake blood. It may sound like a prank, but it drew the attention of politicians and authorities.
Pegida protest in Munich on November 2015. — Photo : Michael Trammer/Pacific Press/ZUMA
"The Identitarian Movement has right-wing extremists," said Miriam Heigl, a member of an anti-racism and pro-democracy organization at Munich's City Hall.
Heigl is watching the group's growing popularity with concern. The idea behind the group is clear: Germany for the Germans. Italy for the Italians. Syria for the Syrians.
Members of IB say they love their culture and want to preserve their country's identity. They deny leaning toward extremism and fascism. But officials say that's not the case, and that the group instead uses "camouflage tactics" to hide their real intentions.
"The Identitarian Movement clearly opposes the free and democratic order," said Markus Schäfert from the Bavarian state office for the protection of the constitution. "Bottom line, we're dealing with a whole new form of racism."
They consider it their duty to protect European culture.
Identitarians often cite pioneers of the conservative movement like Oswald Spengler or Ernst Jünger as inspiration. "Their image is less antiquated than those who proudly hang up swastikas and Hitler portraits in their living rooms," says Schäfert. Instead, their members are young, educated and connected.
The group is active in countries neighboring Germany, particularly Austria. "They instill fear against foreigners, refugees, and especially Muslims," said Katharina Schulze, a representative of Parliament in Munich.
Schulze, a Green Party politician, believes it's a good idea that the Bavarian state office for the protection of the constitution is investigating IB. But she's critical that the government didn't react sooner. Schulze believes the German political agenda experienced a right-wing drift.