A Confederate statue. Photo: Getty
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Why are we so desperate to blame white supremacy on women?

Some people can't look at a neo-Nazi without condemning the woman who washes his socks for him. 

Feminists have spent decades trying to get the value of women’s unpaid labour recognised, to basically no avail. The trouble all along, it turns out, was the framing: instead of saying women deserved credit for their contribution to the economy, feminists should have said that women deserve blame. Because blame is one commodity where people are happy to give women their due. The obvious absence of women from the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia - where female counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by a car allegedly driven by an alt-right supporter called James Alex Fields - could have lead to a discussion about the male near-monopoly on violence. Instead the impulse to cherchez la femme kicked in early and hasn’t let up since.

First, we had the hot-takers whose hot take was that just because women weren’t at the rally didn’t mean they weren’t in some important sense really there. (Actually, yes it did because that’s how space and time work, but what’s a little physics when there’s woman-blaming to do.) Someone must have laundered the swastika T-shirts, reasoned the hot-takers, and fed those Aryan mouths – heck, didn’t these racist guys have moms who should have raised them properly? (I’m pretty certain it’s a physical necessity for them to have had dads too, but what’s a little biology when there’s women-blaming to do?)

Then, there was an actual mom. Field’s mother Samantha Bloom appeared in an interview where she seemed strangely placid and said things like “I don't really talk to him [her son] about his political views” and “Trump’s not a white supremacist” and (the most grotesque evidence of white witlessness) “he had an African-American friend”. But the video, in the most widely circulated edit, was close-cropped and shot from a strangely high angle angle. Pull back, and you can see that Bloom is in a wheelchair. At her son’s arraignment hearing, we learned that she had called 911 in fear of him several times: she variously reported that he hit her in the head, he spat in her face, he threatened her with a knife. The more you open the frame, the less the privileged-white-lady-enabler narrative holds.

None of this is a denial of the existence of female white supremacists, who are obviously a fact both now and through history. But look how easily commentators slide from “there are female racists” to “women are central to racism”. The fact that 53 per cent of white women voted for Donald Trump became one of the most picked-over details of the presidential election aftermath; much, much less was written about how white men as a bloc voted Trump by an even greater 63 per cent. (Although, conversely, when it came to understanding Trump voters, men were treated as the default voice of blue-collar America. “Girls to the front” is only the rule when looking for scapegoats.)

The idea that female “soft power” makes women somehow the most dangerous exponents of racist beliefs – as for example in writer Laura Strong’s claim that the half-million-strong Women’s KKK was more important in normalising the Klan’s dogma than the four-million-strong KKK proper – is in a strange way a regurgitation of the far-right’s own complementarian ideas about sex roles. These hold that men are naturally active and suited to public roles, while women are passive by disposition and suited to the domestic. In the white supremacist account of gender, it’s not sexism that keeps women in the home, doing the housework, looking after all those white babies they’re required to have: it’s just evolution, or God, depending on which justification is prefered.

The critical role of MRA forums in drawing men to the hard right shows that misogyny is a feature, not a bug, of fascist beliefs. This puts those rare women who do take leadership roles in white supremacy in a strange pinch. To assert their right to speak, they have to argue that they’re the exceptions who will hold the rest of their sex to the rule. In Harper’s Magazine this month, there’s a detailed profile of alt-right women by Seyward Derby. One woman puts her intrusion into the properly masculine public sphere down to having an “overactive ‘guy brain’”; another says “Intellectually, I tend to like to hang out with the boys.”

These women are reprehensible, but they shouldn’t be perplexing. They’re following in the footsteps of the anti-feminist women Susan Faludi described in her 1991 book Backlash: “The women always played by their men's rules, and for that they enjoyed the esteem and blessings of their subculture […] They could indeed have it all – by working to prevent all other women from having that same opportunity.” Even so, men in the far right aren’t always forthcoming with the esteem and blessings for their female peers. “These women are the same old tainted, fucked-up strong womyn,” as a YouTube commenter quoted in the Harper’s feature puts it.

When it comes to racism, it’s not that women are innately “better” than men. That would sound suspiciously like complementarianism. It’s that women are less powerful and less violent than men, in white supremacy as everywhere. The men they’re embedded with have an interest in keeping it that way, too: the first person to be terrorised by an extremist of any stripe is usually a woman he lives with.

The alt-right doesn’t look like a bunch of violent white men because benevolent sexism renders violent white women invisible. It looks like a bunch of violent white men because that’s exactly what it is, and that’s exactly where the blame belongs.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem