Nazis have existed in Australian suburbia going back at least as far as the 1980s. The early 90s movie Romper Stomper is testament to that. But these groups were fractured and unorganised. And whilst committing the odd act of vandalism or violence, they remained on the fringes with little impact.
But the 2020s are a different time. And the fact that neo-Nazis have twice appeared on the steps of Melbourne’s Parliament House of late, to explicitly rally in front of the public and call for changes that align with their far-right ideology dating back to the 1930s, is a stark reminder of this.
The overt expression of adherence to Nazism in the form of a public rally is new to the Australian setting. And it comes after decades of global far-right networking over the internet, which intensified during the pandemic, and has now emboldened neo-Nazis to stand as a cohesive group.
Prior to these recent public expressions of Nazism, the individuals involved had been mobilising but as participants in demonstrations organised by white nationalist groups that began emerging midway through last decade, such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front.
The National Socialist Network is the group that’s been so bold as to stage the open demonstrations in Melbourne. Established in 2020, the NSN is now the nation’s most prominent neo-Nazi organisation, as it serves as an umbrella group incorporating lone extremists from elsewhere.
Emerging from the shadows
“The open espousal of Nazism by groups like the National Socialist Network is a departure from recent past practice by neo-Nazis in Australia,” said independent researcher, Andy Fleming, who reports on far-right activities on the Slackbastard website.
In the past, they’ve “generally confined their activities to various sub-cultural fringes, not mobilised publicly, or done so in ideological disguise as mere ‘nationalists’ or ‘patriots’ and, often as not, sheltering under the umbrella of the ‘ordinary mums and dads’ beloved by the tabloids”, he added.
In line with previous tactics, NSN first entered the public sphere, when hikers saw them mobilising under cover of the wilderness of the Victorian Grampians in January 2021. And locals from a nearby town alerted authorities to the presence of strange men making Nazi salutes in the bush.
Having long monitored these groups, Fleming reports that the more visible activity of late is being conducted by the same neo-Nazi adherents, who’d operated clandestinely under the banners of the white nationalist groups, like Reclaim Australia and The Lads Society.
And he asserts that the rising open expression of Nazism in the public sphere was always their aim.
“Even while the NSN remains relatively tiny, it’s reached sufficient size and organisational cohesion to be able to openly proclaim its views as a Hitlerite organisation dedicated to white revolution: a political vanguard, in other words,” Fleming told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.
It’s apparent to authorities
The authorities have become increasingly concerned about the rise in far-right ideologies and neo-Nazism over recent years, after letting it slide when the earlier white nationalist groups began appearing on the streets.
Indeed, then Abbott government MP George Christensen spoke at a Reclaim Australia rally in 2015.
But ASIO boss Mike Burgess told an estimates hearing last week that the far-right now comprises around 30 percent of his agency’s counterterrorism workload, which is a figure he first cited in 2020. And the top spy further warned that their growing public presence could attract further recruits.
Both Victoria and NSW enacted laws last year banning the public display of Nazi symbols, which was obviously in response to rising far-right community sentiment. And since NSN first rallied in Melbourne in March, the Andrews government has vowed to prohibit the Nazi salute in public.
And these matters have impacted at the federal level too, as is evidenced by the recently tabled inquiry report into the Criminal Code Amendment (Prohibition of Nazi Symbols) Bill 2023: a private members bill tabled by Senator Michaelia Cash, which replicates the state anti-Nazi insignia laws.
“Noting the national security risks connected with far-right extremist groups that are often associated with the display of Nazi symbols, and the related risks to public order,” the legislation’s explanatory memorandum explains, “the bill is a modest and proportionate measure”.
The senate committee inquiry said it “wholeheartedly supports the intent of the bill”, however due to some inconsistencies, it recommended that the government consider drafting its own version that addresses the issues in the original. And it appears likely it will follow through on this.
A global shift
“These broader political concerns are to some extent domestic but are also, arguably, primarily driven by US political culture – Trumpism and various manufactured ‘culture wars’ – ably assisted by Murdoch’s local propaganda networks,” Fleming continued.
And the Slackbastard writer considers that the NSN wants to become “the militant faction” of the local anti-transgender campaign, which is a movement prominent in the UK, as well as the US, where a wave of laws removing transgender rights are currently being passed in various state legislatures.
In the wake of the onset of COVID and its related restrictions, ASIO and the AFP both reported that the circumstances of the pandemic served to strengthen far-right belief systems and facilitated their propagation in this country via online networking platforms.
According to Fleming, the NSN “and many more relatively independent but closely-aligned political actors are extremely active propagandists”, and while Telegram had been the platform of choice, more recently the ultraconservatives are moving onto Twitter.
“Elon Musk’s tenure as CEO has seen an explosion in racist and misogynist hate-speech and the resurrection of thousands of explicitly neo-Nazi accounts, including, but not limited to, various NSN properties,” he added.
And another outcome of the pandemic restrictions was the emergence of the Freedom movement, which, just like the white nationalist groupings of the last decade, served as fertile ground for neo-Nazis to participate in without full exposure, whilst linking up with likeminded individuals.
“The NSN should be understood as a localised, national expression of a global movement for white supremacy, welcome to utilise US-based Christian nationalist fundraising networks, while also maintaining links to similar groups in Europe,” said Fleming.
Vigilance is a necessity
No one is suggesting that Nazism is spreading like wildfire throughout the public. And the recent NSN rallies in Melbourne were countered by much bigger antifascist turnouts.
But the open expression of Nazism on the streets, even if small, indicates the rise of a political climate that’s fostering it.
“As to whether or not this is a sign of more to come, yes, I expect so,” Fleming maintained. “Though much depends upon the reception such performances receive: by police and state authorities, on the one hand, and by the general public and antifascists, on the other.”
NSN first rallied in Melbourne in March, when UK anti-transgender figure Kellie-Jay Keen was holding an event, and so strong was the antifascist presence to counter her, that Victoria police pushed it back, which resulted in neo-Nazis being able to salute and parade seemingly under its protection.
Fleming advised that despite NSN claiming its most recent action on 13 May was a “total Aryan victory”, it was “only being tolerated by police for a relatively brief period”, as officers were forced to react due to the pushback coming from the antifascist counterprotesters.
“So, it’s likely that there will be other, unannounced appearances by the NSN at events organised by LGBTQIA+ communities, and, in keeping with broader political trends, especially those involving drag queens and transgender and non-binary persons,” Fleming said in conclusion.