Europe’s biggest trolling army, Reconquista Germanica, has clear political goals. “Do you think they are dangerous?” O asks me.
“You tell me,” I say.
“Well, I wouldn’t want them to have my name,” he says. For fear of being targeted by neo-Nazi trolls, most people – even some of his friends – don’t know his real name. On WhatsApp, he uses two fake names.
This is not unusual. Trolls do everything to keep their real identity hidden, even from their closest online allies. Die Vulgäre Analyse (TVA), a popular German YouTuber and troll known for burning the Quran and releasing Islamophobic and misogynistic content, even uses two VPNs. The worst nightmare for any troll is when their online identity is matched with their real identity.
“Precisely,” O says.
I promise to not leak his name, and enter the war rooms of Reconquista Germanica on the gaming application Discord.
My avatar account is among 7,000 virtual soldiers who are obeying the daily orders of Supreme Commander Nikolai Alexander. I am called Isabella I, in reference to the Queen of Castile in the late fifteenth century. She and King Ferdinand II of Aragon ordered the conversion or exile of Muslims and Jews living in Spain and are known for completing the so-called Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula.After all, Reconquista Germanica claims to be a big LARP, a Live Action Role Play.
“Welcome to the official Discord-Server of Reconquista Germanica, Germany’s biggest patriotic server. You are now part of the resistance,” a bot greeted me on my first day. According to the official selection criteria, “an authentic description of your patriotic identity is key to getting access”.
“Hi, what do I have to do to join the LARPers crew?” I asked the recruiter.
“Good evening.Tell me something about you. What brings you here? How old are you? Do you have any experience in LARPing?”
I quickly type up my application:
Hi, I came here from Krautpol, the link sounded interesting. I am 19 and don’t have any previous experience in LARPing to be honest but I think I can be helpful. I am from Oberammergau and currently live in Munich, where I work as a marketing assistant at an insurance company. My Facebook account was blocked for the second time in a row last week and Facebook still hasn’t replied to my messages. I’m on Gab though. I live in Pasing next to a refugee camp, which probably explains why I’m here.
“All right, do you have a headset?”
“Okay, let’s do a voice call tonight.”
My preparation time is rather limited, but I do some speedy research on insurance companies based in Munich, write a quick list of words and phrases of marketing jargon and open a Google Earth map of Pasing on my laptop.
As the recruiter called Gardes du Corps (Bodyguard) is awaiting me in the voice chat, I calculate the chances of him being Bavarian. Bavaria counts just over 12 million citizens; the entire German population is currently at roughly 82 million. About 15 per cent. I think of my grandmother’s dialect before switching on the microphone.
“Hello. So you want to join Reconquista Germanica.” A northern German accent, thank god. His tone is controlled but not unfriendly. I wonder how old he might be.
I decide to go with a thick Bavarian accent. “Grias di,” the Bavarian “hello”.
“What does it mean to you to be a patriot?”
“To be aware of my cultural heritage and to want to preserve my nation,” I reply, wary of the pronunciation of every single word.
“Are you active in any patriotic movements?”
“No, not currently.” I pause. “I’d like to see what it’s like though, which is why I’m here.”
“Have you heard of the books Mein Kampf and Das Kapital?”
“Well, I remember discussing them in school.”
“But have you read them?”
“Not entirely. Should I reread them?”
“That would be good. But remember: whatever you make of them, we don’t want you to share any citations or references to these books in this channel.”
“Ah, okay.” They are afraid that Discord might have adopted trackers alerting their security teams whenever National Socialist keywords are used. Indeed they have: the gaming app’s public policy manager Sean Li told me in the San Francisco office in January 2017.
After the recruiter with the northern German accent has interrogated me about my family background and political leanings as well as my marketing skills and the value I could add to the movement, he asks an unexpected question.
“Would you describe yourself as exclusively conservative or progressive?”
The German conservative revolutionary movement in the inter-war period springs to my mind. When the German cultural historian Arthur Moeller van den Bruck wrote The Third Reich, his idea of a new state would rebrand conservatism by combining right-wing nationalism and left-wing socialism.
Like fascism, Islamist extremism combines conservative and progressive thinking. For instance, the Iranian revolution of 1979 was a careful and cunning attempt to reconcile fundamentally different leftist and rightist values. The resulting ideology under Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini was therefore an innovative merging of socialism and Islamism, often described by oxymorons such as “pragmatic fundamentalism” and “illiberal democracy”. The direction of many radical movements is “forward to the past”, or at least to a reinterpretation of the past.
‘I don’t think that one precludes the other. I am conservative in that I want to preserve our national identity and cultural heritage, but progressive in that I am in favour of radical change.”
“What do you think?” the recruiter asks into the silence. Only now do I realise that we are not alone on this call. Two other recruiters were listening the entire time, which increases the chances that someone might have noticed my amateurishly imitated dialect.
Silence. “Are you still there?” No one replies but I can hear someone typing.
“Okay, you are accepted.”
The recruiter explains the rules of conduct and the hierarchies to me. “Neo will be your main point of contact.Whenever you have questions or ideas you can write to him.” Neo is on the call too but hasn’t said a word.
“Sounds good.” I enter Reconquista Germanica’s “virtual army”.
Since the prominent far-right YouTuber Nikolai Alexander founded the group in September 2017, it has declared an all-out war against the political elites and left-wing activists. After just a few days, his troll army counted a few thousand members who were accorded military ranks.
“First you need a way to recruit people, second you need a space to connect them, third you need a clear mission,” Nikolai explains to another of my avatars, the French Claire, via email. (I have half a dozen different avatars – but some are more credible than others, and I use them in different contexts.) “Since I am aYouTuber I used that pool to recruit people. But, of course, there are many other ways: you could also recruit on campus and connect in a café.”
Building a good team of people around you that you can trust and absolutely rely on is essential, he says. The absolute numbers are less important than the individual qualities of the members. “Ten creative, hard-working, courageous people count more than a hundred slackers.” He also warns of the downsides of starting a neo-Nazi trolling army. This is all kind of risky, he says. “So I recommend you stay anonymous – at least at the beginning.”
Although Discord has removed the channel multiple times since I started flagging it to them, it has reappeared over and over again under different names. In the meantime, its application procedures have become stricter and its membership has grown. “Current army strength: 10,845, among which 4,200 private first class,” reads a message from the Supreme Commander.
Excerpted with permission from Going Dark: The Secret Social Lives of Extremists, Julia Ebner, Bloomsbury.