What Does Antifa Stand For?

Antifa protestors standing in front of the police on a bridge.
What is Antifa?

Antifa is the abbreviation of anti-fascism, a political ideology. It is a mode of action adopted by some social movements. Its main objective is to resist the advance of fascism and extreme right political groups. In general, it unites people identified with left-wing theories to resist fascist ideologies, through direct political action.

The antifa movement as a form of resistance emerged during the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, Fascism and Nazism were gaining popularity in Italy and Germany, respectively. Anti-fascist groups that originated in these places have failed, but this form of resistance has appeared elsewhere. This movement is still relevant today.

What Does Anti-Fascism Represent?

Anti-fascism is not a political movement, but rather a form of action that individuals and social movements adopt. Antifa groups carry out their political struggle through direct action.

Direct political action is the self – organization of individuals focused on creating more favorable social conditions, using the available means. Basically all action organized directly by the interested parties is direct, in contrast to indirect actions, political representation. It is an autonomous movement and usually happens without the involvement of large political parties.

Modern antifa movements extended its objectives and did not limit its action only against fascists, but against all extreme right political practices. In addition, it stands against political groups that pose threats to certain groups in society. For example, immigrants, homosexuals and racial minorities, whom neo-Nazis and white supremacists usually target.

When Did the Anti-Fascist Ideology Arise?

Anti-fascism was a response to the spread of Fascism and Nazism in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s. The first significant anti-fascist movement appeared in Italy and Germany. However, the historian Mark Bray from Rutgers University claims that we can identify an early anti-fascist movement in the late 19th century France.

In 1894 a French army captain named Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish man of Alsatian origin, was accused of handling secret documents to Germany. The accusation against Dreyfus was false, but he was found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment. It was a strong indication of the rising tide of antisemitism, not only in France, but throughout Europe.

The Dreyfus affair shook the foundations of French society and some citizens formed small groups to defend him. These groups occupied the streets to defend themselves against anti-Semitic groups that carried out attacks in France. This French movement was a prelude to what would happen in Europe in the following decades. When fascism took over Italy and Nazism advanced in Germany, anti-fascist movements emerged on a larger scale.

First Anti-Fascist Movements in Europe

Fascism as a political ideology has been present on the European continent since the second half of the 19th century. The social – economic consequences of World War I enabled this political ideology to establish itself. The main factors responsible for the rise of fascism were:

1. Resentment over the results of WW1.

2. The economic crisis that hit some countries.

3. Fear of advancing socialism.

4. Desire for imperialist expansion.

Soon after World War I, several militarist groups with ultra national tendencies emerged. In Italy, Benito Mussolini established the Italian Fasces of Combat (Fasci italiani di combattimento) in 1919. In February 1920 the pan-German and anti-Semitic German Workers’ Party, the forerunner of the Nazi Party, was founded Anton Drexler. Drexler mentored his successor, Adolf Hitler, during his early years in politics.

The anti-fascist groups that emerged in Italy and Germany were formed by social democrats, socialists, communists and anarchists. By uniting on an anti-fascist platform they found a way defend themselves against fascist advance. Anti-fascism in these countries was a form of self-defense because of the violence fascists incited against these groups.

Fascist Violence in Italy and Germany

In these two countries, the ascendance of fascist policies occurred through the action of militarized groups. These paramilitary forces persecuted and attacked their political opponents (left-wing groups in general). Fascist violence in Italy was carried out by the Voluntary Militia for National Security, also known as the Blackshirts. In Germany, troops of the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing, the Sturmabteilung (SA) incited violence.

Socialists, communists and anarchists were the main targets of violence. Liberal groups who were part of the middle class and the economic elites did not denounce fascist violence. To some extent, they even welcomed it since they feared the advance of communism. As a result, fascists gained enough power to even turn against the liberals who at first supported the attacks against the socialists. Now we will see how the anti-fascist resistance took place in these two countries.

Anti-Fascism in Italy

Fascist violence in Italy was the means by which Benito Mussolini boosted the growth of his political organization. He knew how to use the violence of the Blackshirts to guarantee the spread of fascism. However, he also knew how to control it to gain hold in mainstream politics.

Post-WW1 Italy was in great political turmoil because of resentment over the few gains made during the First World War. The economic crisis that followed and the spread of socialism in Europe also contributed to the advance of fascist ideas. In this context, fascists formed militant groups that attacked socialists in central and northern Italy.

Fascists attacked people who participated in strikes carried out by socialists and offices set up by them. In addition to attacking and threatening them, they forced many to flee their cities to ensure their safety. As a result, fascism ceased to be a movement with hundreds of followers. In 1919, it became a major political party with thousands of followers and seats in the Italian Parliament.

Arditi Del Popolo

The spread of fascism and violence caused by its supporters led to an anti-fascist reaction in Italy. These reactions were spontaneous and came from groups of workers, union members and socialists, who organized themselves and acquired weapons to defend themselves. The most significant antifa militant movement in Italy was Arditi del Popolo, led by Argo Secondari.

This Italian anti-fascist movement was autonomous and had no party associations. This is because left-wing parties in Italy did not accept unaffiliated movements and did not approve of the armed resistance proposed by them. Members of Arditi del Popolo formed paramilitary forces and waged street battles against fascists.

The strength of the Italian antifa movement, however, lasted for only one year. In a short time Fascism was politically consolidated, gaining material wealth and legitimacy in the view of a large portion of the Italian population. Furthermore, the fascists practically destroyed the Italian left. When Mussolini came to power in 1922, state power was used to crush anti-fascist resistance.

Anti-Fascism in Germany

The German case was slightly different from the Italian. The anti-fascist resistance in Germany was, in some cases, directly controlled by the country’s major parties. Nazism arose in Germany as a result of resentment over the defeat in WW1. The severe economic crisis that followed the defeat, led to the ascendance of the ultra-nationalist and antisemitic sentiments.

The Nazis, like the fascists, used violence to fight their enemies. In the German context, in addition to socialists, communists and anarchists, social democrats and people of Jewish descent were also persecuted. The Nazis took advantage of the political turmoil in post WW1 Germany.

The Nazi party had paramilitary forces, known as the Sturmabteilung (SA). They were responsible for attacking the enemies of Nazism as a way to intimidate them. Throughout the 1920s, the Nazi party grew and guaranteed itself a firm foothold in German politics. The more it grew, the greater the violence it incited.

The Consolidation of the Nazi Party in Germany

The German left even sought to ensure a greater presence among WW1 soldiers, one of the most dominant groups in Nazi ranks. However, disagreements among the different groups precluded a more organized reaction from arising. Thus, in 1928, the Nazi party already had 60 thousand members.

That same year, the Nazi paramilitary forces began to invade neighborhoods of socialists and communists and to attack meeting places of left-wing groups. A symbolic act was performed by Horst Wessel, a member of the SA. He led an attack on the headquarters of the German Communist Party. Wessel was eventually attacked by the Communists and died on February 23, 1930.

It was the intensification of Nazi violence that led leftist groups to organize anti-fascist resistance, especially after 1929. Even with the resistance, the number of communists killed grew from 1930. At least 171 communists were killed between 1930 and 1932.

Anti-Fascist Alliances in Germany

The anti-fascist reaction in Germany involved different groups, which were formed with the purpose of standing as a front of resistance to Nazism. One of them was the Alliance of Red Front-Fighters, usually called Rotfrontkämpferbund (RFB). It formed militias to attack beer halls that served as a meeting point for the SA.

Another anti-fascist group was the Iron Front, controlled by the German Social Democratic Party. It took a more restrained approach. The most significant anti-fascist group in Germany in that context was the well-known Antifascist Action (Antifaschistische Aktion), organized by the German Communist Party.

The purpose of the Antifascist Action was to create a front that could bring together communists and social democrats in the fight against Nazism. It was this group that developed the symbol used by contemporary anti-fascists. There were, however, two differences:

  1. The two flags on the German anti-fascist symbol were colored red.
  2. The flags aligned to the right.

Anti-fascism in Germany, like that in Italy, failed, but it generated a considerable reaction. A British Historian Richard J. Evans argues that about 143 SA troops were killed in fighting with anti-fascist militias between 1930 and 1932. Their failure can be mostly explained by the timing of the resistance, it simply started too late.

Nazism was already very influential in 1930, being Germany’s second largest party and therefore had more resources to deploy in the fight against anti-fascists. When the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Hitler used the Gestapo to pursue and destroy anti-fascist cells in the country.

Contemporary Anti-Fascism

We saw that anti-fascism arose in the context of the appearance of totalitarian dictatorships on the extreme right. The defeat of these regimes during World War II did not mean the end of these ideologies. They continued to exist, however in a very marginalized way. However, it has changed radically in the 21st century. The neo-fascists adopted a new strategy, which has made the fascist ideals gain influence in the world.

Contemporary Antifa symbol, a red and black flag on a white background. What Does Antifa Stand For.
Contemporary Antifa symbol, a red and black flag on a white background. What does Antifa stand for.

Contemporary antifa symbol, a red (communists) and black (anarchists) flag on a white background

Anti-fascism continued to play a role in the fight against fascism, but from the second half of the 20th century onwards, it also adopted the fight against the extreme right as part of the movement. Contemporary anti-fascism was divided by the historian Mark Bray into two periods: the first, which extended from 1945 to 2003, and the second, which extended from 2003 to the present.

New Agendas

In addition to the fight against the extreme right, modern antifa movements embraced new agendas. Thier current objectives include anti-racist and anti-capitalist ideas, as well as women’s and LGBT rights. At that time, the open confrontation against fascist and far-right groups remained a tactic used in several places.

Modern anti-fascists began to be inspired by autonomist groups, that is, those who defend social self-management as a form of political organization in society. The antracist struggle has become a fundamental element of anti-fascists, since, from the 1960s, fascism was directly associated with anti-immigration agendas and with groups of supremacists.

Modern Antifa Groups

It was this agenda that led to the establishment of groups like the Asian youth movements (AYMs), the United Black Youth League (UBYL) and Rock Against Racism (RAR) in Britain; The RaRa in the Netherlands and Netherlands; and Anti-Racist Action (ARA), in the United States. Some of these movements were directly linked to the punk movement, and physical confrontation against supremacists and fascists was a frequent mode of action.

Right-wing populism

The change in strategy of fascists since the 21st century has made these forms of combat less effective. At the same time, many neo-fascist movements became popular in different parts of the world.

Neo-fascism is currently hiding in right-wing populism. In general, neo-fascists deny a direct association with fascist symbols and ideals. Nevertheless, in practice they import tactics, defend the same ideals and secretly admire supremacists and well-known figures from Nazism and Fascism.

In Europe and the United States, neo-fascism is directly linked to anti-immigration, racist and Islamophobic ideals, gaining a lot of influence in politics. Since there is no direct and public association of right-wing populists with fascism, many supporters fail to identify this element in the neo-fascist ideology.

In this new political environment neo-fascists form parties that win popular support and are legitimized within the political debate. This change makes the old tactics – open confrontation and the occupation of places – ineffective. Some anti-fascist groups have used doxing – the exposure of personal information of fascists. By using this internet-based practice antifa members are able to publicly demonstrate their associations with Fascist or Neo-Nazi groups.

Still, there is some difficulty for modern anti-fascist groups in finding ways to combat the rising of the extreme right and neo-fascism. Nevertheless, new threats from the extreme right has stimulated anti-fascist reaction in the west.


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