Swedish Academic Mattias Gardell Discusses the Rise of Neo-Paganism in America

IR: How do you assess the relative size of these positions?

GARDELL: The racist position has grown tremendously fast in the last four or five years. The militant racists today probably make up between 40% and 50% of Odinists and Asatrúers. And I would say the anti-racist position makes up another 30%. And the remainder goes to the ethnics.

We are talking about somewhere around 40,000 people in the militant racist position. More than half of young people coming into the racist right are now pagans. Young people are not being drawn in by Christian Identity. Racist paganism is the most important radical religion today.

IR: You mentioned earlier that neo-Paganism is very interested in nature. Is there a link between neo-Pagans and radical environmentalists?

GARDELL: Yes. Paganism is very nature-oriented, geared to preservation of mother earth. Pagans have a critique of modern society as destructive to this planet. To them, it's insanity to think of man as a creature above other species.

So pagans tend to be radical environmentalists. Everybody supports the Unabomber.

IR: Does Odinism's view of man as no more important than any other living thing make racist Odinists more willing to engage in violence against fellow humans?

GARDELL: I'm not sure if paganism is more violent than Christianity, since Christians, however sacred they consider human life, slaughtered a lot of people. Maybe there is a theoretical basis for this, but I haven't really considered it.

There is a warrior aspect to Odinism that appeals to a younger generation that would like to make something greater with their lives. In some Odinist groups, there are a lot of male paramilitary warrior ideals, a lot of learning to hunt with bows and arrows and spears and all that manly stuff. But still, Odinism is not as militarized as some of the Christian Identity groups with their armed compounds.

It's also interesting that in Norse traditions the relationships between men and women were more equal than after the introduction of Christianity. So you have the whole strong woman concept that clashes with the traditional view of women as mothers only. In the Norse tradition, women are far more independent.

IR: You mentioned the support of pagans for the Unabomber. In general, are pagans connecting ideas of what are traditionally considered the left and the right?

GARDELL: We have all been working with a simple left-right scale for too long. If you lump all these groups together, national socialists, fascists, radical right extremists, you make invisible the very important differences that exist between an Odinist revolutionary and a Pat Buchanan. They are both far right.

You need to complement the left and right axis with another in terms of centralization and decentralization. Then you see that groups that belong to the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right have a lot of things in common, like the red-brown alliance in Russia. The Stalinists and Hitlerites have many things in common like the authoritarian state, their anti-democratic nature.

Similarly, the decentralist left and decentralist right also have a lot of things in common. You have all these green anarchists, radical environmentalists, talking about issues that are of great concern also to many of the Aryans and pagans who are involved in the decentralist right end of the spectrum.

These are all the people who were in Seattle [for protests against the World Trade Organization and economic globalization], on the decentralist end of things.

For all of them, it's a lot of anti-statism and decentralism, back to the land, being self-sufficient, small-scale, being concerned with pollution and environmental destruction, preserving wildlife, all these things. It's very anti-capitalist.

And also you have the rise of this Third Position [an anti-capitalist form of fascism], one of the more important ideologies in the racist counterculture today. That's almost all pagan in orientation.

Most of those who are Nazified are going back to the early fascists, like the [pro-worker] fascist syndicalists in Spain. And this is exactly where the pagans are.

IR: Is there something about American culture, other than what we've already discussed, that makes young people here particularly amenable to paganism?

GARDELL: Paganism has a resonance with traditional American anti-establishment philosophies, opposition to federal authorities and support for local self-determination. It connects to the whole Wild West mythos.

And all of this is integral to the pagan message itself. You don't have any kings; you don't have any presidents. You have tribal chieftains that have authority because they have a natural or organic authority. If they misbehave, if they prove themselves to be cowards, the people can choose someone else. It's very decentralist.

Paganism also connects to American identity politics, the importance to Americans of ethnic ancestry and people's lineages. It's like the T-shirts worn by African-Americans: "It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand." It's like the revival of Native American religions, of shamanism.

Through paganism, whites have an opportunity to do something similar, but distinctly their own. In the face of an ever more multicultural definition of America, they go back to northern Europe, where they find things to hold up in the face of the multiculturalism and global culture.

Roots and identity are more important to Americans today than ever.

IR: Does the rise of contemporary neo-Paganism have historical parallels? And what do these tell us about the dangers inherent in this movement?

GARDELL: Yes, there are parallels, but I don't think you should compare what is happening today with the 1920s or 1930s in Germany and the rest of Europe, as many do.

You need to go back a decade or two earlier and look at what happened at that time in continental Europe. There was a very similar kind of revival going on then, a reaction against the spread of rationalism, the notion that God was dead.

You had the reintroduction of magic, a rise in interest in alternative religions that looked east, like theosophy and anthroposophy. There was a revival of paganism. And you had nudism and all these alternative health therapies. All of a sudden, the pre-Christian traditions of Europe came into vogue again.

With all of this, you had the rise of nationalist romanticism and racial mysticism and occultism and the whole return of the medieval, chivalric sort of thing. All of the philosophers who are so popular today among racist neo-Pagans were popular then.

At the time, there were all these small, small proto-fascist groups that nobody really took seriously. They were too small, too dysfunctional and fragmented, and they engaged in constant warfare among themselves.

It was really hard to see that it all could eventually be turned into something as powerful as Italian fascism and German national socialism. But out of that scene eventually arose movements that gained power and threw Europe into a devastating war and created the Holocaust.

So I think we should look at this very seriously. Even though some of this stuff looks very bizarre — why pay attention to people who believe in old gods like Thor and Odin or UFO cults or Hitler being alive inside the hollow earth or this whole New Age concept? — it still has a lot of potential.

A return to fascism would not come in the same way today. But I think we need to watch this scene carefully, even if it is not a direct threat to American or European democracy today.