On November 11, 1918, Germany surrendered to the Allies, ending World War I. For the ensuing decade, one of the most potent tropes of the German right wing was that the surrender was a “stab-in-the-back” of a still-fighting German Army by the seditious, socialist-led Weimar government. The stab-in-the-back myth — it was entirely fabricated — was infused with anti-Semitic and gendered undertones: Weak, effete, decadent Jewish politicians had emasculated the German volk.
That sense of false victimhood fueled much of Nazi racial theory. The Jew was a “parasite” on the Aryan nation, a pathogen weakening, sickening, and emasculating the masses. When it came to justifying German colonization of Eastern Europe, it enabled a kind of reverse logic: The Germans were in fact the natives of the East, living under the oppression of Slavic rule. The Nazis were not foreign settlers, but liberators.
A similar sense of false victimhood today drives much of white racial violence across the world. It is the feeling that one is a victim of society, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. It is the feeling that once-marginalized groups — women, immigrants, people of color — are now replacing white men at the top of the social hierarchy. It is a feeling that, when taken to its extreme, can justify hate and violence.
And it’s a feeling that is becoming disturbingly common among my cohort of young white men.
All that talk of Aryan victimhood was, of course, patently untrue. In a country full of young, disaffected men who had always been told that serving the German nation was their highest calling, only to feel humiliated in surrender, it’s no surprise that this mythology of false victimhood caught on. The interwar period was fertile ground for proto-fascist pseudo-intellectuals, as Pankaj Mishra wrote, and they trafficked in visions of restoring society to a supposedly natural state in which the Aryan man ruled unencumbered over family and country.
Catering to a population of armed men who felt alienated by changing social norms, immigration, and changing political winds, this message quickly fueled violent demonstrations and warmongering.
That same language is now all over recent mass killings by young white men. The Pittsburgh shooter wrote of the Jewish American refugee agency HIAS bringing “invaders” into the US. The Charleston shooter cited “black on white crime” as his radicalizing cause. The charged Christchurch shooting suspect titled his manifesto “White Genocide.”
These killers come squarely from the tradition of white nationalism, a movement that emerged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement as a way to retheorize white supremacy after its day-to-day power was eroded in the 1960s. Whereas racists once described the white race as the natural ruler of the world, that logic was now flipped: Whites had become the race under attack, whose culture was at threat of extinction. Just as the Nazis once did, white nationalists turned the colonizer into the colonized.
So what happens when a group of people feel like they have been colonized by another, without it actually ever happening? Can people imagine a false victimhood and use it to justify mass violence?
That’s exactly what the political scientist Mahmood Mamdani found in his seminal book on the Rwandan genocide, When Victims Become Killers. Seeking an explanation for the wide participation of ordinary Hutus in genocide, Mamdani explored how — through Belgian colonial violence and enforced ethnic hierarchies — the majority Hutus came to see the Tutsi minority not as fellow “people of the soil,” but foreign settlers. It was this feeling — that the genocide was against settlers — that allowed people to so readily participate in it, to feel liberated by it. The fact that the Tutsis were not actually settlers at all, and had also been oppressed by European colonization, did not prevent the proliferation and realization of this violent false victimhood.
The erosion of white privilege and power is not the only source of today’s false victimhood among white men. Gender is also a radicalizing factor, just as it was in Weimar Germany.
Take the man alleged to have driven a minivan into pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 people. He wrote on Facebook that he was part of the “Incel Rebellion,” a movement of sexually frustrated young men who believe the only solution to their perceived inherent inability to attract women is to kill them. Like many in the online incel community, the Toronto suspect had praised another woman killer, who murdered several people — including two women outside a sorority house — near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2014. In a manifesto written before the attack, he claimed to be retaliating against women for the sex he felt he was being denied.
To men like this, sex is a fundamental male right. When they feel women have denied it to them, they identify as victims. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, they feel that the world has made it unfair for them, and they want revenge.
The parallels between gender-motivated killers like the men in Toronto and UC Santa Barbara, with racially motivated killers like the Charleston and Christchurch shooters, are clear. Their manifestos sometimes even use the same language. The Christchurch shooter’s manifesto raved about “the decline in [white] fertility rates and the destruction of the traditional family unit,” echoing both a long-standing white supremacist (and Nazi) obsession with birthrates and family structure, but also a contemporary young white male fixation on the alleged erosion of monogamy.
This is no coincidence: Many of these killers were radicalized in the same communities. The Christchurch shooter posted his manifesto on 8chan, a forum whose roots go back to the Gamergate saga, where male gamers harassed female video game enthusiasts who challenged sexism in the industry. “Incels are just a part of the broader alt-right and manosphere ideological stance,” the researcher Amarnath Amarasingam told Vice — “racist, sexist, xenophobic, nationalistic.”
This white male victimhood discourse is not limited to obscure online communities: It is increasingly prevalent in mainstream culture. Jordan Peterson, the best-selling author and psychologist, has cultivated a fandom of young men who agree with him that “the masculine spirit is under assault.” Ben Shapiro, host of one of Apple’s most downloaded podcasts, has insisted that “the next race war will come not from racist whites, but from racist blacks and Hispanics.” Just this week, Tucker Carlson — one of America’s most-watched cable hosts — claimed that Democratic immigration policy is dedicated to “changing the population.”
To their acolytes, these figures are exposing the way modern, liberal society is oppressing white men; to their critics, they are trading in the same false victimhood snake oil of interwar Europe’s fascist “intellectuals.”
It’s probably not a coincidence that this latest iteration of false victimhood is catching on in the shadow of the Great Recession. Now matter how good a given unemployment or wage growth number looks, the generation that came of age in the aftermath of 2008 knows that that precarity can sneak up from anywhere. No privilege — not even that of white men — feels safe. And so when movements from #MeToo to refugee rights and Black Lives Matter demand that those truly marginalized by society get more of its fruits, you can be sure that opportunists will be telling white men that these gains can only come at their expense.
The power of this thinking is that, for all its logical perversion and ignorance of history and truly existing social conditions, it rings true to white men based on the relative power we once held. A group that once enjoyed economic, social, and sexual dominion over everyone else does not easily reckon with the realities of, for the first time, having to yield some social footing to others. When you’ve had the biggest slice of the pie for so long, yielding even a crumb feels like a crisis.
Of course, this dynamic is not unique to white men today. And it’s not limited to the West, either. In India, a resurgent Hindu nationalism asks the upper castes why untouchables should benefit from affirmative action. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro was swept into power by an upper-middle class angry with the welfare state that empowered their black maids to talk back to them. In Russia, the nationalism that Lenin so feared has been mobilized for mass political support, targeting “national-traitors.”
In this new age of precarity, it is elites who are most potently mobilizing the politics of victimhood. When there are pitchforks at the barricade, even the lords of the castle want to identify as “anti-establishment.”
So what is to be done? The vast majority of white men will never turn to mass violence, but a wide culture of false victimhood gives a dangerous feeling of legitimacy to those who do pick up arms. Class traitors within the midst of white men of course have a key part to play in challenging the signature tone of entitlement and self-victimhood in conversations about everything from affirmative action to dating.
But ultimately, the only way to beat false victimhood will be a politics that gets beyond the us–them dichotomies of identity. The renewal in the West of a vision for social and economic rights for all, built around class struggle, is encouraging. The best way to beat counterrevolution, after all, is with the real thing.
Aaron Freedman is a writer based in Brooklyn.
The names of the men suspected of the Charleston shooting, Christchurch shooting, Toronto van attack, and UC Santa Barbara murders have been removed from this post to reflect BuzzFeed News’ editorial standards.
The name of the University of California, Santa Barbara, was misstated in an earlier version of this post.
The UC Santa Barbara killer murdered several people at multiple locations. An earlier version of this post suggested the murders all took place at the same location.