When white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville this summer, they shouted, “You will not replace us!”—eventually shifting the phrase, alarmingly, to “Jews will not replace us!” For most watching across the country, the protesters’ blatant expressions of prejudice were deeply unnerving. But where do their slogans come from, and what are they trying to convey?
Today’s white supremacists—in their chants, fliers and signs—use a shared language of sorts, an odd patchwork of borrowed and invented symbolism. “You will not replace us” did not initially refer to Jews specifically, but to all minorities. It was first used in February 2017, at an anti-Trump event organized by actor Shia LaBeouf, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Nathan Damigo, founder of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa, attended the event and spoke into a camera: “Shia LaBeouf, you will not replace us with your globalism.” By May, the slogan was appearing on white supremacist fliers and on Twitter. It reflects a fear that “white people will become a powerless minority as the demographics keep changing,” says Oren Segal, director of the ADL’s Center on Extremism. The phrase, he adds, is similar to another white supremacist motto—known as the “14 Words”—which the ADL calls “the most popular white supremacist slogan in the world”: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
While “You will not replace us” is of recent vintage, the ideas behind it are far from new. It is, Segal says, simply a “repackaging” of age-old white supremacist ideals. Nor is the fear of replacement uniquely American. In Europe, a variation of the idea has gained traction, partly thanks to contemporary French writer Renaud Camus (no relation to philosopher Albert Camus). Camus is afraid that immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, will destroy white European society and culture, through what he calls the “Great Replacement.” Camus says he sympathizes with the slogan “You will not replace us” and admits that the underlying sentiment could be connected to his ideas. But he condemns “Jews will not replace us,” claiming that anti-Semitism doesn’t jibe with his ideology. “The menace of replacement certainly does not come from the Jews,” he says. “On the contrary, they are the ones who are most under menace of being replaced.”
George Hawley, a University of Alabama political scientist and author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right, says the phrase “Jews will not replace us” stems from an old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: Jews attempt to make monocultural societies more multicultural, the theory goes, “because they feel more comfortable in a multicultural context.” The belief is that Jews are responsible for the demographic changes white supremacists fear.
White supremacists cling to a pervasive belief in a Jewish conspiracy—“that Jews control the government, they control media, they control everything in this country,” says Segal. And almost as important as the conspiracy itself is the belief that they—the non-Jews, the conspiracy’s believers—have caught on. That’s where another slogan comes in: “The goyim know.” Sometimes it’s written as “The goyim know. Shut it down”—“it” being the supposed Jewish conspiracy. In Charlottesville this summer, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke led a group of protesters chanting the phrase. Among white supremacists, it is usually framed in an ironic, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. “It sort of fits within the broader troll and irony culture,” Hawley says. Today’s alt-right is “a movement that tries to speak the language of disaffected millennials”—its adherents combine internet memes and cartoon imagery with extremist ideologies—in contrast with earlier, more straightforward manifestations of the radical right.
Another white supremacist slogan heard in Charlottesville has a longer, bleaker history: “Blood and soil”—Blut und Boden in German—originated in late 19th-century Germany. It started as a slogan meant to glorify the German farmworker, and its proponents valued racial purity and traditional rural labor. Although the phrase predates Hitler, it quickly became a Nazi slogan, popularized by Richard Walther Darré, the Nazi minister of food and agriculture. The idea was also connected to the Nazi idea of Lebensraum (“living space”), a critical tenet of Nazi ideology used to justify the conquest of Eastern Europe. Phrases like “blood and soil,” Segal says, “were one way to remind people of their pure Aryan blood and the connection to their land—which is just sort of a fundamentally Nazi concoction.”
Today’s American neo-Nazis and white supremacists have co-opted the slogan, using it to describe the special connection they feel to American land—one they believe is threatened. This belief, says Segal, is the “foundational narrative” of white supremacists’ hatred. “It’s this interpretation, this narrative they created that America has started off as a white country and needs to continue to be so.” “Blood and soil” is a primary slogan of Vanguard America, a white supremacist group opposed to multiculturalism, but the term is popular among many extremist groups. “It’s pretty much always used in a racial context—and often in an anti-Semitic one, but not invariably so,” says Hawley. Even though the phrase is used to single out many minority groups, “it can’t be overstated that that’s a Nazi phrase,” says Sophie Bjork-James, a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and an expert on white nationalist movements. Using Nazi terminology illustrates the “central importance of anti-Semitism within the white nationalist movement.”
The phrase “blood and soil”—and its variations, such as “blood and power”—have been around in this country since American neo-Nazis first emerged. But if they’re cropping up in the news more often, says Segal, it reflects the “general increase in attention that white supremacists have been receiving because of their activity over the last two years.” So what can be done to counter them? “Understanding what they mean is the key,” Segal says. “[That] has to be the first stop for people to be able to push back.”