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The Shitstorm Serial Part 2: Forbidden topics

November's all about identity politics and with that comes a series of shitstorms, homegrown right here in Berlin. Each week we'll look at a new identity-related controversy from the past year. This week: The fascist bookstore?

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November’s all about identity politics and with that comes a series of shitstorms, homegrown right here in Berlin. Each week we’ll look at a new controversy over race, gender, sexuality or other identity matters from over the past year. This week: How an indie bookstore owned by two Israeli Jewish hipsters fell victim to accusations of fascism.

“Living ain’t easy selling books,” wrote Doron Hamburger, co-owner of the niche bookstore Topics upon closing his store in late July. True. But it’s even harder when Antifa activists have dubbed you “a fascist bookstore in the heart of Berlin”.

Rewind a couple years. In autumn 2015, Hamburger and his fellow Israeli expat Amir Naaman started selling books out of a nook on Weserstraße, arranged by inventive categories like “female detectives” or “the Antichrist”. The self-described “softish nerdy lads” also hosted regular, well-attended talks about everything from conspiracy culture to Alistair Crowley to Israeli-Palestinian relations, and their store became a neighbourhood hub for Neukölln Anglophones who had a yen for deep conversation and controversial subjects.

So an evening centred around Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola, an Italian occult philosopher with a soft spot for Himmler and the SS whose writings influenced the alt-right and especially Steve Bannon, wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for them. The discussion was set for March 2, and the Facebook event (which didn’t shy away from Evola’s dubious political infatuations or Bannon’s self-proclaimed fascination with the author) stayed up for nine days without comment.

Enter Huw Nesbitt, a writer living in the UK. Nesbitt had never heard of Topics before, but he’d been following the online trail of the Evola event’s planned host, the young British academic and historian Daniel “DC” Miller. The same week the Topics talk was announced, Miller came under fire for protesting in defense of LD50, a London gallery accused by angry demonstrators of hosting exhibitions and talks by members of the alt-right. (Miller, who is of Jewish descent, affirmed he was merely defending the right to free speech.) On February 27, Nesbitt posted on Topics’ Facebook event, pointing out the LD50 incident and criticising the Evola talk’s timing in light of the recent neo-Nazi arson attack on neighbouring Weserstraße coffee shop K-Fetisch. He concluded with: “Do you think it’s responsible of you to be cultivating these views?”

And just like that, the shitstorm was unleashed. Just as Nesbitt had drawn a line connecting Miller and alleged far-right activists, leftist Berliners quickly joined the dots and put Topics, Steve Bannon, fascism and even anti-Semitism in the same bracket. The enraged comments came fast and furious, culminating in accusations of being an “alt-right recruitment centre” and actual threats from the Antifa. After two attempts to clarify their intentions (“We have a very intelligent and diverse audience who know how to be critical and engage in a civilised debate”), Hamburger and Naaman cancelled their event just one day later, feeling they couldn’t guarantee the safety of both Miller and the audience.

The press jumped on the story: two Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors forced to close their business because of threats from radical Germans!

They continued hosting book launches and talks on less controversial subjects, but the damage was done. On June 14, Hamburger announced Topics’ upcoming closure on Facebook, revealing his “vision” where “the place was completely emptied” and he “felt a feeling of peace and ease”. A sort of secondary shitstorm followed when journalists in the German and Israeli press couldn’t help but jump on the story: two Jewish descendants of Holocaust survivors forced to close their business because of threats from radical Germans! In a final farewell on July 31, Hamburger expressed his regret at being drawn into the “whirlpool of the media”.

Reached for comment seven months later, Nesbitt believes his original post was justified. “From the outset, the event seemed to be the opposite [of a responsible and educational talk]. The original Facebook invite, which was subsequently edited, described Evola as a ‘powerful and misunderstood figure’, and featured alt-right iconography.” He’s referring to a picture the Topics duo posted of alt-right cartoon mascot Pepe the Frog dressed as Evola.

“Bad taste? Sure. But this was a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, the alt-right movement was getting a lot of press and the frog was part of mainstream discussion at the time,” counters Naaman. “We also mentioned in the first sentence that Evola is a fascist ideologue, which we assumed could only be understood as derogatory. And we said that the event comes as a response to an article about Steve Bannon’s admiration for Evola.”

He adds that if he had the choice to redo things, he wouldn’t. “We were maybe stupid, naïve; but our intentions were honest,” he says, concluding, “I never thought reading a book about Hitler could make one a Nazi… or that organising a panel about Evola would make us fascist accomplices.”

Shop owners and locals still lament how the event escalated due to “people being ill-informed and taking word-of-mouth as gospel truth.”

“Without free speech, someone will dictate free speech,” posited a thoughtful Hamburger a week after the incident. But for Naaman, the shitstorm was “not truly about free speech, it’s about something else which I have not been successful at articulating”.