In 1978, a white supremacist named William Pierce published a novel which would make him a revered figure on the far-right for decades to come. The Turner Diaries tells the story of Earl Turner as he helps lead a white nationalist uprising in the United States which ends in the genocide of all non-whites and Jewish people.
“We’ll go to the utmost ends of the Earth to hunt down the last of Satan’s spawn,” the book reads, ending with details of how the white nationalists perpetuate a global genocide using chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
Since its publication the book has inspired countless acts of violence, the most famous example being the Oklahoma City attack in 1996. The bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was reportedly obsessed with the book, and pages of it were found in his car when he was arrested. More recently right-wing terrorist Thomas Mair, who killed British MP Jo Cox in 2016, bought books from the publishing arm of William Piece’s white supremacist movement. The book was also read by members of the Neo-Nazi Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU), who killed nine immigrants and a policewoman in Germany between 2000 and 2006, before finally being discovered and arrested in 2011. Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik was also reportedly influenced by the book.
“[The Turner Diaries] has inspired more than 200 murders since its publication in 1978,” a 2016 report for the Hague’s International Center for Counter-Terrorism read. “The book is arguably the most important single work of white nationalist propaganda in the English language.” The report added that in the current “highly charged social climate… the book is likely to find traction with a new generation of readers, a dynamic further empowered by its wide availability as a free text online.” Heidi Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed that the book was still an essential white nationalist recruitment tool, even as today’s far-right becomes more associated with racist memes and hidden chat rooms. “Memes are viral and quick hits but the Turner Diaries is still distributed at high levels,” she said. “It still has salience.”
While the book is itself a recruitment tool, it also points to the wider world of white nationalist literature, where sites like Arktos Media and Counter Currents serve key roles in the modern white supremacist movement. They provide a pseudo-intellectual justification for their racism and a way for white supremacists to build a more “respectable” movement. This was an idea emphasized by William Pierce when he founded the white supremacist group National Alliance – who said other movements were too full of “freaks and weaklings” – and has become a key tactic adopted by prominent alt-righters like Richard Spencer.
“White Supremacists actually read a lot,” Heidi Beirich said. “Probably more than the average American.”
Marilyn Mayo, a Senior Research Fellow at the Anti-Defamation League, says it is this focus on a pseudo-intellectual, respectable white nationalism which is perhaps Pierce’s biggest influence on the far right today, rather than the Turner Diaries themselves – a book where, “for the characters, the only way to achieve their aim is through violence.”
“In [White Nationalist circles] they talk about reaching the most with their ideology,” Mayo continued. “[They want] a cadre with leadership that can talk about white nationalism and convince the population of its acceptance of it and use it to start a white ethno-state.” As an example she focused on Identity Evropa, a white nationalist group who have been working with Arktos Media to recruit young men from college campuses.
“William Pierce is probably one of the most popular and revered figures in white supremacy,” she said. “I think that [he] wanted to attract educated whites and made it clear that he didn’t want people dressed in swastikas. He wanted college educated people.”
Pierce’s Turner Diaries acts as the gateway drug to white nationalism for young men and can serve as a starting point for the pseudo-intellectual rationalizations seen more broadly in white nationalist literature. Pierce’s legacy is also seen in the “clean cut” image that defines modern white nationalists like the Richard Spencer, who wears a suit and is often described as “dapper.”
“People were introduced into the movement as young men and [The Turner Diaries] is a very simplified and emotional way to get them into the system,” Heidi Beirich said.
However the failure of Pierce’s own organization – the National Alliance – after his death may show the limits of this kind of “respectability.” After Pierce’s death in 2002 the movement quickly fell apart. “The movement ebbs and flows,” Mayo said. “When I first joined the ADL, the National Alliance was the most important white supremacist group in the country and not it’s just a shell. It all depends on the political factor.”
CORRECTION: This post has been updated to reflect the fact that Thomas Mair bought books from the publishing arm of William Pierce’s organization. It is not clear whether he explicitly purchased the Turner Diaries.