The white nationalist featured in an infamous, viral photograph from the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, joined the U.S. military, HuffPost has learned, but was kicked out before he could attend basic training.
Peter Cytanovic, 24, was expelled from the Nevada National Guard in December after officials learned of his extremist ties through a Defense Department background check, authorities confirmed. His relatively swift dismissal from the National Guard appears to be a rare example of military officials taking proactive, decisive steps to keep an extremist out of the armed services.
On Aug. 11, 2017, Cytanovic was photographed holding a flaming tiki torch and screaming as he and other white nationalists marched in Charlottesville. The picture went viral and continues to haunt and shape Cytanovic’s life. His face of fury quickly became emblematic of the bloody and historic weekend, when a resurgent American white nationalist movement went mask off.
After publishing a series of stories about extremists in the military, HuffPost recently received a tip that Cytanovic described himself as a “U.S. Officer Candidate at US Army” on LinkedIn.
Although his name couldn’t be found in a Defense Department database of military service members, a “Peter Cytanovic VI” was listed in a directory of recent enlistees published in a 2020 issue of Battle Born - The Quarterly Magazine of the Nevada National Guard.
A spokesman for the Nevada National Guard confirmed that Cytanovic enlisted on Nov. 22, 2019, but that his stint in the U.S. armed forces lasted only a little over a year — and that he was ejected because of his “affiliations.”
“Initial criminal and fingerprint checks found no record that would deny enlistment,” Lt. Col. Mickey Kirschenbaum told HuffPost in a statement explaining how Cytanovic initially joined the U.S. military, which has regulations forbidding participation in extremist groups.
Because he had a four-year college degree, Cytanovic entered the Nevada National Guard as a Specialist E-4, the highest rank available to junior enlisted recruits. He started to attend monthly drills to prepare for Army Basic Combat Training. “However, during routine in-processing, Mr. Cytanovic was not able to obtain a security clearance,” Kirschenbaum said.
A Defense Department background check revealed that the FBI had opened an investigation into Cytanovic following his participation in the Charlottesville rally, Lt. Emerson Marcus, another spokesperson for the Nevada National Guard, told HuffPost.
That’s how the national guard learned of Cytanovic’s “affiliations,” Marcus said.
The FBI declined to comment on its investigation into Cytanovic, who was never charged with a crime in relation to the events in Charlottesville.
Pentagon spokesperson Candice Tresch said in an email that the Defense Department could not “discuss specific cases,” but noted that the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency “searches federal, state, local, and vendor records as part of the background investigation process” and also “obtains information from the applicant, prior and current employers, co-workers, neighbors, and references.”
The Nevada National Guard canceled Cytanovic’s orders for basic training on July 27, 2020, months before he was set to ship out. Months later, on December 17, he received a formal “entry-level separation” from the U.S. military.
Cytanovic — who, before enlisting, gave interviews in which he expressed regret for attending the Charlottesville rally and claimed, not all that convincingly, to renounce white nationalism — declined to comment on this story through a family member.
“The Nevada National Guard does not tolerate racist, extremist ideology,” Kirschenbaum said in his statement. “The Nevada National Guard took action immediately after discovering Mr. Cytanovic’s affiliations.”
But that’s not always the case. After HuffPost published a series of stories in 2019 helping expose 11 U.S. servicemen as members of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa, only six were kicked out of the military. The other five are still in the armed services, underscoring both the vagaries of military codes prohibiting extremism and how enforcement of those codes is often left to the whims and discretion of individual commanders.
Moreover, there’s evidence that even well-known white nationalists like Cytanovic can manage to join the military undetected.
Last month, HuffPost found that Shawn McCaffrey — a prominent white nationalist podcaster and former member of Identity Evropa — recently graduated from Air Force boot camp. (McCaffrey was also on the FBI’s radar, HuffPost learned, but the agency declined to say whether it ever alerted the Air Force about his extremism.)
Scholars of extremism have long warned about the dangers of far-right extremists joining the military, where they receive training they can then use to inflict violence on civilians. After an angry far-right crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 15% of those arrested for their role in the insurrection had some sort of military affiliation.
In February, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a military-wide stand-down order, requiring commanders to have “needed discussions” about extremism with troops. Earlier this month, Austin wrote a memo outlining the Pentagon’s plans to improve the screening of military recruits for extremist beliefs.
A Defining Photograph
Anti-racist activists have long touted the importance of creating a social cost for embracing hate and white nationalism. Cyantovic’s abrupt dismissal from the National Guard is only the latest censure he’s faced for his appearance in Charlottesville — though at other times, his infamy has provoked soft-focused media coverage and special attention from school administrators.
There were hundreds of marchers in Charlottesville, but thanks to a shutter snap, Cytanovic became the face of hate. On the night of Aug. 11, 2017, as hundreds of white supremacists marched across the campus of the University of Virginia, photographer Samuel Corum focused his lens on Cytanovic — then a 20-year-old college student sporting a fashy haircut and a white polo shirt emblazoned with the Identity Evropa logo. Cytanovic held a tiki torch in his right hand, his mouth agape as he chanted “You will not replace us!” in angry unison with the ghoulish group.
The next day — as they rallied again near a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in a Charlottesville park, violently clashing with anti-fascist activists before a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring many more — the photo of Cytanovic started to go viral on Twitter. Online sleuths quickly identified him.
By the time Cytanovic stepped off a plane the next day at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, a news crew was there to greet him. The day after, his photo was printed above the fold on the front page of The Reno Journal-Gazette.
“I did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was ... I understand the photo has a very negative connotation,” Cytanovic said in one of the many interviews he gave at the time. “But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”
But he still called himself a white nationalist while claiming to condemn the carnage in Charlottesville. “I will defend tooth and nail my views as a white nationalist,” he said. “I love my culture and will fight for it, but never in a violent way.”
Cytanovic said he and his family started to receive death threats, and as the world grappled with the significance of Charlottesville — and with a white nationalist movement emboldened by the rise of former President Donald Trump — the photo continued to travel far and wide, accompanying hundreds of articles written in multiple languages.
By late December in the U.K., The Guardian named it one of “the best photographs of 2017.”
In February 2018, the photo appeared on flyers posted across the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno, where Cytanovic was studying political science and history. “UNR PROTECTS RACISTS,” the flyers declared. “UNRBlackHistoryMonth.”
Students had held protests and started petitions demanding Cytanovic be expelled, but school administrators declined to do so, citing the First Amendment. (Cytanovic did, however, resign his campus job driving students to and from class.)
A couple of months later, Cytanovic sat down for a sympathetic, softball interview on The Full Measure With Sharyl Attkisson, a show broadcast nationally by the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group. The episode was part of a series about “Snowflake Syndrome,” the idea that liberals are too intolerant of ideas with which they disagree.
Cytanovic recounted how his fellow students had tried to expel him over his participation in the Charlottesville rally, even though he’d allegedly had a political change of heart.
“My biggest mistake is that I stupidly said I am a white nationalist,” he said. “And at that time, I did believe I was. But after looking back at the movement, looking back at what happened, I realize that calling myself a white nationalist was very wrong and I no longer agree, I no longer see myself as such.”
Attkisson, the reporter, didn’t press him further on the subject.
Cyantovic had trouble presenting his senior thesis without friction. Angry students confronted him in the hallway immediately afterward. “Run Nazi, run!” they chanted, according to The Nevada Sagebrush, the student newspaper.
Cytanovic graduated from UNR, and perhaps wanting to escape his infamy, enrolled in a political theory master’s program thousands of miles away at the London School of Economics.
But the photo followed him across the Atlantic, too.
“‘White nationalist’ from infamous Charlottesville protest now reportedly studying at LSE,” read the headline from the Independent, a leading British newspaper, which printed the photo.
Once again, Cytanovic’s fellow students were protesting his presence on campus and calling for his expulsion, and once again, the school’s administration allowed him to remain enrolled. “LSE Protects Racists” read flyers posted across campus.
In June 2019, Cytanovic granted an interview request from The Beaver, the LSE student newspaper. He described being harassed by some students at the school but said administrators had been accommodating, offering him security and a list of professors he could call if he ever felt threatened.
Although acknowledging that white privilege exists and even calling himself a feminist, Cytanovic still defended his motivation for going to Charlottesville: to protest against the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue, which anti-racist activists wanted torn down.
“The reason I went to Charlottesville — was the Confederate statues, this love of culture being … destroyed,” he said, echoing a white nationalist talking point.
“I wasn’t wrong on everything,” Cytanovic added, defending the reasons he went to the rally. “I was wrong in the way I expressed it. I was never a neo-Nazi, and I didn’t understand what being a white nationalist was when I said I was one.” (His interviews from that time suggest otherwise.)
The London School of Economics did not return HuffPost’s request for comment as to whether Cytanovic completed his master’s degree program.
Six months after his interview with the student newspaper, he was back in Reno, enlisting in the Nevada National Guard.
Later, a Defense Department background check would reveal that he was the guy in that Charlottesville photo, and he would be kicked out of the U.S. military.