Ghosts of Fascists Past

Ghosts of Fascists Past

Mini Teaser: Engulfed by bank failures and street protests not seen since the Great Depression, Europe appears ripe for a fascist renaissance. This century's scapegoat: Muslim immigrants. Is the Continent ripe for a fascist renaissance?

by Author(s): Ian Kershaw

A PROMINENT British government minister, Baroness Warsi, herself a Muslim, claimed just recently that Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial. She warned of growing intolerance, prejudice and bigotry toward the Muslim faith and its adherents. In reply, some religious and social commentators have suggested that growing numbers of Muslims in Britain give rise to legitimate concerns. They have asked whether strict adherence to the Islamic faith is compatible with the values of Western democracies. Even to pose such a question, people object, is to engage in a covert form of racism. However, the claims continue. It is further asserted that the advocacy of sharia law, disregard for women’s rights and opposition to all forms of assimilation into Western society by some Islamists justify doubts about compatibility. The controversy over the place of Islam in British society is inextricably linked with the additional concern about homespun Islamic terrorism in light of the evidence that the 2005 al-Qaeda bombings in London were perpetrated by young Muslims who had grown up in the UK, and whose deadly actions were apparently and worryingly supported by a minority among the Muslim population.

Though the comments of the minister related solely to Britain, there is little doubt that they could be replicated in many other European countries. If we add to the mix the anti-immigrant feeling that is widespread in many parts of the Continent, then racism, it has to be admitted, is far from eradicated. How dangerous is it, given these countries’ baleful histories of racism and fascism in the not-too-distant past? Not surprisingly, some have asked whether Europe is moving toward political extremes. Do the signs point that way? Is Europe indeed on the road to new racial intolerance that could give succor to the extremist Right and even offer it new, promising prospects?

Certainly, the bright lights of optimism that burned in Europe when the Iron Curtain came down twenty years ago were all too quickly extinguished. Hopes that the collapse of Soviet repression in the Eastern bloc and the removal of the threat of nuclear confrontation would usher in a new era of peace, unity and prosperity rapidly evaporated. In the 1990s, aggressive nationalism in the territories of the imploding post-Communist state of Yugoslavia brought the return of war and ethnic cleansing on European soil. The demise of the Soviet Union, some had declared, meant “the end of ideology” or even “the end of history.” Such assertions also soon rang hollow. By early in the new millennium, Europe was having to attune to the sounds of Islamic jihadism. The seismic waves from the 9/11 attacks on the United States left no European country untouched. Europe immediately became part of the proclaimed “war against terror,” leading to involvement in costly, extended and highly divisive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorist outrages in London and Madrid showed that no European capital was safe from suicide bombers. In public consciousness, the threat from Islamic terrorism replaced the old bogeyman of the “Red Scare.” Greatly intensified security at airports was only the most visible sign of an enhanced surveillance society, as safety from extremist violence was weighed in the balance against personal liberties, which were often seemingly viewed by governments as less important.

Meanwhile, the rapid widening of the global economy and the integration of new member states from Eastern Europe into the EU liberalized and extended labor markets. With that came the inexorable movement of poorer migrants seeking work in the wealthier economies of Western Europe. This soon produced social and political strains, with much animus directed at the newcomers. Though the immigrants were actually important to the continued economic growth of the wealthier nations, their settlement—largely in poorer parts of towns and cities—was often greatly unwelcome. Many people, themselves underprivileged and living close to the poverty line, objected strongly to “interlopers” who, they thought (usually incorrectly), were being given unfair advantages in employment opportunities, housing allocation and the granting of social benefits. The basis for a potential revival of fascist tendencies was thus laid.

THEN, IN 2008, came the economic crash in the wake of the banking crisis in the United States, leading to the most serious recession since the 1930s. This inevitably prompted thoughts of the conditions that promoted fascism throughout Europe and brought Hitler and his Nazi regime to power in Germany. The major European states were forced to spend scarcely imaginable sums of money to rescue overextended, faltering financial institutions in order to prevent complete economic meltdown. In so doing, they built up hugely increased sovereign debt which is now being tackled by inflicting large cuts in public expenditures on populations that are starting to see their standard of living significantly affected—for the worse. It has been estimated, for instance, that real wages (that is, taking inflation into account) have fallen more sharply in the United Kingdom over the past few years than at any time since the 1920s. Unemployment is set to grow sharply as public services are reduced. Young people are especially badly hit, with youth unemployment in the UK reaching 20 percent. In Greece, massive reductions in state spending, imposed by the European Union as a condition of a rescue package for the failed economy, have afflicted the population far more drastically still and, last spring, led to serious riots on the streets of Athens. In Ireland, too, the collapse of the economy has caused widespread social misery and political upheaval, with the ruling Fianna Fáil party likely to be decimated in forthcoming elections.

The Euro itself, the very symbol of European integration when introduced in 1999, is potentially endangered, showing (in the eyes of some economists) the inherent risk in extending the single currency to widely diverse economies, some of them with serious underlying weaknesses. Reserve funds have already been used for the Greek and Irish bailouts. Portugal may well follow, possibly Belgium also. There are even concerns about Spain. Were that country to need rescuing, the end of the Euro would probably follow. And this would be a disaster for the European Union.

Germany, its strong manufacturing sector benefiting from increased exports to the Far East and other areas with firm growth, is at least one European nation emerging strongly from the recession. However, anger in the German population is palpable. As they see it, the other “feckless” countries of Europe need aid to save their badly run economies which inevitably comes from funds accrued through German hard work. When it comes to German popular opinion, the great European project of unity and harmony is giving way to a less idealistic—though elsewhere in Europe quite normal—emphasis on national interest.

Perhaps surprisingly (and thankfully), in an economic crisis of such major proportions, largely caused by the greed and incompetence of big investment banks in an unregulated banking sector, there has been no political earthquake. Rather, at least on the surface, the existing political order has been consolidated. In contrast to the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the governing institutions in Europe, despite their buffeting, have remained intact. There has been no collapse of state systems, as was the case in the interwar period. There has been no indication that fascism or other political extremes are close to power. The political establishment throughout Europe has weathered the storm—at least so far.

BENEATH THE surface, the situation is admittedly far from rosy. The gulf between the ruling establishment and the ruled is wide. Most voters, even in countries less Euroskeptic than the United Kingdom, see the EU government in Brussels, and the European Parliament in Strasbourg, as distant and detached from their everyday lives. The Brussels oligarchy is often seen as a rich man’s club, frequently interfering unnecessarily in national affairs but otherwise largely irrelevant to ordinary people’s lives. Probably few could name their member of the European Parliament. Recent constitutional changes in the EU (such as granting the union a legal personality) were initially rejected in plebiscites held in some countries and were only finally adopted when heavy pressure was applied to those states to think again.

Antipathy toward the political establishment is far from confined to views on the EU. At the national level, mainstream political parties struggle to retain their traditional bases of support. There is a good deal of alienation among the people and much indifference about politics in general. Conservatives may lead in many countries but can seldom muster majority backing on their own, often commanding support from no more than around a third of the population. But Social Democrats have also seen traditional bases of support drain away. The collapse of old industries (where the party had its core following), the decline of trade unions, social and demographic shifts that erode conventional class-party allegiance, and the loss of anything resembling a clear alternative vision for a better society—that once proved appealing to idealists anxious for fundamental political and social change—have all undermined the potential of the Left. Social Democratic parties, once seen as the heralds of a brighter future for the underprivileged, have themselves become part of the political establishment, little more than alternative managers of the status quo. Liberal parties of various kinds, though often coalition partners in government, in their own right invariably enjoy only minority support. Young people, especially and unsurprisingly, frequently turn their backs on conventional party politics. A sense that politicians of all colors have private advantage rather than public interest at heart is widespread. In Britain, a recent scandal in which politicians from all the major parties misused their allowances, sometimes falsely claiming large sums in expenses, greatly enhanced the feeling of alienation. Detestation of politicians is deep and extensive.

Thus, political volatility has increased. “Political space” has started to open up over the past few years. Populist movements have had the chance to occupy the vacuum and, in so doing, ratchet up the instability even more. Of course, democracy is sometimes strengthened by fringe movements. “Green” politics is one example where initially small lobby groups have in some instances widened their appeal to become significant parliamentary players and, in any case, have had a major influence on the policies of all political parties. The advances made through the feminist and gay-rights movements provide another example. The concern, however, remains that extremist movements of the Right (since Far Left parties generally have little more than a miniscule following) could exploit the “political space” created through weakening support for mainstream parties to profit from anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic feeling—undermining the basis of democracy itself.

YET, HOWEVER warranted the concern that Europe is once again on the brink of a new fascist moment, this does not seem likely to happen. To say this is not to ignore the existence of neofascist and racist movements in most European countries, or the ways in which anti-immigrant feeling can be stirred and, at times, whipped up by parties claiming to stand for an authentic “national” voice in politics. But only in a few cases are such movements sizable.

Hungary is a current concern. The extreme-nationalist—many would say neofascist—Jobbik party won nearly 17 percent of the vote in the election of 2010, and this in a country now under the effective single-party rule of the right-wing Fidesz party. The two parties of the Far Right in Austria (incorporating some old and new Nazi sympathizers) between them won almost 30 percent of the vote in the 2008 general election on a platform of anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiment while support for the mainstream Social Democrats and conservative People’s Party withered. Even in “Red Vienna,” the far-rightist Freedom Party won 27 percent of the seats in provincial elections in 2010. In Italy, the Northern League, a key partner in Silvio Berlusconi’s government, has mobilized support by exploiting growing fervor against, especially, North African immigrants while emphasizing the threat to “genuine” Catholic Italian culture from multiculturalism. In Belgium, the anti-immigration Flemish nationalist party, the Vlaams Blok, was backed by about a quarter of the population of Flanders before dissolving itself in 2004 and re-forming as Vlaams Belang. The level of support for the renamed party has, however, more recently fallen over eight points to around 15 percent as its policies of secession from Belgium have been adopted by the center-right New Flemish Alliance.

Elsewhere in Western Europe, support for extreme-nationalist and fascist parties is for the most part mercifully small. In France, one of the biggest and most important countries in the EU, the extreme-rightist National Front, assertively nationalist and anti-immigrant with more than a tinge of fascism about it, has recently lost its standing from a high point a few years ago when it was the third-largest party in France. Whether it will revive under the new, assertive and media-conscious leadership of Marine Le Pen, daughter of the former leader (and founder) Jean-Marie, remains to be seen. In Germany, the National Democratic Party, which harbors admirers of the “good old days” of Nazism, remains on the fringes, without representation in the Bundestag (the Federal Parliament) and with only residual support nationally of under 2 percent. Though the party did significantly better a few years ago in parts of the former Communist East Germany, where it won representation in the regional state parliaments of Saxony and Mecklenburg–West Pomerania, its support has recently fallen back there too. In Britain, despite the economic downturn and much latent anti-immigration and anti-Islam popular feeling, the neofascist British National Party (BNP), which appeared to have made a minor breakthrough in winning two seats in the 2009 elections for the European Parliament (held under a proportional-representation system), failed to win a single seat in the British general election of 2010 and lost around half of the local council seats it had held previously. Even in the one inner-London constituency it targeted in an attempt to unseat the Labour candidate by playing on the deprivation of the area, the BNP failed miserably, mustering under 15 percent of the vote in the process (which itself was a far-higher tally than anywhere else in the country).

Nowhere, therefore, does a fascist or extreme-nationalist party seem likely to have the remotest chance of gaining power in a major European country (apart from Austria where the extreme-Right parties have only been kept out of the government by a reassuring pact between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party to refuse to admit them to governmental office). Of course, immigrants and ethnic minorities endure misery in many countries as they are subjected to violence or discrimination carried out by right-wing sympathizers, however small a minority these might be as a proportion of the total population. That the fascist thugs have no chance of gaining national power is no consolation to their victims. It means, nonetheless, that fascist prejudice and discriminatory objectives remain beyond the pale, denied the backing of the state itself. Throughout Western Europe, the major political parties at least, whatever their differences, have united in condemnation of the extreme Right. More than that, as the figures above demonstrate, despite facing acute economic problems, the people of Europe have not turned in any substantial numbers against the existing state systems or offered widespread support for antidemocratic or authoritarian parties.

Curiously, in a crisis caused by finance capital, the Left has for the most part been on the defensive, losing support and lacking an obvious convincing political or economic alternative to the swingeing cuts being imposed by governments of the conservative Right. The nationalist or neofascist political groups are compelled to take part in parliamentary elections, where they run the risk of losing support. With this, they become subject to the factionalism inherent to such movements, or else they stay out of democratic electoral politics and confine themselves to forms of paramilitary or extraparliamentary activity—nasty to be sure, but ensuring that they remain on the outer fringes of the political scene.

CONTRASTING THE conditions in which fascism could take power, with such terrible consequences, in interwar Europe ought to make clear why confidence that democracy will not be rocked is warranted.

In the 1920s, Europe was a continent which had torn itself apart. The recent war had cost the lives of about 10 million citizens. Other than in the countries on its western fringes, democracy was a tender flower, newly planted in often-infertile soil with slender roots that would struggle to survive in heavy storms. The legacy of violence, national humiliation, loss of territory and economic impoverishment hardly constituted a good starting point for a new democracy. Moreover, while recently enfranchised masses were riven with deep social and ideological divisions, the political, economic and military elites—big landholders, industrialists, generals—had usually been able to hold on to the bulk of their power and influence, and invariably set their faces firmly against democratic innovation and any weakening of their own social and political clout. The Russian Revolution, which had taken place as recently as 1917, and the terrible civil war that followed it with immense bloodshed amid huge racial violence, showed the ruling elites (and also the property-owning, status-conscious middle classes) across Europe what they might expect were Bolshevism to triumph in their own countries. On the other hand, for millions organized in parties of the Left with much support among the industrial working class and the landless poor in the countryside, the prospect of revolutionary upheaval at home offered hope and release from their current misery.

So the scene was set for near-civil-war conditions in the countries worst affected by the outcome of the war. Enfeebled states faced a crisis of legitimacy as disaffected masses were open to mobilization by new and dangerous political parties, backed by large-scale paramilitary forces, that promised to sweep away the old system. Political violence was now the order of the day. The prospect of authoritarian rule to replace the divisive party politics that were unable to bring about stability and prosperity and seemed based on little more than vested interest appealed to increasing numbers. New leaders were sought who would eradicate by iron fist the internal forces that threatened national unity, and who would reestablish order, reassert national pride and restore military strength.

Even in such conditions, a move to fully fledged fascism was the exception, not the rule. In southern and eastern Europe, reactionary military dictatorships backed by the old elites usually held power—often, admittedly, with fascist trappings and sometimes incorporating relatively small fascist movements. But in the immediate postwar crisis, a fascist party gained outright power only in Italy. In Germany, the struggling Weimar democracy managed narrowly to survive the threat from the Left and, most especially, the extreme Right in the early 1920s, only to succumb a decade later in the different conditions of the Depression, which ushered in a comprehensive crisis not just of the economy but of the state itself, and a fight for ownership of the country’s cultural identity. The horrors that were to follow need no new emphasis here. What is plain, however, is that fascism could triumph only in quite specific historical conditions. Though residual fascist movements survived and have continued to be re-formed, as a major political phenomenon, fascism was time bound. It was part of an international power struggle between liberal democracy and the forces of the extreme Left and Right that played out for three decades but ended, after 1945, with fascism’s elimination as a key power player.

The recent economic crisis and the political response to it demonstrate that today’s Europe, for all its problems, is light-years removed from the conditions that once produced fascism. In contrast to the resort to disastrous nationalist, protective economic policies in the 1930s Depression, internationally coordinated economic-recovery plans succeeded—if with difficulty—in fending off catastrophe. The economic framework held together, and institutions that did not exist in the 1930s, like the European Central Bank, played a major role in preventing the collapse of state economies. Most European countries (though the UK for one lags behind) appear to be over the worst. Political systems (as opposed to governments) have remained stable, and have encountered no crisis of legitimacy. Though all the mainstream political parties are seeing some of their support drain away, it is not for the most part feeding into new, powerful fascist-style parties. There is certainly animosity toward immigrants, but even here, as governments have taken steps to control the flow of people, the problem has become less acute. There is undeniably still some anti-Semitism—though not remotely comparable in virulence to that of interwar Europe, usually linked to the conflict in the Middle East and, except on the Far Right fringes, almost universally decried. Islamophobia is a more serious concern. It is doubtless widespread and easily feeds into outright racist views. It is nonetheless striking that it has been politically contained. The major political parties do not countenance it. The fascist-style factions that try to exploit it have no success in engineering a major political breakthrough. So for all of Europe’s current woes and some unpalatable signs that multiculturalism is struggling to establish itself, a lurch to the Far Right seems out of the question—as far as the eye can see.

THERE ARE two scenarios that could change this relatively optimistic assessment and leave Europe reeling toward fascism once more. Neither may be very likely, but either is possible.

The first could arise if there is a further, even more severe banking crisis, amounting to a collapse of the capitalist economy. This could conceivably happen. The financial institutions that caused the recent crash are unreformed. They have survived, relatively unscarred, the immense turmoil that their own mismanagement caused. “Casino” banks that brought the economy to the verge of ruin are still intact, potentially capable of doing the same all over again. Regulation procedures are practically as feeble as they were before the fall. Unless change takes place in the banking sector, further disaster could well occur. If it does, will Europe’s financial foundations be strong enough to surmount a new crisis? Or will they be swept away? Will the political will be there, as it was last time, to take collective action to rescue banks and, with them, the savings and livelihood of millions? Or will Europe then break up once again into no more than squabbling nation-states, each trying to uphold its national interest under pressure from its domestic population while the tide of economic collapse engulfs it? The extreme Right thrives on crisis. Such a crisis, in which banks fail, people’s savings are wiped out, the economy implodes, millions are thrown out of work, governments lose control and mass anger at the political establishment prompts a serious breakdown of public order, could provide the perfect setting for the radical Right to offer a root-and-branch rejection of the “old politics” and a seemingly attractive new start—scapegoating ethnic minorities and immigrant populations on the way.

Another alarming possibility is that a series of major outrages in European cities perpetrated by Islamic terrorists, maybe even using a “dirty” nuclear bomb, creates a fundamental political crisis. Such a series of attacks could trigger a wave of hostility in European countries toward the entire Muslim population—the overwhelming majority of whom are, of course, peaceable, law-abiding, hardworking citizens. This bleak scenario too might well provide a platform for the extremist Right to turn latent antipathy into outright racial aggression (though whether it could gain access to the portals of power is another question).

Most likely—and let us all utter a silent prayer at this point—neither scenario will come about. Very probably, Europe will continue to muddle on much as it has done, with the usual ups and downs on the political scene but without any systemic change. Integration will continue to be only partial. Necessity demands cooperation in a global economy, and if Europe is to retain a strong voice in world affairs, it will have to overcome its divisions and strive for greater unity. But national interests and domestic politics in nations with so much historical baggage often pull against closer integration. They will probably prevent it from happening, at least for the foreseeable future. The result will be Europe’s long-term relative economic decline and loss of political influence as dominance shifts toward the emerging might of China and, perhaps, India, while the United States loses interest in the Continent and directs its energies increasingly toward its Chinese rival for world power.

Among the populations of European countries, political apathy and disaffection will continue to be widespread, but for the most part, they will not be converted into right-wing radicalism or mobilized in ways that endanger democratic freedoms. Such freedoms are probably in greater danger of being curtailed by existing state structures tightening their security and surveillance systems, building on public acquiescence as people’s real or exaggerated fears of terrorist attacks are easily exploited. The overall picture is not one that elicits great enthusiasm and enormous optimism. Nor, however, is it one of unremitting deep gloom. Europe will gradually recover from its present travails. Prejudice and discontent will be managed. And life will go on.

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Image: Pullquote: Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial.Essay Types: Essay