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Europe's Turn to the Right | The Nation

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Europe's Turn to the Right

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Right-wing gunmen are a rarity in postwar Europe. There have, of course, been instances of right-wing violence. In the 1990s, gangs composed mostly of former East German youths, prey to neo-Nazi fantasies, set upon Turks and other clearly identifiable immigrants, beating people up in the streets and torching refugee shelters.

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About the Author

Ian Buruma
Ian Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor at Bard College. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy...

Soccer hooligans, too, from a number of countries—especially Germany, Britain and Russia—like to scream racist or nationalist slogans while brawling in stadiums or smashing city centers. There is even evidence of some organizational links between political fringe groups, such as the English Defence League, and gangs of soccer hooligans.

Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered seventy-six people in the name of his war against “Islamization” and “multiculturalism,” was never, so far as we know, a soccer hooligan. But he did have relations with the English Defence League. His rambling manifesto, titled “2083—A European Declaration of Independence,” contains a lot of gobbledygook about medieval knights, but also negative views on Muslims and liberals (“cultural Marxists”), which echo to a disconcerting degree what certain populists closer to the European mainstream are saying. He quotes Dutch politician Geert Wilders, among others, as an inspiration, especially on the evils of multiculturalism. One or two politicians on the far right have returned the compliment. Francesco Speroni of Italy’s Northern League, which is part of Silvio Berlusconi’s government, claimed that “Breivik’s ideas are in defense of Western civilization.” A new anti-immigrant Romanian party has even accorded him the singular honor of borrowing his name.

Even so, most right-wing populists who share many of Breivik’s opinions, such as Wilders, have quickly distanced themselves from the killer and dismissed him as a madman. Wilders tweeted: “That a psychopath has abused the battle against Islamization is disgusting and a slap in the face of the worldwide anti-Islam movement.” This is a smart way to avoid being tainted, but is it right? Is Breivik just a crazy loner, or is there a link between his murderous acts and the ideas that inspired them?

Even if far-right violence in postwar Europe has been sporadic so far, and without serious political significance, there have always been radical right-wing parties, mostly operating on the margins of national politics. The nature of these parties differs from country to country, depending on national histories and traditions. The National Front in France, for instance, was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a veteran of anticolonial wars, whose views on World War II (the Nazi occupation was “not especially inhumane”) are in line with an antiliberal, anti-Semitic tradition in France.

The Flemish nationalists in Belgium owe much of their animus against foreigners to a long socioeconomic struggle with the French-speaking Walloons, who dominated them for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the war, this made many of them sympathetic to Nazi ideas of Aryan supremacy. Now it is immigrants, especially Muslims, who are seen as the enemy by the far-right Vlaams Belang party.

In Germany, especially, it has been impossible to escape from the past. The right-wing Republikaner Party was founded in 1983 by the late Franz Schönhuber, a former officer in the Waffen SS, who blamed foreigners for most of the problems in West Germany. In the ’90s he had hoped to merge his party with the even more radical, but equally marginal, German People’s Union, whose leader advocated racial purity and violence against immigrants.

Even though Austrians had an easy ride after the war, absolving themselves from German war guilt, a certain nostalgia for Nazi times still lurks in right-wing corners there too. The late Jörg Haider, former leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, a far more mainstream party than the German Republikaner, pandered to older members by praising the virtues of the wartime generation, especially the Waffen SS.

At least two important radical right-wing parties emerged directly from the sump of Mussolini’s Italy. The National Alliance, under Gianfranco Fini, and the Tricolor Flame came from the Italian Social Movement, founded by neo-Fascists in 1946. Before tacking more to the center in the ’90s, Fini was given to such statements as “Fascism has a tradition of honesty, correctness and good government.”

The Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries are less tainted by the past, even though they produced their share of National Socialists and Nazi collaborators. Right-wing fringe parties in the postwar Netherlands were antiliberal and sometimes nativist. One notorious figure, Hans Janmaat, spoke out against immigrants. But neither he nor other right-wingers could be described as fascists. In Denmark, Sweden and Norway, right-wing parties, until recently, were more interested in lowering taxes than in the threat of foreigners to the purity of the native folk.

One reason radical right-wing parties were marginalized for a long time in Europe is that they were simply too disreputable. It was worse than uncouth to agitate openly against minorities, let alone to flirt with ideologies that had caused the death of millions. Even to suggest that large-scale immigration could be a problem was considered racist until not so long ago. In such countries as Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and France, mainstream parties have tended to gang up against radical right-wing parties, blocking them behind what the French call a cordon sanitaire. On the whole, voters for the far right hovered between 10 percent and 15 percent—more than is desirable, perhaps, but few people worried that they would ever get much more.

The cordon first began to crack in Austria and Italy, during the ’90s. This was not so much because Austrians were rediscovering their Nazi sympathies. Indeed, by the late ’90s most politicians on the democratic far right in Europe had tried to distance themselves from Nazi or fascist antecedents. The reason for the Freedom Party’s success was that the Social and Christian Democrats had been in government too long. People voted against a sclerotic establishment. Many Italians felt the same way about the Christian Democrats, who had been propped up for decades, with the help of the United States, to keep the left out. But once the Christian Democrats finally lost power, it wasn’t the left that leapt into the vacuum but Berlusconi, backed by neo-Fascist and anti-immigrant parties, such as Fini’s National Alliance and Umberto Bossi’s Northern League.

Governments of the European Union were outraged in 2000, when the Austrian Freedom Party garnered enough votes to form part of a coalition government. Boycotts were threatened. Austrian officials were snubbed. This was a mistake. It only helped to burnish the right’s anti-establishment credentials. After all, the AFP was democratically elected, as were the right-wing Italian parties in 1994.

Perhaps being part of a government had a civilizing effect. In 1995 Fini disavowed his party’s Fascist heritage. But when it comes to immigration and, especially, “the Muslim problem,” Fini and his right-wing allies in Berlusconi’s coalition, as well as the Austrian AFP, are if anything even more ferocious than before. In this, they are not alone.

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Already by the late ’90s, anti-immigrant feelings were simmering in several European countries, where relatively large numbers of “guest workers,” former colonial subjects and refugees were beginning to make the native majorities feel nervous. Neighborhoods were changing. Jobs were thought to be in peril. Welfare states were felt to be under strain.

And then 9/11 happened, and the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the bombings in Madrid and London—all these atrocities perpetrated by terrorists acting in the name of a violent Islamist revolution. This finally gave right-wing populists a cause with which to crash into the center of European politics.

European civilization, frightened citizens were being told, had to be defended against “Islamization,” against fanatical aliens who breed so fast that white Europeans will soon be outnumbered. And the promoters of this cause were not nostalgic old SS men dreaming of the good old days, or neo-Fascists pining for black shirts and military marches, or skinheads itching for a brawl. Quite the opposite: Europe’s new populists are smartly dressed modern men and women who claim to be defending our freedoms. And they are persuasive because people are afraid and resentful, blaming economic and social anxieties on “liberal elites.” But if the fears are vague and various, the focal point is Islam.

The most successful politician of this new type is Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party was described by Anders Breivik, the Norwegian killer, as “the only real conservative party in existance.” There are sane reasons to be worried about mass immigration, Islamist extremism or the failures of multiculturalism. But Wilders goes much further than that. He likes to speak in apocalyptic terms, of “lights going out over Europe,” of “the final stages of the Islamization of Europe,” of the “threat to America and the sheer survival of the West.” And all this not just because of a particular strain of violent revolutionary Islam but because of Islam itself: “If you want to compare Islam to anything, compare it to communism or National Socialism—a totalitarian ideology.”

Yet the Europe to be fought for, in Wilders’s rhetoric, bears no relation to the dreams of Hitler or Mussolini. It is modern, and at the same time ill defined. Sometimes it is “Judeo-Christian civilization” that must be defended, sometimes “the Enlightenment” and sometimes liberal values mostly achieved since the 1960s, such as gay rights and gender equality. These are not the kinds of ideals typical right-wingers normally espouse, but since conservative Muslims tend to oppose them, they can be held up as pillars of Western civilization.

The perception of a Muslim threat allowed the populist right to turn the tables on the old liberal elites. Now it was the new right who were defending the West against the new fascists. And the liberals were the “collaborators” of “Islamofascism.”

Wilders and others in the “anti-Islamization movement” have even replaced anti-Semitism, associated with the old European far right, with what looks like its opposite, a fervent form of Zionism. Indeed, they are great friends of Israel—that is, of a certain kind of Israel, the one associated with figures such as right-wing foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. Wilders makes frequent trips there, dining with Lieberman and telling settlers on the West Bank that “Judea and Samaria” are rightfully theirs. So does Heinz-Christian Strache, of the Austrian Freedom Party. What they like about the Israeli government is its anti-Arab militancy. Israel, in Wilders’s phrase, is on the “front line” of the war to save Western civilization.

Even the new leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, would not dream of defending French fascism or indulge in her father’s barely veiled anti-Semitism. And yet, in an odd way, the legacy of World War II still haunts us, which is why critics of the apocalyptic view of Islam in Europe are routinely denounced as “appeasers.” Europe, in the words of an American admirer of Wilders, has entered another “Weimar moment.”

In short, we are facing another war. The new right-wing populists in Europe see not only Muslims as their enemies but also “liberal elites,” “multiculturalists” and “appeasers” who are fatally undermining the West and selling Europe out to the Islamofascists.

So far, this is just a war of words. Wilders’s Freedom Party, as well as the Danish People’s Party and the Austrian Freedom Party, are not advocating violence. On the contrary, by playing by the rules of democracy, they have successfully pushed more centrist parties to the right. Neither the Dutch nor the Danish government could survive without the official support of the populists. And Marine Le Pen’s National Front appears to be gaining strength in France. In Norway, the right-wing Progress Party, of which Breivik was a member until 2006, is the second-biggest party in the country.

This move of right-wing populist parties to the mainstream could be a reason for the kind of savagery displayed by the Norwegian terrorist. Violent extremists might feel that parties they once admired are losing their purity by tacking toward the center. But this explanation lets the populists off the hook a little too easily. Even though they don’t promote violence, they are exploiting fears in a dangerous manner. When the right claims that the future of our civilization, our democracies, our countries, is at stake, and that all the Muslims living in our midst are driven by “a totalitarian ideology,” it is surely not surprising that some people might interpret this as a call to arms.

Perhaps Anders Breivik is a madman, even though there is no evidence so far of clinical insanity. Maybe the men who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, who stabbed Theo van Gogh to death, who laid bombs in the London subway, were crazy too. But different times produce different pathologies. If the hateful words of radical Muslims bear any relation to extreme acts, carried out in name of Islam, then surely the words of people who warn us that we are at war with Islam and its liberal appeasers must be held accountable too.

Ideology can be random. In other times, Breivik might have killed in the name of fascism, anarchism or communism. Some murderous dreamers, Muslims as well as Christians, might well use any ideological excuse to perpetrate their crimes. In which case we cannot blame right-wing, anti-Muslim populists directly for the murders in Oslo, just as anti-Western Muslim clerics can’t be blamed for 9/11. But hate-filled words surely have an influence on murderous minds, and on the targets they pick.

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