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.
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.