Europe’s New Right Is Deluded. The Continent’s Fate Is Up to the Left

At the end of the 1940s, while Europe was putting ‘never again’ into a work plan, a parallel movement was arising. What began in obscure realms now characterizes the far-right renaissance in Europe

published in "Haaretz":

In the years following World War II, the words “never again” were a key to understanding political and social events in Europe. Shortly after the war, senior Nazi war criminals were tried in Nuremberg, and the United Nations was founded to safeguard the peace and security of the world. Then in 1948 the United States launched the Marshall Plan, with the aim of rehabilitating the Continent and setting it on a path of growth. One of the first treaties adopted by the UN was the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, a term coined by the Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who was one of the convention’s initiators. Thanks to these developments, by the end of the decade, the term “never again” had become more than a moral imperative: It was a work plan.

But concurrently, a parallel historical movement was rising, one that attracted less public attention. In the shadow of the new and free Europe, a united front began to coalesce; it aimed to restore Nazi and fascist values and ideas to dominant roles. A few years after the mass murders ended, an increasing number of movements and parties that bore the racist, nationalist and antidemocratic heritage that was vanquished in 1945 cropped up across the Continent.

It began in obscure realms, far from the eyes of the international institutions and the press. The Swedish historian Elisabeth Åsbrink describes the process in her 2016 book “1947: Where Now Begins.” She notes that Per Engdahl, the leader of the Swedish fascist movement who had been active during the war, began connecting nationalists from across the Continent – those from the losing side in the war. He brought Nazi war criminals to safe haven in Sweden and from there smuggled them around the world. Conferences that were public knowledge were held, working plans were written and parties were founded in many European countries. This is how the English fascist Oswald Mosley could be linked both ideologically and organizationally via the Italian Social Movement (MSI), the heir to Mussolini’s path, to the neo-Nazis in Scandinavia and the Low Countries and to the last of Hitler’s loyalists in Germany.

That unity did not last long. Ideological differences – questions of race, culture and nationalism – arose quickly, and were compounded by personal power struggles. The trans-European parent movement was gradually dissolved, and its branches in the various countries split into movements and parties of two main types: Some became violent, revolutionary fringe groups, while others strove to draw close to the mainstream.

In Sweden, which had been neutral during the war, thus evading the devastation caused by the fighting, a large number of neo-Nazi movements would emerge in the decades to come – from the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSAP) in the 1940s during the war to Keep Sweden Swedish in the 1980s. In Italy, the MSI went through several incarnations before morphing into the National Alliance, in the 1990s. In 1954 France saw the establishment of the Rassemblement National Français by Maurice Bardèche, who was close to Engdahl, and Jean Louis Tixier-Vignancour, who had served in the Vichy regime. It’s these same three countries that now embody the far-right renaissance in Europe.

In 1988, members of the Swedish neo-Nazi scene founded the Sweden Democrats. One of its key figures was Gustaf Ekström, then 81, a former Swedish volunteer in the Waffen SS who had also been active in the NSAP. Ekstrom died in 1995, but his party is still around, and it crossed the electoral threshold for the first time in 2010. In last month’s parliamentary election, it became the country’s second-largest party, garnering more than 20 percent of the vote. Sweden’s next government will be wholly dependent on it.

While the Sweden Democrats were slowly and cautiously consolidating their strength, in 1992 a 15-year-old girl named Giorgia Meloni joined the youth movement of Italy’s the neo-fascist party, the MSI. She rose through the ranks of the party, which eventually became the Brothers of Italy (FdI), which in September won Italy’s parliamentary election. Meloni will be the next prime minister of Italy, borne on the wings of a party whose emblem makes use of the tricolor flame, the old Italian fascist symbol.l

In last April’s runoff presidential election in France, Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent and the centrist candidate, was victorious; but the losing candidate Marine Le Pen, received 41.45 percent of the vote, a personal high. Le Pen’s roots were planted in the same fascist ground that had been plowed originally by Per Engdahl. The European far right’s renewal movement in the 1950s had a monthly journal, Nation Europa, which was founded by a former SS officer, Arthur Ehrhardt. Among its writers were thinkers who became the living spirit of the new European right. One of them was a young Frenchman campaigning for the Comité National Français: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

His daughter’s party, recently renamed the National Rally, is similar to the Sweden Democrats and to Meloni’s party. The three, which represent the success of the far right’s postwar evolution, vehemently insist they are not fascists. They take pride in their conservatism and in encouraging “traditional family values”; they think that feminism, LGBTQ rights and access to abortion – not to mention immigration – have gone too far. Independent and activist courts, a free and unbiased media, and academia are also not their cup of tea. But publicly, they shake off accusations of racism and authoritarian tendencies.

It may well be that the great problem with these parties may not be their extremism, antisemitism and xenophobia, but the lack of seriousness of those who wish to lead the Continent (and are poised to do so in no few countries). A major contention against the left is that it is naïve and unrealistic, even dreamy. But in today’s Europe, it is the populist right that is afflicted with these childhood ailments: disconnected from reality, delusionary, unpragmatic and fickle in its views. At times its leaders draw close to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, then it suddenly supports NATO. It views the European Union as the root of all evil but when in power happily accepts astronomical checks from it. This isn’t necessarily extremism, it’s populism that avoids responsible long-term solutions while fueling well-organized crusades against so-called corrupt elites.

This childish, look-the-other-way behavior is most blatant in the far right’s denial of the climate crisis, in the face of an absolute scientific consensus. For these parties and the leaders they spawned, the approaching consequences and the existential crisis that humanity is facing are akin to fairy tales, and they oppose almost all the measures being proposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Riding an ostrich

But it’s not just global warming, the droughts or the rising sea levels. The populist right closes its eyes to the realities of the waves of immigration, the refugee crisis and the wars of the future. While the left and the conservative right suggest solutions – some better, some less so – the populist right believes that if it ignores the problem, it will simply go away. As far as it’s concerned, it’s possible to build a wall around the Continent and explain the world using a variety of alternative sources, from Fox News to “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

On the one hand, they are against taking in refugees, but they are also opposed to offering economic aid to the countries in Africa and the Middle East where the migrants come from. Similarly, it’s out of the question to invest in international institutions and conflict resolution. The flow of immigrants westward and northward, which could total tens of millions, will simply end by itself. It is sometimes said that cooperating with these far-right parties is like riding a tiger, but in reality it’s more like riding an ostrich.

The answer to the question of where all of this is leading, and whether the Europe of the future will be a conservative, insular continent that has regressed in regard to human rights, immigrant absorption and coping with the challenges facing humanity, actually rests with the left. Today, both in Europe and the United States, the left is adapting to its right-wing rivals. Populism is not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon; both sides are adept at deconstructing themselves and putting forward a garland of specific struggles that are divided according to race, sex, gender and age, instead of coming up with solutions that are intended for society as a whole.

Social Democratic parties still advocate traditional solutions such as crafting full-employment policies, strengthening trade unions, investing in welfare and providing public housing and a strong social safety net. But in some countries these parties have given way to the identity politics of the so-called radical left, or to the neoliberal policies of Social Democratic parties that have lost their way. For these kinds of parties, reality is no longer the political arena, it’s the endless chatter on TV and social media. In countries that have lost their traditional left, it’s hard to see who will right the ship that’s sailing toward the populist iceberg.

Predicting the future isn’t easy, but we don’t have to go back many years to remember what happens in Europe when the extreme fringes on the right and left fight for power while the moderates are preoccupied with internal wrangling. While all this is going on, the war in Ukraine is becoming an echo of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, which was the preview for World War II. As the cliché goes, history tends to repeat. The past year looks like the start of a process that may end with the ushering in of a new period – one whose guiding principle may very well once more be “never again.”


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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