Once again, a spectre is haunting Europe–the spectre of fascism.
Indeed, nearly 70 years after the downfall of Hitler (and less than thirty years after liberal democracy supposedly won the Cold War), a resurgent right wing has been gaining steady traction in European politics.
Preying on longstanding financial and racial anxieties that were exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis, many ultra-conservative politicians have found their xenophobic rhetoric enjoying sizeable popular support, particularly in France and Italy.
One recent poll revealed that Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front party, the voice of chauvinist French nationalism, would edge out current officeholder Francois Hollande in a battle for the presidency.
This news comes only a few months after Le Pen and her far-right cohorts in Denmark and Austria dominated European parliamentary elections on an anti-immigration, anti-Euro platform.
In Italy, meanwhile, the rightward shift has proceeded steadily since the ‘80s, when the right wing populist Northern League gained prominence championing views akin to those of Le Pen’s National Front.
Matteo Salvini, the Northern League’s party secretary, recently returned from a trip to North Korea and genuflected to the country’s “clean streets,” “splendid sense of community” and “respect for old people.”
According to Salvini, these are all “things that no longer exist in Italy.” (Thankfully, neither do North Korea’s rampant crimes against humanity—including, but not limited to suppression of press freedom, forced labor camps and either the inability or the refusal of the government to feed its people during a time of famine—which some have likened to those crimes committed by the Nazis.)
This is not to mention the enduring popularity of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who ruled Italy for twenty years with an iron fist and allied his country with Nazi Germany during World War II.
Besides frequently ranking among Italy’s top statesmen in popular polls, Mussolini has also been paid lip service by four-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. According to the German broadcasting corporation Deutsche Welle, Berlusconi has conceded that Il Duce’s regime had not been “inherently bad.”
Now, given what we know about fascism’s sordid past—one which includes not just Hitler and Mussolini, but also Spain’s Francisco Franco Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic—it is tempting to ask how it could ever again be a vital political force.
There are several reasons; foremost among them is that the conditions are and have for a long time been ripe for a fascist revival. Lingering economic woes, combined with a crisis in democratic leadership, were a crucial force behind the rise of Hitler and Mussolini in the years leading up to World War II.
France, where the rise of the National Front has played out against a backdrop of ineffectual policy and internal discord within Francois Hollande’s ruling socialist government, is virtually a case study in this phenomenon.
From a historical standpoint, the downfall of internationalism has also been a portent of bad things to come. Once a symbol of the promise of multinational community and collaboration, the European Union has now become a source of inexorable conflict, most of it revolving around Germany’s enforcement of “austerity policy” in countries struggling to recover from the 2008 economic crisis.
The Russian news station RT reported that Marine Le Pen has called these austerity measures “a remedy that kills the patient.” This is faintly ironic when one considers that it was the extraction of harsh reparations in Germany after World War I that hindered that country’s economy and paved the way for a Nazi takeover.
This is not to say that Le Pen, or any of the other prominent right-wingers mentioned here, is a crypto or quasi-Nazi (although she has expressed admiration for Vladmir Putin). That would ultimately be simplifying the problem too much.
However, the fact that her ideals have gained so much currency throughout Europe points to a certain historical truism: that people are wont to believe or do irrational things when their way of life is threatened.
There is no justification for this. Le Pen’s hardline stance against French Arabs (in Italy, it is generally Africans who are targeted by the right-wingers) are attitudes that, if not curbed, could once again result in the horrific “ethnic cleansing” that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia during the ‘90s.
For Americans, it is also an important reminder of our own checkered past—the subjugation of women, the enslavement and oppression of blacks, the demonization of iconoclasts and homosexuals — and a reminder that, with one false move, years of progress can vanish in an instant.