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The Opportunistic Rise of Europe’s Far Right

Across the continent, racist groups have used the war on terror to gain a new platform.

Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

In the 1990s, many in Western European countries believed that the post-socialist nations to their East were merely “younger” versions of theirs. Their free markets were going through adolescent rebellion and democratic institutions were present but not fully formed. Yet, with uncertainty came an exciting sense of possibility. According to this vision, Central and Eastern Europe would follow the economic liberalization and globalization that North America and Western Europe went through after World War II.

Few imagined that a mere 25 years later, it would be Western Europe and the United States drifting towards the xenophobic populism that triumphed first in Hungary and Poland, before moving Westward toward France, the Netherlands, and the U.K. In the past ten years, new right wing political movements have brought together coalitions of Neo-Nazis with mainstream free-market conservatives, normalizing political ideologies that in the past rightly caused alarm. In Western Europe this network of mainstreamers and their sometimes violent street-level supporters are winning ever larger electoral majorities; in countries like Poland and Hungary they are already in power, and attempting to restructure education, immigration, and the judiciary in their own illiberal image.

In her new book Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, Liz Fekete does not diagnose this upsurge of right-wing activity as a working-class reaction to worsening economic opportunities and weakened support from the state. Rather, she argues, it is an ugly mishmash of old prejudices re-inflamed by the war on terror, giving racism a new platform in European in the name of security.

Since terrorist attacks in Nice, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and at the Bataclan nightclub in 2014 and ‘15, the Right has taken advantage of real terror threats, Fekete writes, in order to increase surveillance and deportation. In France, state of emergency laws have allowed for a dramatic relaxation of search and arrest procedures, while in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands police have drawn up lists of suspects, often young people of color, who are then subjected to surveillance. In the United Kingdom it’s increasingly common to threaten immigrants who commit minor crimes, such as drug offenses, with deportation. As Fekete puts it, the new Europe is defined by a chiseling away of citizenship in order to create national sub-populations of “deportable subjects.”

Verso, 224 pp., $29.95

European societies are, Fekete writes, “increasingly divided between citizens, demi-citizens and non-citizens,” some of whom are no longer guaranteed certain fundamental rights, depending on their race, class, religion, immigration status, incarceration, and political beliefs. These people include immigrants, Muslims, and the poor—in fact, anyone outside of the dominant ethnicity or the reigning political ideology. In Hungary for instance, human rights groups with international funding must register as “foreign agents.” Similarly, in Poland, the right wing Law and Justice Party has targeted human rights groups, feminists, and pro-immigration activists through media censorship, new laws around the teaching of holocaust history, and frequent raids on the offices of groups that criticize the government. The fallout from the Syrian Civil War intensified these trends. As millions fled, many into Europe, the right attacked the principle of freedom of movement within the Schengen Area of European Union; some countries started to impose passport checks at their borders with EU countries and many more sent police onto trains to detain brown and black passengers.

For the most part, the center-left has gone along with these tactics. After terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, for instance, France’s socialist party president François Hollande declared a state of emergency that has been extended multiple times with no sign of ending. Many on the Left subscribed to the 1990s hope that the EU would enable a softer form of globalization that concentrated on regional integration. However, it may also have hardened the distinctions between Europe and the rest of the world, giving credence to the notion of a “fortress Europe” in need of defensive parapets and a well-patrolled moat. A cross-continental network of right-wing political parties—from Fidesz in Hungary to the Danish People’s Party—now preaches border defense at all costs, national purity, and religious intolerance.

While the new right-wing movements participate in electoral politics, many of them have unofficial links with vigilante groups that patrol their country’s borders, shake down immigrant businesses, and harass women in hijabs, and small armies of thugs that wait to pick fights at rallies. These groups do not live in fear of prosecution for hate crimes: They maintain Facebook pages and websites. Groups like the Cologne-based Hooligans Against Salafists make their racial claims on the streets of German cities, taking over public space as in an attempt to shock multiculturalism out of city life. In Greece, Golden Dawn members beat up immigrant vendors in street markets. In France, the National Front has sponsored “pork festivals” in cities its members see as being in danger of losing their French-ness, because of changing demographics.

Some of the most visible manifestations of New Right muscle-flexing have emerged in post-socialist Europe. In Hungary and Bulgaria vigilante border guards target migrants fleeing North. In the former East German city of Dresden, Pegida (an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) took over the streets in 2014 to protest immigration turning Germany into “Eurorabia.” In Serbia, nativism merges with a desire to protect “traditional values” resulted in the cancellation or violent persecution of gay pride marches in Belgrade. Unlike in the past, when the Soviet Union commemorated the Great Patriotic War against fascism across Eastern Europe, Nazism is no longer something to hide. The extremist Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) talks openly about following in the footsteps of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s wartime fascist party that murdered thousands of Jews.

Yet many European countries lack a clear strategy for countering the rise of right-wing extremism. Among the more robust efforts are Sweden’s “exit” groups—organizations led by former Neo-Nazis, with the assistance of social workers and the police, that help people leave skinhead groups. In Germany, similar efforts exist under the name aussteiger (dropout). Fekete is skeptical of these programs, especially since there is no way to measure their leaders’ credentials and the extent to which they have denounced their pasts. Simply leaving a hate group does not entirely rid a person of racist ideology, it just makes them a less dangerous individual actor. Meanwhile, the staffing of de-radicalization programs with ex-skinheads risks creating an “expert class” of former Nazis.

Fekete does not just see Europe’s shift right as a fusion of pre-war ethnic nationalism with the global war on terror. Rather, arguing from a socialist perspective, she convincingly asserts that the dismantling of the welfare state has put a strain on all Europeans and, instead of questioning the policies that brought this about, they have joined rightwing politicians in blaming people they see as “scroungers.” (In fact, New Right politicians, like Viktor Orbán, tend to advance the same policy as the centrists, favoring, Fekete writes, “the privatisation of state assets and the dismembering of the welfare state.” Yet their rhetorical posturing has largely disguised these similarities. Many see UKIP and the National Front as workers’ parties and some life-long Labour and socialist voters have crossed over.)

When New Right leaders promise a return to the strong welfare state of the past, they do so under the condition that it be ethnically and racially bounded. With this modification, they enforce a range of patriarchal, racist, and homophobic values that draw on “noble” ideals of purity and national honor, whether they look to the Third Reich, the dream of a Greater Hungary (that would stretch into Romania and Slovakia), the male-led family “uncontaminated” by gender equality or tolerance for gay and queer people, pre-Ottoman Balkan Christianity, or pure-blooded Viking masculinity. Such visions are often, it seems, accompanied by torch wielding men and border militias with attack dogs.

Despite the reality of increasingly diverse European societies, this form of nativism has produced electoral results. The right now powerfully frames debates on immigration in Europe. “In establishing new norms, the New Right was to exceed all expectations,” Fekete proposes, “speeding up a process whereby the values associated with social democracy were to disintegrate from within.” While she ends the book with the famous Spanish Civil War republican slogan “they shall not pass” (¡No Pasarán!), it sounds more like a plea than a war cry, coming after so many examples of ascendant right wing extremists, from Warsaw to the White House, while the stunned members of the center-left watch in horror.