An Overview of Far Right Politics in Europe
By Martin A. Lee
German authorities registered nearly 16,000 right-wing extremist crimes in 2000 as compared to 10,000 incidents in 1999 — a 60% increase. These attacks were concentrated in economically depressed eastern Germany, which has yet to rebound from the whiplash transition from communism to capitalism.
"To say that one-third of east German youth is now prone to the extreme right is an understatement," warns east Berlin criminologist Berndt Wagner. "The point of no return has already been reached for many. It's very depressing. It's growing. It's getting worse."
While racist violence is often perpetrated by bald-shaven, leather-clad thugs, neo-Nazi sympathies are not restricted to down-and-out adolescents. Double-digit unemployment, a festering national identity crisis, disillusionment with the democratic political process, and other deep-rooted factors are fueling racist attitudes and a dangerous receptivity to right-wing extremism throughout reunified Germany.
Recent surveys show that 17% of the German population, east and west combined, harbors far-right views.
"You find anti-Semitism not only in the beer hall but also in the champagne milieu," says Michael Friedman, deputy president of the Central Council of German Jews.
While thinly disguised neo-Nazi parties have tallied votes as high as 13% in regional east German elections and have won seats in local governments in several western states, no far-right organization has broken through and established itself as a viable national force since the fall of the Third Reich.
In part, this is because several extreme-right parties compete for votes and a young, charismatic leader like Jörg Haider has yet to come forward in Germany.
Thus far, mainstream German politicians have been able to contain their far-right rivals by mimicking neofascist catch-phrases about "criminal foreigners" and trawling the sewers of racial prejudice for votes.
Seeking to deflate the appeal of the extreme right, German officials rescinded a constitutional provision for political asylum in 1993 and implemented draconian measures aimed at curbing the influx of refugees.
Paradoxically, such policies have thwarted the success of neofascist parties in Germany, while simultaneously legitimizing many of their ideas in the public mind.
Poverty and Paranoia in the East
Right-wing extremists and anti-Semitic hate-mongers stalk the parliamentary system in every nation in Eastern Europe, where the jettisoning of the communist system resulted in poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, rampant crime, and "a deterioration of unparalleled proportions in human welfare," a recent UNICEF study concluded.
According to the World Bank, the number of poor people in Eastern Europe has risen twelve-fold since the end of the Cold War — from nearly 14 million, or about 4% of the population, to 168 million, or approximately 45%.
Although few Jews live in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism has once again become "the spoken and unspoken lingua franca of exclusionist and xenophobic politics," according to the World Jewish Congress.
Corneliu Vadim Tudor, head of the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party, has accused the Romanian government of selling out to "a Jewish-led conspiracy." Tudor established himself as a key player in Romanian politics after placing second with 33% of the vote in national elections last year.
In nearby Hungary, the current government enjoys the parliamentary support of the neofascist Life and Justice Party, led by Istvan Csurka, who also espouses lurid anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Several of Csurka's followers have been given key positions in state television.
Whether it assumes the form of cemetery desecrations by neo-Nazi vandals or cynical pandering by politicians, anti-Semitism functions as a barometer of social and psychological distress in the former communist states.
But more proximate enemies — mainly Roma (Gypsies) and ethnic minorities — bear the brunt of violent attacks by Skinhead gangs, which plague every country in the region, including Russia.
The State: Ethnicity or Law?
Underpinning the resurgence of racism and neofascist tendencies in the former Soviet bloc is the obsessive notion of an ethnically determined nation-state, whose members are bound together by the primacy of blood, lineage, and language, rather than by recognized international borders or a set of laws that afford equal rights and protections to all citizens. Ongoing bloodshed in the Balkans shows just how dangerous the myth of ethnic purity can be.
The ultranationalist crescendo in Eastern Europe is not simply a reaction to years of Soviet domination, as if steam had suddenly blown the top off a pressure cooker. Unable to fulfill the high expectations generated by their own propaganda, communist rulers manipulated popular prejudice to shore up an unpopular system during the Cold War.
Indigenous racist tendencies were encouraged by hard-core nationalist factions that existed inside every Communist party in Eastern Europe. (Periodic waves of officially inspired anti-Semitism were manifestations of this tendency.)
When the East-West face-off ended, numerous communists dropped their Marxist trappings and became active members of burgeoning ultranationalist groups.
These kinds of developments are evident in Russia, where 70 to 80% of the population lives below or scarcely above subsistence level. The chaotic free-for-all that ensued after the demise of the USSR has given rise to a very dangerous brand of Slavic fascism.
Imagine Weimar Germany — then add thousands of nuclear weapons guarded by people earning less than $5 a month.
Despite a constitutional ban on ethnic and religious incitement, at least extreme-right nationalist groups in Russia — with memberships of between 100 and 5,000 people each — operate with virtual impunity.
There are also 37 ultranationalist publications in Russia, and anti-Semitic texts, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler's Mein Kampf, are sold openly on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Social Injustice and Final Solutions
Perhaps even more disturbing than the proliferation of racist youth gangs and far-right paramilitary groups in Russia is the ultranationalist wing of the Communist Party, led by retired general Albert Makashov, who has publicly called for the extermination of the Jews.
Last year, Makashov befriended David Duke (see The Ties That Bind) while the U.S. white supremacist toured Russia hawking his latest screed, The Ultimate Supremacism: My Awakening on the Jewish Question.
The preface to the Russian edition of Duke's book was written by Boris Mironov, President Boris Yeltsin's former press secretary.
Radical right-wing populism and its contemporary fascist manifestations, which vary from one country to the next, typically thrive in situations where social injustice is prevalent.
Although there are definite parallels to the Hitler era, today's right-wing extremist movements in Europe have emerged under a unique set of circumstances.
No simple formula can predict how strong these movements will become. But converging social, economic, and political trends suggest that increasing numbers of Europeans will be vulnerable to the appeals of right-wing demagogues who offer simple solutions to complex problems.
And simple solutions, as we know, run the risk of turning into final solutions.
Martin A. Lee is the author of The Beast Reawakens, a book on the recent rise of neofascism in Europe, and a frequent commentator on the radical right in Europe and the United States.