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An Overview of Far Right Politics in Europe

In an atmosphere of 'fear and despair,' extra-parliamentary and electoral fascism is making a comeback across Europe.

Editor's Note: The fact that a part of former Klansman David Duke's latest anti-Semitic book has been translated into Russian — complete with an introduction by a former top aide to Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post-Soviet president — highlights the growing number of international connections within the radical right.

To help readers understand the counterparts of American right-wing extremists across the Atlantic, the Intelligence Report presents this overview of recent far-right politics in Europe.

When the Berlin Wall crumbled in November 1989, few anticipated how quickly and how virulently the extreme right would assert itself in Europe.

The sudden demise of Soviet-bloc Communism demagnetized everyone's compass and provided fresh opportunities for a spectrum of far-right organizations, which range from violent, neo-Nazi youth groups and underground terrorist cells to sizeable electoral movements.

The rise of the Austrian Freedom Party, Italy's National Alliance, the French National Front, Vlaams Blok in Belgium, and other mass-based, right-wing extremist parties, has coincided with a sharp increase in hate crimes against ethnic minorities throughout the continent.

According to the European Parliament, a racial assault occurs once every three minutes in Western Europe, where a large influx of refugees and migrants has spawned diverse cultures and magnified tensions in societies that are neither used to, nor comfortable with, pluralism.

The continent as a whole has been going through huge economic and demographic changes since the end of the Cold War, not the least of which entails the unprecedented introduction of the "euro," the new single currency.

In addition, the collapse of communism has triggered a mass migration from Eastern Europe toward the more prosperous West, which also has attracted refugees from the Third World. Although Western governments had previously condemned the pharaohs of the Soviet bloc for refusing to let their people go, since travel has finally been permitted the welcome mat in Western Europe has been removed.

Right-wing extremists have also benefited from foraging on a political terrain where the ideological distance between the mainstream parties has shrunk. This has propelled the growth of the far right, which appeals to disillusioned voters by assuming the mantle of the opposition and stoking resentment against remote and unresponsive governing elites.

Since the end of the Cold War, far-right parties have polled more than 15% nationwide in Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Norway, Switzer-land and Turkey, while also making significant inroads in Sweden and Denmark.

Although 15% of the total vote may seem inconsequential in terms of the U.S. two-party system, it can carry great weight in a parliamentary election and determine the political make-up of a European government.

"Racism is a serious problem on our continent," says Graham Watson, chairman of the European Parliament's citizens' freedoms and rights committee. "Forces on the political right, playing on popular prejudice, are in the ascendant."

Globalization, Identity and Exclusion
In Western Europe today, there are 50 million poor, 18 million without jobs, and 3 million homeless. By every measure, post-communist Eastern Europe is faring much worse. Such conditions are ripe for exploitation by neofascist demagogues who have successfully tapped into widespread post-Cold War uncertainties by scapegoating foreigners and denouncing economic globalization.

Immigrants and asylum-seekers are routinely depicted as a threat to national identity and financial stability at a time when the European work force is reeling from high unemployment, stagnating wages and cutbacks in social services.

"Neofascism and neo-Nazism are gaining ground in many countries — especially in Europe," warns Maurice Glele-Ahanhanzo, special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

Of particular concern, Glele-Ahanhanzo noted in a recent report to the U.N. General Assembly, is the "increase in the power of the extreme right-wing parties," which are thriving in "an economic and social climate characterized by fear and despair" due to "the combined effects of globalization, identity crises, and social exclusion."

While easily recognizable Skinhead gangs may function as shock troops of the far right's march through Europe, the more successful of the mass-based neofascist organizations have "made changes," according to Glele-Ahanhanzo, "designed to make them look like radical right-wing democratic parties, softening their image while enabling them to conceal an unchanged preference for racism and xenophobia."

Appealing for Votes
The current resurgence of fascism in Europe is not orchestrated by a sieg-heiling dictator flanked by men in brown shirts and swastika armbands. Rather, a slick new breed of right-wing extremists, epitomized by Austrian Freedom Party führer Jörg Haider, has tailored its message and manner to suit the moment.

A charismatic, Porsche-driving populist, Haider does not conform to the stereotype of a Hollywood Nazi. And he is far too cagey to advertise an explicit allegiance to the fascist creed.

Peddling a politics readymade for the economically insecure, Haider's party muscled its way into Austria's national governing coalition in February 2000 after winning 27% of the vote.

The Freedom Party emerged as the top choice among the Austrian working class and people under 30 in what proved to be the strongest showing of a right-wing extremist movement in Europe since World War II. The Freedom Party claimed half of all cabinet ministries and set the tone inside the new government.

Appalled by Haider's power-sharing deal with the conservative People's Party in Austria, the 14 other European Union (EU) countries launched an unprecedented diplomatic boycott against Vienna that lasted nine months.

If the EU sanctions were supposed to tame Haider, they didn't work. Seeking to disarm his critics, he stepped down as official leader of the Freedom Party. But he remained its main force while serving as governor of the state of Carinthia.

Although Haider himself has tried to steer clear of overt anti-Semitism, he has praised Adolf Hitler's employment policies without mentioning slave labor in concentration camps, which the Freedom Party chief called "punishment camps," as if inmates deserved to be there.

Haider also expressed admiration for the "decency" of former members of the notoriously brutal Nazi SS, which had been condemned in its entirety as a criminal organization by the Nuremberg Tribunal.

According to Haider, all soldiers, no matter which side they were on, "fought for peace and freedom" during the Second World War.

Haider's repeated attempts to downplay Nazi crimes are in keeping with the Freedom Party's origins in the mid-1950s as a catch basin for numerous Third Reich veterans and other Nazis.

Today the party remains a haven for hard-core extremists such as Andreas Moelzer, Haider's advisor on cultural affairs and co-publisher of Zur Zeit, a Vienna weekly. This shrill, racist newspaper has run articles raving about "the myth of the 6 million" murdered Jews and the "epoch-making economic and political success of the great social revolutionary" — Adolf Hitler.

In Italy, 'Post-Fascists' Help Rule
Nostalgia for Mussolini's Blackshirts is not uncommon among members of Italy's far-right National Alliance, led by Gianfranco Fini. A smooth-talking, telegenic politician, Fini cut his teeth as chief of the Italian Social Movement, Europe's oldest neofascist party.

But he realized that he needed to moderate his image in order to enhance his vote-getting potential. So Fini gave his organization a face-lift and a new name and proclaimed himself a "post-fascist."

His big break came when he formed an alliance with billionaire media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, who became prime minister of Italy in June. The National Alliance, which polled 12% nationwide (down from 16% in 1994), is currently the junior partner in a coalition government and Fini is Italy's deputy prime minister.

While Fini masquerades as a mainstream conservative, the Web site of the National Alliance's youth wing pays tribute to convicted Nazi war criminals.

Berlusconi also made an electoral pact with Tricolor Flame (Fiammi Tricolore), an unapologetically fascist sect that rejects Fini's efforts to mainstream the far right movement.

A magnet for Skinheads and neo-Nazis, Tricolor Flame is led by Pino Rauti, a veteran of the terrorist underground. Three members of Ordine Nuovo (New Order), a neofascist group formed by Rauti, were sentenced in June to life in prison for a 1969 bomb attack in Milan that killed 16 people and injured 88 others. The attack on a bank in the central city initiated the so-called "strategy of tension," which was meant to halt the country's slide to the left.

Berlusconi's other key ally is Umberto Bossi, head of the xenophobic Northern League, which is also part of the governing coalition despite only polling 40% of the vote. Known for his crude anti-gay slurs and his anti-foreigner vitriol, Bossi blames immigrants for crime, drugs, job scarcity, and nearly every other problem in Italy.

During the 2001 campaign, he called for the Italian navy to shoot at ships suspected of carrying illegal migrants into the country.

Belgium: Next in Line?
Inflammatory xenophobic rhetoric is also a cornerstone of the Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc), another radical right-wing populist party with openly fascist roots, which has become a major political force in Belgium.

In October 2000, Vlaams Blok outpolled all rivals, grabbing 33% of the vote in Antwerp, Belgium's second largest city, and scoring well throughout Belgium's Dutch-speaking region.

"We are not partisans of a cosmopolitan, multiracial, multicultural society," says Filip Dewinter, chief of Vlaams Blok, which wants to split Belgium by creating an independent, ethnically pure Flemish nation-state.

Like Haider and Fini, Dewinter uses a suave, gentrified style and youthful good looks to make his rabble-rousing policies appear more palatable. Some political observers fear that if Vlaams Blok continues to increase its share of the vote, then it's only a matter of time before Belgium follows in the footsteps of Austria and Italy by including the far right in the government.

In France, neofascists have been divided over whether to court mainstream right-wing parties. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the hard-line leader of the National Front, ousted his ostensibly more moderate vice-chairman, Bruno Megret, who favored cooperation with conservatives.

Hampered by serious infighting that recently split the party in two, the National Front has seen its share of the vote drop since the mid-1990s, when it emerged as the third largest party in France. But the extreme right continues to have a strong presence in local government.

In municipalities governed by the National Front, officials have censored library books, nixed anti-racist rock concerts, and removed the names of anti-fascists and leftists — such as former South African president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Nelson Mandela — from street signs.

In many countries, neofascists often have led electoral opposition to the European Union and the new single currency, the euro, which is scheduled to replace most national currencies next year. In Denmark, the only EU country to put the matter to a vote, the euro was defeated by a large margin in a national referendum last year after the ultra-nationalist Danish People's Party attacked it.

Europeans are understandably worried about the economic implications of the euro, which has lost about a quarter of its value since it was introduced in 1999.

In addition, full participation in the European Monetary Union requires painful budget cuts and significantly reduces the ability of governments to regulate their own economies by adjusting currency valuations and interest rates — all of which has helped far-right parties.

Violence Comes Calling
Even when they lose elections, neofascists are like a toxic chemical in the water supply of the political landscape, polluting public discourse and pressuring establishment parties to adopt extremist positions to fend off challenges from the far right.

Fearful of losing the anti-foreigner vote and eager to deflect attention from their own policy failures, government officials in one country after the next have removed the welcome mat for refugees and adopted a number of extreme-right proposals.

By jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon, mainstream politicians have helped to create an atmosphere of racial hatred throughout much of the continent.

In the United Kingdom, the ruling Labor Party and the conservative Tories have tried to outbid each other in taking a hard line against immigration. Comparing asylum seekers to "rats in a bucket," Tory parliamentary representative John Townend has suggested that immigrants are turning Britons into a "mongrel race."

Much of the Tory Party's tough talk on crime and refugees can hardly be distinguished from the British National Party (BNP), the leading neo-Nazi group in England. Although it has few members and is not a serious electoral force, the was instrumental in fomenting discord between Asian and white communities in the run-down, working-class areas of Oldham, which culminated in race riots in May.

(The BNP's role in Oldham does not seem to have hurt its standing with much of the public; it received 16% of the vote in recent parliamentary elections following the riots.)

It was the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in Britain for more than 15 years. But it was hardly the only such instance in post-Cold War Europe.

For several days in February 2000, thousands of Spaniards went on a rampage against Moroccan farm-workers in El Ejido, a town of 50,000 in southern Spain. Triggered by the stabbing of a Spanish woman and the arrest of a mentally handicapped Moroccan suspected of the knife attack, Spanish youths set houses and cars on fire, plundered shops, and assaulted immigrants on the streets.

The violence in El Ejido, a powder keg of racial resentment, was exacerbated by self-appointed vigilantes from other cities who joined the fray after they had been alerted by Spanish-based neo-Nazi web-sites.

In Germany, a 'Brown Underground'
Anti-foreigner brutality is a daily phenomenon in Germany, where neo-Nazi attacks have killed at least 130 people and injured thousands since the Berlin Wall fell more than a decade ago. In addition to immigrants and asylum-seekers, far-right hooligans have targeted handicapped and homeless people, single mothers, leftists, and Jewish institutions.

Most of the suspects implicated in neo-Nazi assaults are under 21 years old, and many have ties to the National Democratic Party (NPD), the most extreme of several far right parties in Germany. The German government has initiated legal moves to ban the NPD, claiming it is responsible for provoking numerous acts of violence (see Battling Globalization).

In recent years, German neo-Nazis have become ever more brazen and sophisticated. Death-lists posted on Web sites include the names, addresses, and photos of anti-fascists, trade unionists, state employees and other perceived enemies, along with promises of cash for a successful arson attack.

Germany's domestic security chiefs recently disclosed that a half-dozen raids on neo-Nazis last year yielded record amounts of weapons and explosives — including pipe bombs, machine guns, several kilos of TNT, anti-tank bazookas, mortars, grenades and pistols. The discovery of several large arsenals raised fears that right-wing extremists are planning full-scale terrorist attacks.

"What we are seeing," says Graeme Atkinson of the London-based anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, "is a very worrying trend in the organization of far-right groups with a view to committing terrorism.

"They are talking about creating a 'leaderless resistance' of terrorist cells — what they call a 'brown underground' — and of ensuring the creation of 'liberated zones,' with foreigners driven out from rural areas and smaller towns."

Hate in the 'Champagne Milieu'
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.