We mark Holocaust Memorial Day against the backdrop of a growth in right-wing populism in Europe. Are the far-right parties that are making gains in any way influenced by fascism?
Many of the far-right political parties and organizations across Europe are influenced by fascism insome way. In Europe there are four different types of far-right parties and organizations. There are overtly neo-Nazi fascist organizations such as Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary. Both use Nazi imagery, and both have a dual strategy of fighting elections and organizing violent and intimidating street movements. They use racism and hatred against Muslim and immigrant communities in a similar way Nazis and fascists in the 1930s whipped up racist propaganda against Jewish people.
Other parties such as the Front National in France and the now defunct British National Party are described by academics as “Euro-Fascist”. These types of European fascist parties seek to gain electoral support by hiding links to fascism and neo-Nazism. But the Front National was set up by supporters of Vichy France. The British National Party was founded by former members of the National Front and included supporters of fascist paramilitary group Combat 18.
Another development is far-right street movements the most notable of which is Pegida in Germany which organized large demonstrations with slogans opposing immigration and its growing Muslim population. Its similarity with fascism is its emphasis on street movements and whipping up racism against minority communities. These demonstrations were supported by the far-right Alternative for Deutschland and Neo Nazi NPD, but attracted a broader layer of people. However this movement has faced broad opposition in Germany, with large anti-racist demonstrations opposing Pegida. This seems to have demoralized Pegida as its most recent demonstration was half the size of previous ones.
Separately, there are other type of far-right groups which are racist and populist such as UKIP in Britain and Geert Wilders Freedom Party in the Netherlands. These parties are not fascist parties, although one could argue their clear focus on blaming immigrant or Muslims for economic downturn in Europe is influenced by fascism even if not consciously.
The English Defence League is a similar movement in Britain, although much smaller its largest demonstration was attended by 3,000 people. It also faced big and broad opposition that mobilized against it for several years in Britain, which succeeded. Support for EDL demonstrations has massively reduced over the last two years, with demonstrations reduced to less than 500 attendees. However it is attempting a resurgence following the Paris shootings by organizing demonstrations against Mosques and Muslim communities.
Why do you think these parties are growing? Does that offer any historical parallels with the 1930s?
The underlying factor that has propelled the Front National in France and UKIP in Britain to top the polls, as well as other gains for the far right in last years European Parliament elections, is austerity, the resulting economic downturn, or recession, and crucially the tendency to blame immigrants, whether it's Eastern European migrants within the EU, Muslims or black people.
In response to the growth of the far-right, both center-right and social democratic mainstream parties have tried to steal the far-right’s clothes by appearing to be hard on immigration and Muslim communities.
The main beneficiaries of this concession to racism are the far right and fascist parties themselves. Far from curbing the growth of the far-right, it gives the appearance that the policies and rhetoric of far-right parties are normal.
In Britain we are seeing big campaigns in the mass media criticizing immigrants often in a contradictory fashion. On the one hand immigrants are blamed for unemployment by taking jobs off people born in Britain, then on the other hand they are blamed for not working and taking so-called handouts from the benefits system. Ironically it is black, Asian, Muslim and Eastern European migrants that are hit hardest by austerity. These communities are the lowest paid, the most likely to become unemployed and disproportionately hit by austerity and economic slowdown.
In addition to blaming immigrant communities for the economic crisis, racism is also used to distract people from their fall in standard of living. Salma Yaqoob, a prominent Muslim woman commentator, described Islamophobia as a “weapon of mass distraction.” So measures such as banning Muslim women from wearing the Niqab - the full face veil - in France, and the Islamophobic discussion which accompanied this, was a distraction from the high unemployment, austerity and fall in standards of living in France.
Clearly there are similarities with the 1930s, the economic situation, with recession or stagnant growth and the racism described above is very similar to the way Jews were targeted across Europe in the early twentieth century and the 1930s. However the current political situation in Europe is not a repeat of the 1930s. While many fascist or far-right populist parties are polling high votes in some elections, and there are large street movements in some countries, it is unlikely that such parties can take power in the same way fascists movements did in the 1930s.
What lessons do you believe history provides in the fight against fascism?
There are several lessons. Firstly after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust were exposed, the whole world said, “never again.” Yet here we are in Europe experiencing the biggest growth of the far-right since the 1930s. Instead of conceding to the far-right’s agenda on racism, mainstream political parties should challenge the far-right on this and highlight the many positive benefits of immigrants.
For example, whereas immigration is often portrayed as having a detrimental effect on the economy, the reality is that immigration has in fact been an engine for economic growth. Also history shows us that we should show a sense of humanity to refugees and asylum seekers fleeing persecution and encourage a culture of respect and equality towards all human beings.
History has proved that economic policies such as austerity do not work and lead to a growth in support for far-right organizations. Therefore Europe must instead adopt a system that encourages economic growth and improves living standards for everyone.
And finally, history also shows us that when fascist groups are attempting to build, whether it is at the ballot box or on the streets, we cannot ignore them. We must organize and unite the broadest coalition against fascism: the trade unions, liberals, socialists, communists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Black, Asian, lesbian and gay communities, students and young people. Everyone stands to lose if fascists gain power, so we must unite the broadest section of society against it.
That unity is important. We should always remember the famous words of Pastor Niemoller, who spent the last years of his life in a Nazi concentration camp, who said:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”