Some people in Europe want to ditch democracy and bring back dictatorship - and they're absolutely serious.
Last month, during a vacation that took us to Rome and the Amalfi Coast, an affable 27-year-old named Vincenzo chauffeured my wife and me to a private tour of Pompeii. “Vinnie,” as he preferred to be called, picked us up at our hotel on the coast and drove us over the Lattari Mountains to the site of the excavations, and then drove us back a couple of hours later. Vinnie’s English was excellent and he was eager to talk. As we discussed the economic and cultural situation in Italy, Vinnie aimed salvo after salvo of bitter invective at the government, the Italian economic elite, the international banking system, the European Union (including Germany, which dominates it), and even the United States. To my American ears, it all sounded like a classic left-wing critique, and I figured that Vinnie, like many Italians, must be a member of one of the Left parties descended from the Italian Communist Party, which dissolved in 1991. Until, that is, Vinny offered his solution. “What Italy needs,” he said, “is another Mussolini. And most people I know agree with me.”
Frankly, I was floored. I have never heard an American, of the right or left, seriously call for the rise of a dictator. I had never heard a European do so either. But then I recalled that the past seventy years of Western European democracy has been a historical outlier, forged in the crucible of the Second World War, and that the popular desire for the man on a white horse is a perennial temptation in Europe, particularly during periods of economic and social crisis. The tradition goes back at least to Julius Caesar, who combined populist politics with a cult of personality and martial glory to make himself dictator in perpetuum, thereby dealing a fatal blow to the Roman Republic. That same combination of elements was in play during the rise of Napoleon I at the turn of the 19th Century, and again in the 1930s with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and several lesser dictators.
Fortunately, Italy is not one of the countries immediately threatened by the re-emergence of this tradition; at least not in the short-term. Italy’s right wing is fractured and isolated, with little chance of taking power through the democratic process. There are questions about Beppe Grillo’s populist Five Star Movement, but the populist group seems anti-ideological at best, and Grillo himself is an unlikely candidate for the role of “new Mussolini.” Likewise in the United Kingdom, where the National Front, Britain’s strongest fascist party, currently holds no seats in Parliament and has no hope of gaining power. There is little support for neo-fascism in Spain, where many still remember life under the Franco regime. Most importantly of all, for all of us, Germany is presently devoid of a serious neo-fascist or neo-Nazi movement.
But elsewhere, especially on the periphery of the European Union, there are worrying signs of a fascist revival. Such movements are fueled by economic conditions, including Germany’s financial domination of the European Union, ethnic nationalism and popular anxiety about immigration, particularly from Africa and the Middle East. Some of these movements appear entirely peaceful – at least for now – while others have demonstrated a proclivity for violence. Some have even consciously sought to revive the fascist symbolism and mythology of the 20th Century. It behooves American observers to know where the danger lurks, and in what form. Here’s a partial review.
Given Greece’s dire economic situation and history of autocratic rule, it is perhaps no surprise that the country is home to Europe’s most virulent fascist movement. One party, Golden Dawn, received 7% of the popular vote in last year’s elections to the Hellenic Parliament, enough to garner 21 seats. Recent polls suggest the organization is now the third most popular party in Greece. But it is Golden Dawn’s street presence that is most disconcerting: the organization, founded in 1980 by Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is increasingly popular in parts of the country with large immigrant populations, including several important Athens neighborhoods. Golden Dawn has a reputation for both street violence and organized murder – Michaloliakos and a group of Golden Dawn officials were arrested in September on charges related to the murder of a Greek rapper – and the group deploys iconography and rhetoric highly reminiscent of the German Nazis. But Golden Dawn also provides services, such as distributing free food, that have ingratiated it with a large segment of the Greek population.
The Movement for a Better Hungary, popularly known as Jobbik, is a self-described “radical right-wing” party founded as a Christian student organization in 2002. Jobbik’s program is a combination of Hungarian ethnic nationalism and economic populism. It has a uniformed auxiliary, the New Hungarian Guard, which presents an intimidating presence at street protests and demonstrations. The Guard, like Golden Dawn in Greece, has been linked to numerous incidents of street violence. Jobbik is deeply anti-Semitic. Last year, a Jobbik parliamentarian called for the creation of a list of “all dangerous Jews who are posing threat to Hungarian national security.” And Jobbik recently unveiled a bronze statue of Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s wartime fascist leader who allied the nation with Nazi Germany and gave the SS free rein to round up Hungarian Jews. Despite this, the party is the third most popular in Hungary, with nearly 13% of the seats in the Hungarian parliament.
Unlike Germany, Austria has never fully dealt with its role in the rise and reach of Nazism. As a result, Austrian politics still include a strong flavor of right-wing nationalism and even fascism. The largest right-wing organization is the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), founded in 1956 by former Nazis and currently headed by Heinz Christian Strache. In the 2013 elections for Austria’s parliament – the National Council – the FPO won 21% of the vote, making it the third largest party, just 12 seats behind the leading social-democratic party. However, 42% of voters 30 and under supported the FPO, making it the most popular party with the young. The FPO’s principal concerns are social-cultural. The party is populist, anti-elitist, and anti-immigrant, and has long advocated overturning Austria’s ban on Nazi ideology and iconography. Like Hungary’s Jobbik, the FPO is affiliated with uniformed auxiliaries, the Burschenschaften or “fraternities.” But unlike the New Hungarian Guard, the Burschenschaften meet in secret in order to build and strengthen networks rather than engage in street activism.
In addition to those mentioned above, interested readers would do well to track developments involving the Danish People’s Party, which holds 25 seats in the 179-seat Danish parliament; the Dutch Freedom Party, led by the anti-Islamist Geert Wilders; the Slovak National Party in the Slovak Republic; and France’s National Front, now headed by Marine Le Pen, daughter of the legendary right-wing politician and National Front co-founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Like the original, neo-fascism is almost impossible to describe in strictly ideological or programmatic terms. Historically, it has ranged from the blood and soil romanticism of the Nazis to Mussolini’s economic “corporatism.” Though identified as a right-wing phenomenon, most fascist regimes are populist, not aristocratic, and feature a heavy dose of both social and economic collectivism. Perhaps their most definitive feature is their reactionary character: fascism is almost always a response to a perceived loss of prestige, independence, and social morality. As a result, the themes of regaining respect, restoring self-determination, and rooting out degeneracy typically accompany the growth of fascist movements. Is there a fascist revival in Europe today? Our experience with Vinnie, our young Neapolitan driver, and other frustrated Italians suggests there may be.
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