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Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown

All across the continent, economies are in a tailspin as the numbers of young, jobless men swell. Are we on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s?

A spectre is haunting Europe: the spectre of unemployment. At the latest count, there were almost 25 million people in the member states of the European Union without a job, an increase of two million on the same point in the previous year. This is well over 10 per cent of the workforce, and in some countries the situation is much worse. At the top of the list is Spain, with 25 per cent unemployed, followed by Greece, with nearly 23 per cent. Particularly hard-hit are the young. In Greece and Spain more than half the workforce below the age of 25 is without a job. The youth unemployment rate across the EU is running at 22 per cent. And there are no signs of the upward trend being reversed.

At the same time, openly neo-Nazi parties are on the rise. In Greece, the Golden Dawn movement shot from nowhere to win 21 seats in the legislature at the May election and 18 in the rerun election a few weeks later, attracting nearly 7 per cent of the popular vote. The party’s flag is black, white and red, like that of the original Nazi Party in Germany, with a swastika-like emblem at the centre (Golden Dawn denies any resemblance and claims that the symbol is a “Greek meander”). Not only has it issued threats of violence against parliamentary deputies who oppose its policies but it has also been involved in numerous violent incidents across Greece. During the campaign, television viewers were treated to the spectacle of a party spokesman assaulting two female politicians during a live debate. In 2012, it campaigned on the election slogan “So we can rid this land of filth”.

Golden Dawn is not the only openly neo-fascist party to gain support recently. In Hungary, Jobbik, founded in 2003, uses a flag resembling that of the Arrow Cross movement, which was put in power by the German occupiers of Hungary in 1944 and butchered so many thousands of Jews that even the police, who were busy rounding up Jews for deportation to Auschwitz, complained about the dead bodies lying in the streets of Budapest. In the 2010 elections, campaigning under the slogan “Hungary belongs to the Hungarians”, Jobbik shot from nowhere to become the third-largest party nationally, securing 16.67 per cent of the vote. It has close links with the paramilitary Hungarian Guard, outlawed in 2009 by a court order that continues to be flouted. One of its policies is the revision of the Treaty of Trianon, which, under the peace settlement at the end of the First World War, reduced the size of Hungary by two-thirds to help create viable successor states. Jobbik wants much of the old territory back and condemns the mainstream parties for not taking advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the break-up of Czechoslovakia and the Balkan wars to do so in the 1990s.

Anti-Semitism is one of the most obvious distinguishing features of leading members of Jobbik. One of its deputies recently raised again, in parliament, a blood-libel case from 1882 in which 15 Jews were tried for the supposed murder of a teenage Christian girl just before Passover. They were eventually acquitted, but the deputy claimed all the same: “The Jewry and the leadership of the country were severely implicated in the case.”

A female legal academic who soon afterwards won election to the European Parliament on the Jobbik ticket is reported to have  responded to criticism with the following diatribe: “I would be greatly pleased if those who call themselves proud Hungarian Jews played in their leisure with their tiny circumcised dicks, instead of besmirching me. Your kind of people are used to seeing all of our kind of people stand to attention and adjust to you every time you fart. Would you kindly acknowledge this is now over. We have raised our head up high and we shall no longer tolerate your kind of terror. We shall take back our country.”

Ground control

While Golden Dawn and Jobbik are probably the most extreme of the parties that have entered the mainstream, there are many other signs that the economic crisis has helped garner support for the far right across Europe. In France, the Front National won 18 per cent of the vote in this year’s presidential election. Its platform has included at various times the reintroduction of the death penalty, the repatriation of immigrants and the introduction of customs borders, which means it wants France to leave the EU. Its long-time leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, father of the party’s current leader, Marine Le Pen, repeatedly referred to the Holocaust as a “mere detail” in the history of the Second World War. In Italy, the election in 2008 of the mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, was celebrated by crowds chanting, “Duce! Duce!” and raising their arms in the fascist salute.

All this seems disturbingly reminiscent of the previous depression that hit Europe in the 1930s and brought Hitler to power. Commentators have not been slow to notice the parallels. National humiliation of the kind that Jobbik claims has been suffered by Hungary since the Treaty of Trianon was felt by the Nazis, too, in the harsh restrictions placed on Germany at the same time by the Treaty of Versailles. Mass unemployment was also a feature of German society in the early 1930s, the graph of Nazi electoral support rising in tandem with the graph of unemployment rates. Nazism, too, blamed the mainstream political parties for the disastrous state of the economy, and its dynam­ism also proved particularly attractive to the young – first-time voters were a large proportion of its supporters at the polls.

Territorial expansionism, economic protectionism, assaults on the rights of minorities, anti-Semitism, paramilitary violence and inflammatory rhetoric were all features of the Nazi Party, as they were of many other fascist parties that sprang up across Europe in the interwar years. They seem to have re-emerged with disturbing suddenness in the early 21st century as economic crisis has hit the continent.

We need to be careful about facile historical parallels. In the first place, despite superficial resemblances, the situation in Germany in the early 1930s was very different from the present one. Unemployment was far higher, with at least 35 per cent of the workforce out of a job, and while such figures meant that inevitably many of the Nazis’ supporters had no work, the real political voice of the jobless was the Communist Party, which continued to garner more electoral support in the second half of 1932 even as the Nazis began to lose it (their weakness was a significant reason why conservative politicians thought they could control them and so agreed to the appointment of Hitler as head of a coalition government in January 1933, one of the biggest political miscalculations in history).

Unemployment doesn’t translate directly into political extremism. More generally, it translates into apathy. Observers in Berlin in the early 1930s noted youths spending their time travelling aimlessly round the city’s suburban railway on the circle line, playing football all day in the parks, or sitting around listlessly at home. For a minority, political activism linked to violence became a way out, but this could be just as much on the left as on the right. In Greece today, many of the unemployed support Syriza, the dynamic new party of the radical left. Unemployment and economic crisis are eroding the base of centrist parties just as they did in the Weimar Republic, but, like then, they feed the growth of radical parties at both extremes, not just on the right.

Where extremism flourishes, political violence is never far away, and the desire for a restoration of public order can often play into the hands of right-wing politicians who, as Hitler did, promise to end the chaos on the streets, even though, like Hitler, they were one of the main forces behind it in the first place. It is no surprise to learn that a large proportion of the police force in  Athens – perhaps as much as 50 per cent – voted for Golden Dawn in the 6 May election.

Yet, looking at the countries where far-right parties are now gaining support, it quickly becomes clear that a correlation with high unemployment rates is not always apparent. Where is the neo-fascist movement in, say, Spain, the country with the highest unemployment and, above all, one of the two highest youth unemployment rates in Europe? Despite continuing efforts by some to keep green the memory of Francisco Franco, the murderous dictator who ruled Spain for decades after the civil war of the 1930s, neo-fascist parties are almost infinitesimally small, and the two leading mainstream parties of the right and left still managed to win nearly three-quarters of the vote in the general election of 2011.

On the other hand, France, where the far right has been notably successful in electoral terms, has a relatively low and fairly stable unemployment rate, at roughly 10 per cent. Moreover, the electoral successes of the Front National began before the present crisis; the same can be said of post-fascist politics in Italy. Elsewhere, just as unemployment has risen, far-right parties have started to decline, as demonstrated by the example of the BNP here in Britain.

Much depends on the place of the past in political culture. History never repeats itself, and the main reason why it doesn’t is that people know what happened last time. Thus, they make adjustments to their behaviour to prevent things they didn’t like in the past from happening again. This is at its most obvious in Germany, where neo-Nazi parties have been banned and Holocaust denial is illegal. German unemployment rates are among the lowest in Europe, but even if they were not, the rise of an openly neo-fascist party to electoral success would be opposed by the majority and would probably incur a legal ban.

Where the memory of murderous conflict is relatively recent, as in Spain, the desire to avoid it happening again is very strong. The vast majority of Greeks – including those who voted for Syriza – still seem to want to stay in the eurozone, so they voted in a viable mainstream government rather than turning further to the far right in the most recent election. The central issues are not those raised by neo-fascists, but bread-and-butter challenges of austerity cuts, tax rises and job losses.

Surface level

The far right is as aware of history as anyone else, maybe even more so. It realises how easy it is for others to rob it of political legitimacy by labelling it as Nazi. As such, all the present-day movements of the extreme right, or at least those who are interested in gaining supporters, repudiate labels such as “neo-Nazi” or “neo-fascist” and adapt to the conditions of present-day democracy, at least on the surface.

Often they send a double message to voters, on the one hand distancing themselves from the fascist past in their speeches and programmes, on the other hand hinting at it in their visual imagery and public rituals. A large element of neo-fascism consists of a repudiation of the political system that its leaders blame for the present crisis, so an important part of its appeal is as protest. And what better way of protesting against parliamentary democracy and mainstream political parties than flying a flag with a symbol reminiscent of a political organisation that notoriously repudiated these things?

On the other hand, the paramilitary violence so characteristic of mass fascist movements in the interwar years hasn’t resurfaced so far on a large scale, and parties of the far right no longer regard daily mass marches of uniformed storm troopers through the streets as a central political tactic. In comparison to the post-First World War era, when every other man on the street in most European countries seemed to be wearing a uniform, we live in a predominantly civilian society, and neo-fascism has had to adjust to this.

In most European countries, neo-fascism has adapted by focusing on new issues, leaving behind the old staples of anti-Semitism, territorial expansion, militarism and corporate organisation of the economy. Occasionally they can be glimpsed in the background, but they are not the central platforms for the neo-fascist parties. For almost all of them, immigration is paramount, sometimes mixed with the assertion of Christian values against Islam (a far cry from German Nazism’s hostility to the churches) and homophobia (a far more prominent issue than it was for the fascists of the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps in reaction to the intervening legalisation of homosexuality).

At the same time, in some cases, such as Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, far-right parties, in justifying their vilification of Muslims, whether immigrants or not, have claimed to represent core democratic values such as freedom of speech, thus turning democracy’s principles against those same values. Where Islamists can demand the censorship of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, Islamophobes can win significant popular support by claiming to speak up for western values of tolerance and openness. It’s not for nothing that Wilders’s party is called the Party for Freedom. At the same time, Wilders shows his true colours by calling for the banning of the Quran in the Netherlands, a halt to the construction of new mosques, and the ending of all immigration from Muslim countries.

As Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goeb­bels wrote after the fall of the Weimar Republic, “It will always remain one of democracy’s best jokes that it provided its deadly enemies with the means by which it was destroyed.” It is important that democracy in the early 21st century does not let itself be undermined by those who do not share its values but would cynically use its rhetoric.

Islamophobia, as the PVV’s policies suggest, is closely linked to hostility to immigration, among other things. However, immigration is not an issue in Hungary, where it has been minimal, and so Jobbik has directed its hostility instead against groups within Hungary, most notably gypsies, whom the party portrays as engaged in a crime wave. Municipalities where the party is strong have set up vigilante squads to combat “gypsy crime”, with results that hardly need spelling out. Jobbik has demanded that the gypsies be put in “public order protection camps” – concentration camps by any other name. And yet, for right-wing Hungarian nationalists, the plight of their country is above all the product of machinations by international Jewish liberals. All this offloading of resentment is not the result of particularly high unemployment (in Hungary it stands at 11 per cent, modest by present European standards). Indeed, on the whole, Jobbik’s young activists and supporters are not the destitute unemployed, but rather well educated and middle class.

The rise of the Hungarian far right is far more a consequence of the suddenness and depth of the economic depression into which the country was plunged from 2008 onwards. Before it hit, unemployment was almost unknown and there was a general atmosphere of post-Communist optimism. But as most people began to blame the left-wing government of the day for the economic collapse – more severe and more sudden than almost anywhere else in Europe apart from Iceland – the search for scapegoats quickly got under way.

Day of mourning

Thus far, mainstream conservative parties have managed to place severe constraints on the electoral potential of the far right by adopting many of their policies. In Hungary, the right-wing Fidesz government has taken the wind out of Jobbik’s sails by repudiating the Treaty of Trianon and inaugurating a national day of mourning on its anniversary. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been pursuing the idea of a “European gypsy strategy”, and his new, authoritarian constitution, which took effect on 1 January, has declared Hungary to be a Christian nation and defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman. He has also launched a blistering verbal attack on EU interference in Hungarian affairs. All this is music to the ears of voters who might otherwise flock to the banner of the ultra right.

In other parts of Europe, where immigration is the central issue for the far right, government and mainstream opposition parties have been falling over themselves to introduce fresh restrictions and boast of their patriotism. Civil liberties have been curbed by stealth in the name of the war on terror, taking the wind out of the sails of far-right parties that see democracy as excessively weak and tolerant. History is being recruited as a tool to build an exclusive, aggressive sense of national identity that can all too easily spill over into xenophobia and that more than satisfies the demands of radical nationalists. The biggest threat to democratic values is not so much the rise of the neo-fascist right in itself, dangerous though that is, as the influence it is exerting on pushing mainstream parties in the same direction.

Fuelling all these disturbing developments has been a programme of exaggerated and unnecessary austerity, imposed on one European country after another, whether within the eurozone or – as with the UK – outside it. There seems little realisation that cutting government expenditure reduces demand and sends the economy into a tailspin, reducing tax revenues and prompting further government cuts.

That, roughly, is what happened in Germany in 1930-33. What is happening now is something related but different, a new threat for a new era. It’s not that unemployment leads directly to the rise of fascism. The social crisis that led to the present policies of austerity reaches far wider. Businesses go bankrupt, banks crash, civil servants are sacked, pay is cut, benefits are slashed, public services are shattered. It is not just the young, or the unemployed, who are affected. The whole of society is affected by it. No wonder political extremism is on the rise. Robbing people of hope for their future leads them to search for scapegoats, whether within their own countries or outside. And the hatred that this breeds can all too easily threaten to undermine the foundations of a tolerant and democratic political culture.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and is the author of “The Third Reich in Power 1933-39” (Penguin, £12.99)

See also: Daniel Trilling's introduction to the far right parties of Europe.

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University, and the author of The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr