Weimar Moment

Fascism Is Fashionable Again in Europe

Reactionary conservative candidates did alarmingly well in recent elections for the European Parliament. Is this a passing phase or a portent of something more serious?

Sean Gallup/Getty

Fascism is back in fashion nearly all throughout Europe. Elections for the European Parliament, with ballots cast in 28 countries, produced a startling victory for the sort of political parties that are normally not invited to fashionable parties.

In some countries, like France, where fashion always matter, the voters gave the boorish National Front the largest share of votes. Similar extreme right-wing sentiment fueled the electoral outcome in England, where the United Kingdom Independence Party outpolled all other parties. In both countries, extremists captured more than a quarter of the vote.

Things were only slightly better in Austria, Denmark, and Sweden. In Hungary, the demonstrably anti-Semitic Jobbik party finished second. In Greece, the Golden Dawn party, a neo-Nazi outfit that dresses in what looks like Nazi uniforms, captured seats for the first time. Even in Germany, where Nazi memorabilia and romanticism are outlawed, a neo-fascist claimed a seat.

All across the Atlantic the fringe is looking more and more like the mainstream. These groups are generally united in their thuggery and xenophobia. Openly racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Semitic feelings seem to be the first plank atop each party’s platform. To be sure, economic recession, the ongoing European debt crisis, and high unemployment contributed to this dash toward extremism, but anti-foreigner rhetoric ultimately dominated the campaigns.

Hating the other has become a European rallying cry.

These parliamentary results, however, were not that difficult to predict for anyone paying attention to the vulgar events that have overtaken the continent lately. This past September, in Greece, a man sympathetic to Golden Dawn’s stump speeches murdered Pavlos Fyssas, a left-wing rapper better known by his hip-hop handle, Killah P. Like the storm troopers of old, Golden Dawn—the fastest growing party in Greece—can’t seem to make an appearance without a riot breaking out, openly invoking Nazism and Hitler as their primary political influences. They even have a logo that resembles a swastika.

A Belgian political party, Stand Up Belges! has gained followers. A day before the elections, three people were murdered (and one critically wounded) at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. Less than a month earlier, there was a planned “gathering of dissidents” featuring an assortment of Nazi-envy characters. The protest was banned but not before the crowd performed the quenelle en masse, popularized by French comic Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala. The gesture has become a trendy symbol among those who would otherwise fetishize Heil Hitler.

Speaking of Dieudonne, he has been convicted seven times in France for preaching anti-Semitism and boasts a personal friendship with Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the National Front. Dieudonne’s act has included dressing up as a rabbi and giving a Nazi salute. Recently on stage he warned a French-Jewish radio host, “if winds change … I think to myself, well, the gas chambers … too bad.” On February 1, his supporters held a demonstration purportedly against the French president, but the protest descended into an old-school pogrom when the crowd chanted: “Jew, France is not yours!”

Such are the polemics of European hate, which no one takes seriously until it’s time to take it seriously. The economic conditions and political landscape throughout the continent is starting to look a lot like the ’30s, which, despite what Winston Churchill said about his own country at the time, was not Europe’s “finest hour.” A good thing Churchill didn’t live to see the United Kingdom Independence Party.

Not all of these political parties are avowedly fascistic. The Danish People’s Party, for instance, has removed extremists from its ranks. And despite the resounding victory, these new wave hatemongers will still not have enough seats to overtake the European Parliament. Nonetheless, this populist insurgency that culminated in a parliamentary shakeup is not something to be casually dismissed, even if it’s not quite the second coming of the Nazis.

After all, does anyone doubt what would happen if any of these parties actually came to power? It wouldn’t be the first time that a parliament went out of business or possessed about as much authority as the parks department. Remember the Reichstag? There’s no joke in a new assembly of parliamentarians who wouldn’t think twice about eliminating the very democratic institutions that enabled them to improve their political fortunes.

Is it progressive for Europeans to enable fascists to exploit xenophobic feelings and claim seats at the parliamentary table, or is it suicide?

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Let’s put it this way: Short of the ideal brown shirt putsch, neo-Nazis love liberal democracy because free elections give them a voice in the political process and a potential license to create undemocratic, illiberal societies. Civil liberties give them the right to express themselves in ways that bring emotional and physical harm to minority groups.

Governments throughout Europe are having their Weimer moment—déjà vu with potentially ruinous consequences. While not necessarily a return to the fashionable fascism of the ’30s, given the anti-immigrant sentiment, hateful rhetoric and occasional violence that foreshadowed these recent elections, they might portend something far worse than merely a temporary rightward shift in European governance.