Ever since the unprecedented European Union election results last May, the Internet has been awash with think-pieces on the supposed resurgence of nationalism in Europe. In fact, I almost wrote my own blog about how Europe seems to have developed its own 'Tea-Parties', movements with considerable grassroots support that denounce out-of-touch elites in Brussels, similar to the way in which Washington bureaucrats are chastised by their own population.
According to New York Times blogger Ross Douthat, public officials on both sides of the Atlantic are in part responsible for the flourishing of this new populist wave of discontent. For too long, writes Douthat, politicians of different stripes have preferred to enforce an "elite consensus instead of representing [their] own constituents wherever those constituents seem too disreputable or insufficiently cosmopolitan". The economic crisis has only exacerbated such technocratic tendencies.
The immediate consequences of technocratic governance in a democracy, however, is that, when citizens feel increasingly powerless to shape the political institutions that are meant to reflect their interests, they will inevitably rebuke the entire establishment.
Nowhere is this more visible than in Europe. In France, for example, nationalist poster girl Marine le Pen has garnered unprecedented support by tirelessly declaring that the country's two main parties, the conservative UMP and the socialist PS are in reality the same (the "UMPS" as she calls them). According to the leader of France's National Front (FN), who gained a record-breaking 25% of her country's vote in the EU elections, both mainstream parties are composed of the same elite who will continue to enact the same failed policies regardless of whether they're coming from the political 'right' or 'left'. President Hollande's recent rightward shift can be seen to only encourage this line of argument and the estrangement that many left-leaning French currently feel towards their governing elite.
While the rise of populism, or nationalism, in Europe has been well documented, there is an increasing volume of evidence that the more sinister shadow of fascism is casting itself over the old continent. As a disclaimer, I must mention that the last thing I want to be doing is scaremongering, joining the ranks of those perpetually imprisoned in World War II mindsets. Rather, the rise of European fascism is backed up quantitatively and makes qualitative sense for two reasons.
First, times of economic crisis always witness a rise in extreme nationalism and xenophobic behaviour, as those that stand out in any way - foreigners, gays, political activists - are convenient scapegoats for the disenchanted public. Indeed, when individuals find themselves drowning under the pressure of complicated external events they cannot control, they will often hark back to the traditional values of an idealized 'golden age'. Second, the disaffection with representative democracy and its clunky inefficiency that many feel across Europe, can easily lead to the desire for a strong leader, someone who can 'get things done'.
In the last 6 months alone, several parties with clear fascist leanings have made significant strides towards political power. The Hungarian Jobbik party won over 20% of the national vote in April and 15% of the EU vote despite one of their deputy chairmen once calling the holocaust a "holoscam". In Greece, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party, known for giving Hitler salutes and singing the Nazi anthem, gained 9% of their country's EU vote. Further East, the far right Ukrainian party Svoboda grabbed hold of several ministerial portolios in Kiev's post-revolution government. The list goes on...
Just as worryingly, xenophobic violence is on the rise. Germany's annual report on extremist anti-constitutional activities showed a 20% increase in racist attacks in 2013, with a 25% increase in anti-Semitic attacks. In a 2013 survey of over 5,000 Jewish Europeans by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, more than three quarters of respondents (76%) felt that anti-Semitism had worsened in their country over the last five years (see table).
If Jewish Europeans seem particularly attuned to a new rise of fascism in their continent, it is because memories of past atrocities remain all too vivid. In Sevastopol, for example, a memorial service was held on July 10 to commemorate the so-called 'Crimean Holocaust', where 4,200 Jews were murdered in 1942. As Ukraine's economic and political situation began to rapidly deteriorate late last year, Crimea saw a sharp increase in anti-Semitic acts, from the placing of two pig heads on a Sevastopol synagogue to spray-painting "Death to Jews" in Simferopol.
While Russia's actions in Crimea remain hotly contested in Western Europe, it is clear that Vladimir Putin's hard line on 'fascism' has comforted the region's Jewish community. The Russian President even went as far as to meet with a group of international rabbis in Moscow, thanking them and supporting their fight against a "revival of Nazi ideas".
Though Russia has trumpeted its goal of fighting fascism more or less continuously since the Second World War, many in Europe have assumed such an ideology to be definitively outmoded. Today, the West must figure out how to speak to disenfranchised citizens in a meaningful way, to show them that dysfunctional democracies can be reformed, and that directing political frustration at society's most vulnerable members is never a constructive way forward.