The final part of this Blog Series looks at the rise of the far-right in Europe: Is inequality fuelling the rise of the racist right in Europe?
blog | series | politics | conspiracy theory | fake news
I've always been fascinated by and extremely afraid of the far-right. The ideas and opinions they espouse are so abhorrent to me, that I've spent some time trying to understand how people can fall for them. How are individuals led to believe that the hatred of others is justification enough for violence and in many cases, murder? As a Brit, I come from a country that has just voluntarily left the EU, amid a reported increase in hate crimes against ethnic minorities, the LGBTQI community and many "others". I currently live in Berlin; a city in a country with one of (if not the) worst records of far-right violence and politics in modern history. In this blog post I will look at the rise of the right across the continent, and how our current situation has sinister echoes of the past.
Europe's recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 has been slow, and if current reports are anything to go by, we could be heading for a new crash; exacerbated by the rapidly-spreading Coronavirus. Public dissatisfaction with democracy is at an all-time low, with 60.3% of UK voters saying that they are dissatisfied with the way that democracy is working. The last time this level of unhappiness with the government was recorded, was during the Winter of Discontent in 1978-79.
Steep levels of democratic dissatisfaction have been recorded in high-income economies, such as western Europe and the US, with rising income inequalities leading to increased feelings of unhappiness with the democratic process. The 2016 Brexit vote was seen as a protest against austerity and a reaction to what voters saw as unregulated immigration in a country that was already full to bursting. The Euroscepticism surrounding the UK's decision to free itself of the shackles of the EU, began its rapid ascent back in 2005, which as Matthijs Roduijn and his colleagues from the University of Amsterdam report in a new PopuList project, can be attributed to the election of Poland's Law & Justice (PiS) party, Hungary's Fidesz, the support of the Five Star Movement in Italy, Germany's AFD and Podemos in Spain. One in three Europeans voted for parties that are critical of the EU and have right-wing tendencies, although in a huge contradiction, 68% of those polled in a Eurobarometer survey last year reported feeling that EU countries overall had benefited from being a member.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, people's attitudes to immigrants have not changed dramatically over the past few years, however, far-right parties have been gaining more and more votes all over the continent. How do these conflicting opinions go together and translate into increasing support for the far-right?
All the pale horses of the apocalypse have stormed through my life, revolution, starvation, devaluation of currency and terror, epidemics, emigration; I have seen the great ideologies of the masses grow and spread out before my eyes.
Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany, Bolshevism in Russia, and, above all,that archpestilence, nationalism, which poisoned
our flourishing European culture.
Stefan Zwieg | The World of Yesterday | 1942
The modern right-wing, populist parties in Europe, such as Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France, have taken note of the changing face of European politics and have re-branded themselves as something that appears, outwardly at least, more moderate. Cutting ties with extremists and taking advantage of voters' loyalties changing, while keeping their programmes as radical as they ever were. Media reports about immigration see voters inundated with information and news stories, such as Brexit and the refugee crisis, making the issue of immigration seem like a much bigger problem than it really is.
Many voters feel more comfortable voting for these re-branded populist parties, than would have been possible in the past. This is great for democracy, as more people are, in fact, voting. Their voting choices are based on rational thought processes. They are voting for parties who express the same ideas that they personally feel are important. This is, however, another contradiction. These right-wing parties hold many views that are incompatible with our liberal core democratic values. Values we have fought hard to achieve, such as pluralism and the protection of minorities. Poland and Hungary can once again be used to highlight this issue, with their right-wing governments destroying their (once) liberal democracies.
Between 2016-17, the Center for International & Strategic Studies reported that right-wing violence had increased by 43% in Europe. As in the other blog posts in this series, the statistics surrounding right-wing violence cannot always be relied upon to give an accurate picture of the problem. The issue of classification is once again in question. For example, Islamic Jihadism is considered terrorism, and shares many of the same ideologies as far-right organisations, however, far-right violence does not always fall into the terrorism category and therefore the threat does not seem as big and does not receive as much media coverage.
Data from 1990-2017, shows the German Federal Criminal Police (BKD) recording 83 victims of right-wing violence. Non-governmental organisations recorded 169 incidents for the same period. I'm not going to look at the potential complicity of police forces in this post, but it is worth keeping it in mind that it is often found that small pockets of law enforcement have far-right connections. (the NSU attacks between 2000-2007 are a good example of this).
During the refugee crisis of 2015, there was a dramatic increase in right-wing attacks in Germany, with arson attacks escalating significantly. Attacks carried out by Muslim terrorists receive, on average, more than 357% more media coverage, further inflaming the idea that immigrants are to blame for the perceived rise in crime.
Western Europe has the most extensive history of right-wing violence, and since the Breivik attacks in Norway and the NSU trials in Germany, violence committed by those on the right has been steadily increasing. Although the threat is still lower than 20-30 years ago, the numbers do not make for easy reading. According to Ehud Sprinzak's Theory of Delegitimization, the road to violence within a terrorist network, with special emphasis on right-wing violence, follows three steps:
- A crisis of confidence - a loss of confidence with the political leadership.
- A conflict of legitimacy - a loss of confidence with the political system.
- A crisis of legitimacy - the de-humanisation of everyone involved in the political system.
It's obvious to me that we are reaching step 3 at an all too alarming rate, with refugees and citizens with migrant backgrounds being used by politicians as bargaining chips, taking the brunt of the blame for the financial disaster we have yet to fully recover from. People's loss of faith in the traditional democratic institutions and political systems has led to the increase in votes for people like Orbán, Le Pen, Salvini, Wilders, Duda, Johnson and of course, Trump on the other side of the Atlantic.
All of these politicians have adopted the language of the far-right, especially when it comes to immigration and religion. Historically, we see a surge in violence on the right when certain groups feel insecure or threatened in their own environments. Populist movements like to increase the level of provocation, constantly informing the voting population who our real "enemy" is and following the narrative that things are worse because of the new people coming into the country; people who don't look like us, or believe in the same god as us.
Greece, Hungary & Germany
Democracy first appeared in ancient Greek political and philosophical thought somewhere around 508-507 BC. Today, the population of Greece has become so disappointed and disaffected with democracy and their own government, that this spring will see the conclusion of the biggest Nazi trial since Nuremberg. The rise of the Golden Dawn in Greece, a party driven purely by extreme racism, antisemitism and an unwavering devotion to Hitler and the Third Reich, means that Europe is forced confront this very real problem and ask itself - "How could this happen again?".
Members of Golden Dawn are charged with numerous crimes including Racketeering, possession of weapons and murder. Starting on the outskirts of Athens in the early 80s and recruiting members from the football hooligan scene, following the financial crisis of 2008, which hit Greece the hardest, Golden Dawn began to mobilise and set up "angry citizens" groups. In these "safe spaces", citizens could go to vent their grievances with immigrants, who they believed were responsible for the rise of crime in their neighbourhoods. The residents blamed migrants for the economic turmoil of 2008 and members of Golden Dawn would frequently attack people of Pakistani, Afghan or west African descent. Attacks on immigrants escalated, becoming more and more violent. The EU-imposed austerity measures, wage stagnation and extreme cuts to public spending saw an explosion of public anger on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, with public protests being curtailed by riot police and teargas.
An Al-Jazeera documentary called "Prejudice & Pride In Hungary" follows a group of young Hungarians who have joined far-right and neo-Nazi groups, such as the Highwaymen's Army. Groups that believe that their way of life is under threat from Islam, Jews and the LGBTQI communities.
"I feel like I have to fight... for my country... there is a war against the white race."
Botond | Prejudice & Pride In Hungary | Al-Jazeera
Hungary, much like Greece, suffered terribly at the hand of the Nazis. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communist rule, the Hungarian economy shrank by 20% and took another 10 years to reach pre-1989 levels. Along came the global economic collapse of 2008, and with it went the Hungarian currency. Many Hungarians had taken out mortgages in Euros and the cost of the repayments shot up overnight. A hatred of "others", in particular the Jews and a deep Euroscepticism began to take over. Young people started to join far-right organisations as a way to feel connected, part of a group, to achieve a sense of belonging. Eventually they started to believe the rhetoric and the radicalisation process was set in motion.
In Germany, government figures indicate that the first half of 2019 saw almost 9,000 attacks carried out by far-right groups or individuals. This is an increase of more than 900 from the same period in the previous year. Asylum seekers are the main targets of the violence, with research from VBRG showing that three right-wing, racist or antisemitic attacks took place on a daily basis in the federal states of Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony. Figures from the German Interior Ministry report that there are approximately 24,000 far-right extremists in the country, with some 12,700 inclined towards violence. An increase of 50% since 2017.
It's all too easy and convenient to blame the rise of the right in Germany on Merkel's policy to open the borders in 2015; but the far-right in Germany has never gone away, despite what many people and politicians would like to think. The government's reaction to this threat has been slow, and some can argue, deliberately so as many members of the political elite and branches of law enforcement are members of or sympathise with the cause. Despite Germany's history and the inspiring way they have dealt with their past, now is not the time to be complacent. Real action is needed to help combat what has the potential to become an even bigger problem in the future.
A new report by the UK-based advocacy group, Hope Not Hate, has heavily criticised social media for the role it plays in the spread of hate speech.
"They have become an organ of radicalisation instead of taking responsibility, for that is the way their algorithms work".
Yvette Cooper | Labour Chair, Commons Select Committee
The language and messages that once belonged solely to the far-right are now part of mainstream political parlance. The politicians on the right of the ever-widening political divide, have increasingly adopted the notion of a "cultural war", with anti-Muslim, anti-migrant and anti-women rhetoric being espoused from (what feels like) all corners of the globe.
Although the far-right movement in the UK is relatively small at the moment, this could be because anti-Muslim sentiment has been normalised by the current government under the leadership of Boris Johnson, with his references to women in burkas as letterboxes among other such derogatory comments. There is no need for a party of such extremes, when the leader of the ruling party and columnists in mainstream publications adopt the language of the right to embrace and promote anti-Muslim viewpoints.
The far-right has managed to tap into society's anxieties and the lack of control many individuals feel particularly about the future. They portray themselves as the victims of a culture of political correctness that has gone too far, exclaiming that they and their followers are the losers in a system run by the liberal establishment which encourages and promotes gender equality, feminism and progressive politics. Certain, particularly disturbing organisations operating across the European continent, openly encourage domestic abuse, rape and incest, in a worrying trend that frequently uses sexual violence as a political tool.
Hate crimes in the UK rose 10% from 91,121 in 2018 to 103,379 in 2019. Of the offences recorded, 78,991 were racially motivated. Part of this increase can be attributed to major improvements made to the way that crimes are recorded. The largest increase in hate crimes in the UK were against the LGBTQI community, which saw an escalation of 25% with 14,491 incidents being reported last year. The latest figures from the Home Office for terrorist-related offences for 2019, saw that 118 white people were arrested, compared to 92 who were of Asian or ethnic appearance. For the first time, the number of terrorist-related incidents with a right-wing motivation has surpassed Islamist extremism. The two types of terrorism share many similarities, the most obvious being that both groups consist predominantly of males under the age of 25 who like to operate alone; using online platforms to reach their audiences and working without any direct hierarchical command structure.
A Real Threat?
There are very few in-depth studies about right-wing terrorism, with some academics suggesting that this lack of expertise could be dangerous when it comes to assessing the threat the far-right poses; both at home and on the international stage.
Peaks in right-wing violence often follow jihadist attacks, such as the 2015 Paris attack at the Bataclan. In the immediate aftermath of this tragedy, the National Rally (Front National as they were known at the time) took 30% of the national vote in elections the month after the attack. After the London bombings in 2005, police reported a six-fold increase in right-wing violence directed towards the Muslim community. Xenophobia and anti-immigration movements have increased in almost all European countries.
Extremists of all persuasions are increasingly turning to violence. Their aims are the same. To plant the seeds of division within a society and spread hate of the "other". Those involved in far-right terrorism are getting younger and more dangerous; and with the internet now a powerful tool in extremist networks, engaging with far-right politics can now be done from the comfort of your own home. Videos posted on YouTube, tweets, far-right websites are all now involved in the dissemination of right-wing ideologies and provide meeting spaces for those involved in the movement to share ideas and plans of attack.
The 2019 attacks at two Mosques in Christchurch, took the idea of live-streaming atrocities to a new level of depravity, and this has become the new MO of far-right terrorists, including the uploading of their manifestos. The idea behind this is to influence others to go out and commit more attacks, initiating a race war in the hopes of saving the white, European race from extinction by the Jews and the Muslims and preventing the introduction of Shariah Law. These videos and manifestos of hate are rapidly spread online by members of far-right groups and also by regular individuals who are simply led by curiosity to see what videos are presently trending on various social media platforms.
The frequently used references to video game chat rooms and the gamer-slang employed by these individuals, leads me to think that the lines between reality and their invented online personas have been blurred. These attacks are perceived as entertainment and their mass killing sprees are a way to carry out revenge on the world by eradicating those responsible for the failures in their own lives with the promotion of armed resistance. Social media and tech companies have a responsibility to prevent their platforms from being used for these detestable purposes and should be held to account if they aid terrorism.
The European Parliamentary elections in May 2019 saw far-right parties gain a number of seats. Not as many as predicted or feared, but the fact that they managed to grow is still worrying. We shouldn't lose sight of the real threat these groups and individuals pose.
Hatred is a reaction to fear. It feels like we've become very comfortable with the idea of hating one another, for fear of actually opening up a discussion and finding that we have more in common that we ever thought possible.
As Stefan Zweig wrote in his poignant, autobiographical novel, The World Of Yesterday:
"Nationalism emerged to agitate the world only after the war, and the fist visible phenomenon which this intellectual epidemic of our century brought about was xenophobia;
morbid dislike of the foreigner, or at least fear of the foreigner.
The world was on the
defensive against strangers, everywhere they got short shrift".
History is on the verge of repeating itself, let's not be complacent about it. Read Stefan Zweig's book to see the comparison between the inter-war years and the present day, and don't forget that refugees and all of those "others" our politicians and right-wing groups want us to hate are not to blame for the economic situation. It's too simple to blame them and not look any deeper into the rabbit hole to see the real cause of the problem.
Our media and our politicians have helped foster in this environment of mistrust, but this can be changed, the fear removed and trust restored. This is not the time to give up.