IN a speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day last week, the Israeli army’s deputy chief of staff offered his compatriots an uncomfortable reminder.
“If there’s something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance,” Maj-Gen Yair Golan noted, “it’s the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then — 70, 80 and 90 years ago — and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016.”
He added: “There is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate. There is nothing easier than to behave like an animal and to act sanctimoniously.” Golan’s intervention stirred a predictable response in Israel: there was some support for his words, but it was almost drowned out by vituperative, and occasionally hysterical, condemnation. Inevitably, some have demanded his dismissal.
For all that, drawing parallels between the European mindset that facilitated the Holocaust and current trends in Israeli society is a somewhat less fraught enterprise in Israel today than it is across much of Europe; more than one commentator has noted, for instance, that had Golan been a member of the British Labour Party, his comments would have warranted his immediate suspension.
There is growing support for right-wing extremism.
It is not just Israel, though, that should be alert to the echoes of the 1920s-30s. The political processes unfolding in Europe — a combination of economic despair and a rising tide of xenophobia — ought to be ringing far more alarm bells than has thus far been the case.
The series of profoundly worrying developments continued last month with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer taking the lead in the first round of his country’s presidential election. The sense of impending crisis was exacerbated on Monday by the unexpected resignation of the country’s social democratic chancellor, Werner Faymann.
Post-war Austria has hitherto elected only mainstream conservative or social democratic presidents. For the first time, neither of those parties is in contention: on May 22, Hofer faces a run-off against Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green running as an independent. The presidency is a largely ceremonial post, but with potential political powers that Hofer has vowed to exercise.
In Germany, meanwhile, the relatively new Alternative fur Deutschland party, which demonstrated its growing popular appeal in three state elections in March, has adopted an explicitly anti-Muslim platform. Its leader, Frauke Petry, has in the past suggested that German border guards should be permitted to shoot refugees. It is complemented by the Pegida movement, which tends to demonstrate its power on the streets.
A refusal to perceive in these phenomena echoes of the Nazi past would require a remarkable blindness to recent history. To their credit, plenty of Germans seem to be well aware of this, and mobilisations by the far right frequently attract counter-demonstrators in far larger numbers. That rarely occurs to the east of Germany, however, and much of the greatest cause for alarm emanates from nations where the extreme right is either already in power or thrives on state backing.
The administration of Viktor Orban in Hungary offers perhaps the worst instance of neo-fascist tendencies, and it thrives on the support of the racist Jobbik party, which won more than 20pc of the vote in the 2014 general election. Orban shares the view of his Slovak counterpart, Robert Fico, Europe must defend its “Christian heritage”. Fico is ostensibly a social democrat, but on crucial issues his views coincide with those of Marian Kotleba, the leader of People’s Party-Our Slovakia, who until recently paraded about in a Nazi-era uniform.
In Poland, authoritarian tendencies are on the rise under the ruling Law and Justice Party, whose leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has accused refugees of bringing “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna”. Similar rhetoric is increasingly common throughout the continent.
From France to Russia, there is hardly a country in Europe that does not register growing support for organised right-wing extremism, all too often with mainstream conservative and social democratic parties — not least François Hollande’s Socialists and hitherto progressive parties across Scandinavia — shamelessly pandering to xenophobia and other deleterious tendencies.
Last year’s massive refugee influx is obviously a key factor behind this trend, as are the recent terrorist attacks in Brussels and Paris, not to mention the appalling criminal assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. Let’s not forget, though, that extremist tendencies manifested themselves much earlier in 21st-century Europe: the Austrian Freedom Party entered government as a coalition partner at the turn of the century.
Although many of the far-right parties include a distaste for the European Union in their smorgasbord of pet hates, which feature the Roma people, Jews, Muslims and especially Muslim refugees, no coherent response can be expected from Brussels. Continued failure to learn from its history may well condemn Europe to repeating it in the years ahead.
Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2016