Posted on October 10, 2008

Europe’s Far-Right Revival Isn’t Nazism

Ian Buruma, Los Angeles Times, October 3, 2008

Two far-right parties, the Austrian Freedom Party and the Movement for Austria’s Future, managed to win 29% of the vote in Sunday’s general elections in Austria. This is double what they got in the elections of 2006.

Both parties share the same attitudes toward immigrants, especially Muslims, and the European Union: a mixture of fear and loathing. Because the leaders of the two parties, Heinz-Christian Strache and Jorg Haider, can’t stand each other, there is little chance of a far-right coalition actually taking power. {snip}


Yet to see the rise of the Austrian right as a revival of Nazism would be a mistake. For one thing, neither party is advocating violence, even if some of their rhetoric might inspire it. For another, it seems to me that voters backing these far-right parties may be motivated less by ideology than by anxieties and resentments that are felt in many European countries, including ones with no Nazi tradition, such as the Netherlands and Denmark.

In Denmark, the hard-right Danish People’s Party is the third-largest party in the country, with 25 parliamentary seats. Dutch populists such as Rita Verdonk, or Geert Wilders, who is driven by a paranoid fear of “Islamization,” are putting the traditional political elites—a combination of liberals, social democrats and Christian democrats—under severe pressure.

And this is precisely the point. The biggest resentment among supporters of the right-wing parties in Europe these days is reserved not so much for immigrants as for political elites that, in the opinion of many, have been governing for too long in cozy coalitions, which appear to exist chiefly to protect vested interests. In Austria, even liberals admit that an endless succession of social democrat and Christian democrat governments has clogged the arteries of the political system. {snip}


All this is linked to resentment about immigrants. When the offspring of workers from countries such as Turkey and Morocco in the 1960s began to form large Muslim minorities in European cities, it caused tensions in working-class neighborhoods. Complaints about crime and unfamiliar customs were often dismissed by the liberal elites as racism. People simply had to learn to be tolerant.

This advice was not necessarily wrong. Tolerance, European unity, distrust of nationalism and vigilance against racism are all laudable goals. But promoting these aims without discussion, much less criticism, has resulted in a backlash. When the Dutch, the French and the Irish voted against the European Constitution, they were expressing their distrust of the political elites. And populists who promise to restore national sovereignty by rejecting “Europe,” fighting “Islamization” and kicking out the immigrants are also exploiting this distrust.

{snip} But the new populism is not yet undemocratic or even anti-democratic. The phrase most often heard in Austria among those who support the right-wing parties is “fresh air.” People say they voted for Haider or Strache to break the stranglehold of the ruling parties.

This is not an illegitimate motivation. And there’s certainly a case to be made that if people are anxious about their national identities, the sovereignty of their governments or the demographic and social complexion of their societies, such fears are best heard in the political arena. {snip}