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With Times Tough, Fascism Coming Back

September 21, 1997|Martin A. Lee | Martin A. Lee is author of "The Beast Reawakens," a book about neofascism

WASHINGTON — An Italian wine company recently sparked an uproar when it introduced a new brand with a picture of Adolf Hitler on its label. The same company also produces bottles of wine featuring Benito Mussolini's picture. A marketing strategy that uses such images might be dismissed as a tasteless joke if not for the fact that a multifaceted neofascist revival has gained alarming momentum in Europe since the end of the Cold War.

The revival is not orchestrated by a sieg-heiling dictator flanked by men in brown shirts and swastika armbands. Rather, a new breed of right-wing extremists have trimmed their sails to suit the political moment. Realizing that the fascist game can be played in many ways, the more sophisticated tacticians underwent an ideological face-lift and mainstreamed their message for the sake of democratic appearances.

The end of the bipolar Yalta system demagnetized everybody's compass and provided fresh opportunities for the Front National in France, the Austrian Freedom Party, Italy's National Alliance, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and other right-wing extremist parties that have successfully tapped into widespread post-Cold-War uncertainties. The rise of these mass-based electoral movements has coincided with a dramatic increase in hate crimes throughout Western Europe, where a racial assault occurs once every three minutes, according to the European Parliament.

Peddling a ready-made politics for the economically disenchanted, far-right demagogues have touched a raw nerve by deceptively linking jobless statistics to the number of guest workers and asylum seekers in their countries. The presence of 20 million migrants in Western Europe is perhaps the most visible sign of the major structural transformation that has accompanied the emergence of a global economy, with its interdependent markets, unfettered capital mobility and novel information technologies. Third World and Eastern European immigrants are routinely depicted as a threat to national identity, as well as economic stability, at a time when the Western European work force is reeling from high unemployment, stagnating wages and cutbacks in social services.

Neofascists posing as national populists have gained at the ballot box by coupling their anti-immigrant message with harsh denunciations of the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and its plans for a common European currency. They have also benefited from foraging on a political terrain where the ideological distance between the mainstream parties has shrunk. This has propelled the growth of the extreme right, which appeals to disillusioned voters by assuming the mantle of the opposition and attacking a corrupt, bipartisan status quo.

Lacking new ideas and eager to deflect attention from their own policy failures, mainstream politicians throughout Western Europe have been all too willing to fix the blame for complex social and economic problems on immigrants. Government officials mouthed neofascist catch-phrases that put the onus on foreigners for crime, drugs, job scarcity and nearly every other difficulty. Before long, it was politically correct even among socialists to speak of an invasion of foul-smelling aliens.

But this imitative response did not lessen the appeal of far-right candidates; instead, it served to legitimize many of their ideas in the public mind. By jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon, mainstream politicians incited an atmosphere of racial hatred, which opened the door even more for the jackals of the far right. The growing popularity of radical right-wingers forced mainstream parties to adjust their policies to stop the hemorrhaging of their electoral base. As a result, government officials in one country after the next removed the welcome mat for refugees and adopted other extreme-right policy measures.

In Austria, the ruling coalition tried to steal the thunder of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party by imposing sharp restrictions on immigration. But Haider still gained credibility. In October 1996, his party won 27.6% of the national vote, only a shade behind the two mainstream parties. Haider, who recently claimed that all soldiers in World War II, whichever side they were on, fought for peace, is poised for a serious run for chancellor.

In France, mainstream leaders kowtowed to Jean-Marie Le Pen's up-and-coming National Front. In 1994, the French National Assembly, hoping to take the wind out of Le Pen's sails, reversed a law that granted citizenship to anyone born on French soil; henceforth, the privilege of bloodline would supersede all other factors in determining whether someone is a French national. But Le Pen's party continued to expand its base of support, grabbing 3.7 million votes in recent legislative elections that saw the pendulum move from conservative to socialist after swinging dramatically the other way a few years ago.

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