How fascism returned to Europe
The European Union was created to bind the continent in peace and prosperity. But it has only fueled the rise of ultra-nationalist groups.
The most important read of the week hands down is historian Timothy Snyder's disquieting essay in The New Republic about the return of fascism in Europe.
When I first read the article, my instincts told me it must be irresponsibly alarmist. Stalin, Hitler, Ukrainian nationalism, Putin, German parties of the far left and right, "Eurasian" ideology, visions of a unified front against Western pluralist democracy stretching "from Lisbon to Vladivostok" — Snyder connects an awful lot of dots in 4,000 or so words, and to my ear it sounded faintly unhinged.
So I started talking to friends who pay close attention to trends and events on the continent. And I started reading beyond recent headlines about Crimea, sanctions, and unauthorized referendums. And now I'm not so sure. Snyder may well be onto something.
And if he is, we'd better start preparing ourselves for a frightening new era in world history.
There are two parts to Snyder's analysis. The first has to do with Russia. It's a petro-state with no products or other resources to sell. Oil and gas are all it's got. That makes it quick to respond — and respond rashly — when its markets are threatened, which they were when Ukraine's recent round of protests raised the prospect of Kiev turning decisively away from Moscow and toward the European Union. Faced with that possibility, Putin was all too willing to whip up, manipulate, and take advantage of the latent Russian nationalism in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine.
Would he do the same thing elsewhere? That will depend on whether he decides it's in his interest to do so (hence the importance of the West's punitive sanctions). It also depends on whether he can continue to find a receptive audience for his troublemaking. Putin will surely find such an audience in at least some of the former Soviet republics (like Moldova, for example) that line Russia's western and southwestern borders.
But the bigger and potentially far more destabilizing audience can be found further west, in the heart of the political and economic experiment devised to ensure the perpetual peace, stability, prosperity, and political moderation of the historically troubled continent: the European Union itself.
That's the second part of Snyder's argument, and it is chilling. From one end of the continent to the other, far-right political parties are winning larger shares of the vote than they have since the end of World War II — and many of them are explicitly looking to Putin as an inspiration and de facto leader of an anti-pluralist political movement.
In elections to the European Parliament on May 22-25, a number of these parties are projected to do extremely well. There's France's National Front (predicted to take 23.5 percent of the vote), the Dutch Freedom Party in the Netherlands (16.5 percent), Austria's Freedom Party (19.5 percent), and Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (7.4 percent).
Most ominous of all is Hungary's Jobbik Party, which recently won 20.7 percent of the vote in national elections (that was on top of the majority won by the center-right Fidesz party), and is projected to do even better in the upcoming EU elections. With links to paramilitary groups, a fondness for demonizing the country's Roma population, and an enthusiasm for organizing and inspiring allied far-right parties in Poland, Slovakia, Croatia, and Bulgaria, Jobbik is the real deal: a genuinely fascist movement with a solid electoral base and trans-national ambitions.
Tony Judt, the great historian of Europe who died in 2010, would have been deeply saddened by these developments, but he wouldn't have been surprised. In a prescient book published in 1996, Judt warned that the EU's very efforts to ensure that right-wing radicalism never returned to the continent could have the perverse effect of conjuring it back into existence.
Judt suggested that the EU was making economic promises to its member states — promises of unsustainably high rates of growth, employment, and spending on social benefits — that were almost certainly going to prove impossible to fulfill. When those promises were broken, it would inspire an angry populist backlash.
Then Europe would face the consequences of having dissolved national channels for the expression of political discontent — and having replaced them with distant, extra-national institutions with little democratic accountability and even less collective solidarity undergirding them. Those left behind by economic stagnation and collapse would feel politically muzzled and disenfranchised, leading them to become susceptible to manipulation by demagogues out to capture their imagination and allegiance with the very nationalist visions the EU was created to forestall.
If Snyder is right, that's precisely what's happening right now across the continent. The question is how far these nationalist parties will grow, how radical their aims will become — and, most menacing of all, how likely it is that Vladimir Putin will seek to rally, lead, and galvanize them into a unified Eurasian movement aimed squarely against the European Union, the United States, and the liberal pluralist order around the globe.
I'd say it's pretty improbable. Putin likely has aims that fall far short of world-historical crusades. Foremost among those more mundane goals is keeping Gazprom's profits up. To achieve that, he'll continue to meddle in Russia's near abroad. And he'll justify this meddling in quasi-fascist, hyper-nationalist terms that include portraying Russia as the foremost anti-fascist nation in the world.
All of this will make life in the region unpleasant and unstable. That's disconcerting, as is the prospect of far-right political parties winning close to a quarter of the vote in a long list of European countries.
But both scenarios are incalculably better than the horrifying prospect of a unified radical-right movement stretching from Portugal to the Pacific.