Fascism and anti-fascism in Europe

Fascists are advancing in many countries at once for the first time since World War II.

Economic stagnation and uncertainty, the willingness of governments to promote racism and the complacency of most of their opponents have aided fascist groups and parties.

In Greece and Hungary, the neo-Nazi thugs of Golden Dawn and Jobbik have attacked migrants, Roma and their political enemies and at the same time been able to gain parliamentary representation. In the last national elections, Golden Dawn won 7 percent and Jobbik 20 percent of votes.

The fascists of the National Front have been a significant political force in France since the 1980s. The Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, currently leads in presidential election polls ahead of next year’s elections.

The candidate of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) came within 31,000 votes (less than 1 percent) of winning the largely ceremonial post of president a few weeks ago. Austria’s fascists have been the most electorally successful in Europe. Globally, only fascists in India have done better.

The FPÖ’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, and the rest of the FPÖ caucus wore cornflowers, the symbol of the underground Nazi party during the 1930s, in their buttonholes at the inaugural sitting of the Austrian parliament after the 2013 elections. More than one in five voters had backed the party.

Heinz-Christian Strache, who leads the party, has a background in neo-Nazi circles. There is a symbiotic relationship between the FPÖ and these impatient thugs.

The term “fascist” has a meaning beyond “right wing”, “authoritarian”, or “someone I disagree with”. Mussolini’s fascists, the German and Austrian Nazis and similar groups in Europe between the world wars share important common features with contemporary fascists.

Cliques of senior military officers, police, public servants or big business people may want to overturn democracy but envision no sustained, active role for the mass of their supporters. Right wing populist movements, which mobilise electorally or on the streets around racism, do not necessarily want to smash the institutions of elected government. Fascist groups may seek to conspire with the first and to recruit out of or take over the second, but they are distinctive.

Their goal is the destruction of democracy, along with all organisations they cannot control – especially the institutions of the labour movement. To do this, they want to build their own disciplined mass organisations that can be competitive in elections and also physically attack political opponents and scapegoats blamed for problems whose underlying cause is capitalist production for profit.

Ideologically, fascists can be extremely opportunist, shifting their positions on issues to take advantage of changes in public opinion.

The FPÖ long demanded Austria’s entry into the European Union. After eight years at the head of the party, as negotiations over entry were taking place, then-leader Jörg Haider flipped and denounced the EU.

Racist ideas may be among fascists’ fundamental beliefs, but they can go quiet on their contempt for people with “inferior” culture or genetic make-up if other issues are more favourable for a period. This has not been the case for the FPÖ.

From 1986, when Haider took over as leader, the FPÖ started emphasising anti-immigrant racism, making carefully calculated, favourable comments about Hitler’s regime. Its electoral support increased.

When large numbers of mainly Syrian refugees started heading towards western Europe last September, tens of thousands of Austrians were involved in helping them. Using their own cars, Austrians picked up refugees the Hungarian authorities were trying to hold back, in order to drive them over the border into Austria.

But, in the run-up to the presidential elections, the Austrian government capitulated to racist demands of the FPÖ and restricted the number of refugees allowed to enter the country.

Throughout its history, the core activists of the FPÖ have been fascists. Both of Haider’s parents were early and very active members of the Austrian Nazi Party, and in 1983 he inherited a very valuable estate extorted from its Jewish owners. From his university days, Haider participated in one of the right wing student fraternities that continue Nazi and pre-Nazi nationalist traditions.

Today, 40 percent of the FPÖ’s parliamentarians and key leaders, including Strache, come from these small, German nationalist student fraternities.

Austria is currently ruled, as it has been for most of the postwar period, by a coalition of the centre left Social Democratic Party, SPÖ, and centre right People’s Party, ÖVP. In a failed effort to gain an electoral advantage over the People’s Party, the SPÖ was decisive in allowing the FPÖ’s direct predecessor, with its base of former Nazis, to run candidates in the 1949 elections.

To survive and expand its influence, the FPÖ has had to avoid openly expressing the perspectives of its fascist core: hostility to democracy, endorsement of street violence and overly explicit nostalgia for Hitler’s regime.

Austria has laws against the re-establishment of the Nazi party and has banned certain Nazi traditions. And the vast majority of the population is not sympathetic to authoritarian rule, pogroms or the Third Reich.

Respectability is important for the party’s future as a fascist instrument. Expanding electoral support makes it possible to indoctrinate some of those who identify with the FPÖ as voters into the beliefs of the party’s fascist core. Federal, state and local elected party officials have platforms from which to expound their views and scope to influence public policy.

By accepting the FPÖ as a junior federal coalition partner, both the SPÖ (1983–1986) and ÖVP (1999-2005) contributed to the Freedom Party’s respectability. It has been the ruling party in the state of Kärnten, and currently governs in a coalition with the larger SPÖ in Burgenland.

Balancing between the respectability needed to gain popular support and the impatience of its fascist elements has sometimes been difficult for the Freedom Party. It has had to expel members who have been unguarded in expressing their heartfelt views.

Freedom Party leaders have also reassured their impetuous fascist supporters in order to restrain them. Issuing occasional hard-line statements, but not persisting with them, has been one way to do this. In 1991 Haider, for example, referred to the “proper employment policy” of the Third Reich.

Under Strache, the cornflower has become a permanent symbol of the FPÖ’s Nazi heritage.

On the other side, the party has on three occasions broken with liberal members and opportunists who rode it to prominent or ministerial posts, helping to increase its legitimacy, but then became obstacles to FPÖ’s underlying purpose.

Ministers in the ÖVP-FPÖ government and Haider led a serious split in 2005, leaving behind the hard right wing, under Strache.

The fascist core of the party still understands that they have to camouflage their fundamental beliefs about the desirability of a civil war against parliamentary democracy, until more favourable conditions of economic and social crisis and intensified racial prejudice arise.

Under those circumstances, such ideas may appeal to a wider audience. As the excellent publication of Neue Linkswende in Austria, The Brown Book of the FPÖ, puts it: “At present, there is not widespread acceptance of bands of thugs on the streets. However, the FPÖ is constantly working to overcome this difficulty”. Exposing the Freedom Party for what it is and undermining its respectability are vital for Austrian anti-fascists. This includes, wherever possible, peacefully protesting at its events and confronting its followers when they take to the streets.

Such actions would preferably involve large numbers of workers and their trade unions, whose wages and conditions, and existence, are threatened by the rise of fascism. But mobilisations to confront fascists can’t wait until masses of workers again feel confident and militant.

Determined and open anti-fascist protests today are establishing precedents for calling out fascists and responding to them appropriately. That will make more extensive working class involvement easier later on, when workers have rejected long established and conservatising union integration into corporatist state structures.

Given the size of the FPÖ and its long history, the threat from fascists is greater in Austria than many other countries. That should not lead to complacency. Hitler started out with a small, unimpressive group in Munich. The German slogan “resist the beginnings” (“wehret den Anfängen”) applies on this side of the planet too.

The size of the FPÖ and its place in the Austrian political system mean that it can influence public opinion. It whips up racist sentiment. When the mainstream parties make concessions to its demands, they boost the FPÖ’s credibility.

Since January, the Freedom Party has again attempted to build a large racist movement on the streets, along the lines of Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) in Germany. Such a development would be a step towards normalising the kind of fascist storm troop activity that has been frighteningly frequent in Greece and Hungary. These efforts have, so far, been successfully confronted by larger anti-fascist counter-mobilisations.

In the longer term, even huge counter-mobilisations are not enough to defeat fascist movements. Such currents appeal particularly to the self-employed and low level managers, squeezed between big business and organised labour, afraid of losing the limited authority and independence they have. Fascists can also win supporters in the working as well as the middle class by promising to address their real problems, which mainstream politicians have ignored or intensified. The FPÖ has won significant support from people in manual jobs.

It has been the main beneficiary of the Social Democrat-People’s Party coalition during and since the global financial crisis. Both of the mainstream parties have pursued neoliberal policies of privatisation and austerity. Following a significant recovery until 2011, the economy has stagnated over the past few years.

In many countries, people are looking for alternatives to the neoliberal policies, which have not only failed to solve their problems but made them worse. The FPÖ’s racist scapegoating and fulmination against the mainstream parties appear to offer an alternative on the right.

So providing a left alternative to mainstream politics is important. It will not only have to oppose racism and directly address economic problems, but also mobilise people to take control over society by extending democracy, especially into workplaces.