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Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Devils of the 1930ies – Nationalism on the Brink of Explosion

In the view of the current refugee crisis – the biggest humanitarian crisis the EU has to face in its very existence yet – we are witnessing an increasing tendency of nationalism throughout various member states. Last week, the right wing party PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość = Law and Justice) and its leader Beata Szydło have won the parliamentary elections in Poland, and the refugee crisis has presumably affected the outcome of the elections. Poland, a country that has shown little cooperative behaviour this summer, has secured a popular vote for continuing its restrictive refugee and migration policy.

Sadly, Poland is not the only country in Europe with such a right-wing tendency. This trend can be witnessed all over Europe.

Riding on the Waves of Xenophobia

This right wing trend is visible in any EU member states directly or indirectly affected by the refugee crisis. We can observe right wing shifts in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the UK, France, and slowly even in Germany and Austria – the countries accepting more refugees in 2015 than any other EU member. This tendency can even be seen in the non-EU member Switzerland, where the right conservative SVP (Schweizerische Volkspartei = Swiss People’s Party) gained additional eleven seats in the National Council, also riding on an anti-refugee wave. Although Switzerland is relatively unaffected by the refugees’ movements compared to other EU countries, the motives for right voting are just the same as for the other EU members: the fears of over-alienation, security threats through uncontrolled human trafficking, the decline of social standards and of the established welfare state, the potential threat of terrorism infiltrating through the masses of refugees coming to Europe, and last but not least the sensation that people might feel foreign in their own country – in short: the loss of the own national identity.

The German anti-Islamic PEGIDA organization (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes = Patriotic Europeans against Islamisation of the occident) has been recently gaining support from an increasing numbers of so called “worried citizens” in the past months, who fear that Germany would not be able to cope with the integration of estimated one million refugees to be expected to come to Germany by the end of this year. Terrified of the numbers and by the wrong prediction of an overcrowding society that might not be predominantly European – or even German – right wingers create a scenario of Germans being strangers in their own country.

While PEGIDA conquers the streets, the AfD-Party (Alternative für Deutschland = Alternative for Germany) has taken a right turn and attempts to position itself as a political branch of PEGIDA, specifically riding on the refugee and xenophobia agenda. In a recent poll on which party the Germans would vote for if there was an election coming up, the AfD would get 8 percent of the votes – with decreasing vote shares for the established CDU and SPD parties. As an additional threat, the risk of right wing terrorism is supposed to rise as well, and the increasing numbers of attacks on refugee accommodations indicate a looming radicalisation of xenophobic tendencies. Camouflaged as an open expression of concerns by these so called worried citizens, right wingers finally found a supportive base for their own xenophobic agenda setting, and could expand this base to a strong right wing public resistance.

Radicalization of the Language

During a PEGIDA demonstration in Dresden, two gallows where shown with posters hanging on each of them. One was carrying a poster with “Reserviert für Siegmar “Das Pack” Gabriel” (Reserved for Siegmar “The Scum” Gabriel) written on it; the other one had a poster with “Reserviert für Angela “Mutti” Merkel “(Reserved for Angela “Mommy” Merkel) written on it. Disregarding the fact that the Vice-Chancellor Gabriel’s first name was misspelled, the message sent indicates a radicalization of the language and openly turning into an open war of words and slogans towards the political establishment. It has to be interpreted that the current European political system that has been stable and relatively free of extremists’ attacks for decades is now facing a major threat challenge by a group of activists that openly oppose the existing democratic structure of the EU, and of the respective member states. Previously, Sigmar Gabriel had described right wingers attacking refugees as “scum”. Now, the right wingers have taken this word as a counter slogan against Gabriel himself and the government as a whole.

Both sides are however doing their part to escalating the rhetoric – not just on the streets and the newspapers, but also in social media. The border lines between reasonable argumentation and discussion, and wild verbal attack and even open threats are getting increasingly thinner. There is a significant threat in the view of increasing verbal violence – online and offline: once started, the tendency for losing verbal composure is rising. Images like gallows picturing the imaginary hanging of current democratically legitimated leaders are images that seemed to be part of a dark past. From there it is only a small step until verbal threats turn into actual physical violence. With increasing numbers of right wing arson attacks on refugees’ accommodations, the NSU (National Socialist Underground) trial  dragging on for years, and established conservative parties shifting more to the right, Germany shows itself unable, or unwilling, to cope any longer with the new challenges it has been facing since the beginning of the crisis last summer.

Back then, Chancellor Merkel said that “Germany can handle it”. The enthusiasm and the joy of the broad public welcoming refugees arriving at train stations after long and life-threatening hardship has now been replaced by a sober fear driven panic reaction that Germany also needs to close its borders and impose harsher asylum regulations – even setting up registration centres close to the borders to process asylum seekers and sort out those who are not eligible to stay. Just recently, the German government announced that the Dublin accords have been put back into force for Syrian refugees since October, after being suspended earlier this year.

The German government is rushing from one hasty action to another. With popularity rates plummeting, Merkel has to face the awkward moment of withdrawing from her “open door” and welcoming policy and turning to a more restrictive strategy to keep the Bavarian coalition partner CSU calm, who’s leader Horst Seehofer is approaching the Eastern European country’s restrictive immigration policies and counts on the “worried citizens’” votes for future elections – also through louder shouting. However, the next scheduled general elections will not take place before 2017, and reality might look different then. The uncertainty remains of what might happen until then.

“They are back”

Last October, a new movie was released in Germany, based on Timur Vermes’ satire novel “Look who’s back” (“Er ist wieder da”), who created a scenario of Adolf Hitler suddenly and mysteriously returning to modern Germany, and gaining mass popularity through his xenophobic and racists rants in modern mass media. At the end of both the movie and of the book, the narrator outlines the current fears of right wingers and the PEGIDA movement, stating that the “circumstances aren’t too bad” for coming back to power – a conspicuous warning that current rising nationalism might lead to the return of a new “Nazi leader”.

The path to political radicalization starts with the language used in public, with the language becoming more and more aggressive, directly attacking celebrities that openly advocate for an open and tolerant society and who fight off racism and extremism online and offline. What Europe and Germany need to face is rather the question what the biggest threat actually is: the masses of refugees that will substantially change European societies in the next years, or the own nationalist narrow-mindedness that might burst into uncontrolled violence. The borderline between words and actual violent action, which will lead to more violence and to the end of European integration are getting thinner. As EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has just recently stated: if the European nations fail to cooperate on the refugee matter, the European idea is about to fall apart – and the continent might even fall back into war. This lacking cooperation is continuing as more EU members reintroduce border controls, shut down borders, or build barb wire fences alongside the borders. By doing this, the nations are slowly killing the common European idea.

The devils of the 1930ies have surely awakened. The question remains, if the people have learned from history not to let it happen again. However, if the loudmouths keep shouting and acting like they do now, the answer will tragically be No.

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