Europe’s Fight Against the Far-Right
The national populist insurrection happening worldwide in the midst of neoliberal and climate catastrophe. What anchored this growth in Europe is the emergence of far-right parties and coalitions manipulating fears over immigration and instability to unseat social democracy’s role in working class life.
Independent journalist Patrick Strickland has been covering the explosion of Europe’s far-right and the shifting antifascist movement that is responding to it. His recent book Alerta! Alerta!: Snapshots of Europe’s Anti-fascist Struggle (AK Press, 2018) breaks down the conflict into moments of insight, looking into the stories of the people resting at the center of the fight against emerging fascism.
Shane Burley: The book is structured around five different European countries, Italy, Slovakia, Germany, Croatia, and Greece and it chronicles the flourishing of far-right populism and fascist violence across Europe. What do you think is responsible for the explosive growth of European populist parties and these anti-immigrant, far-right social movements?
Patrick Strickland: I think it varies quite a bit from country to country. The refugee crisis was a really convenient catalyst for some far-right groups, especially those that were already rooted in anti-migrant, anti-refugee or anti-Muslim sentiment. The Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party in Germany, for instance, started out as a Eurosceptic, far-right party, less focused on broad politics. When the refugee influx really picked up in 2013 they were able to capitalize on it in a way that won them a significant number of seats in the parliament during the 2017 elections, a total of 94 out of 598, or 12.6 percent of the total vote .
In Greece, however, the far-right has not grown in the last couple of years. Golden Dawn has never tried to disguise themselves; to put on a populist mask like other far-right parties have. So they have not been able to capitalize on racist responses to the influx of refugees. They had their biggest success when they capitalized on the traditional left’s failed response towards the Greek economic crisis and austerity. From all that we can see, and there are other factors of course, currently they receive about the same amount of support — between 6 and 9 percent —as in 2012, when they first entered parliament, and in 2015, when they had another strong showing.
Do you think that Golden Dawn just had their moment of fame too early, and they missed the populist wave that helped out far-right parties later on in places like France, Germany and Austria?
With Golden Dawn I think one of the biggest factors is that they have been on trial for several years since the murder of Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. Their entire 2013 parliamentary group and their leadership — a total of 69 members — are on trial, so it is huge. It is an existential challenge for them and the trial will decide if they are a political party or a criminal organization. While it has not stopped Golden Dawn from continuing to carry out violence, it has, to a degree, stopped them from accumulating political support.
In Greece there is also an especially militant and effective antifascist movement that has managed to confront them just about any time they organize in the streets. Obviously, the antifascist organizing is not just direct confrontation, but I do not think I have ever seen a Golden Dawn rally or a far-right rally in Greece that has not been challenged by counter-protesters; antifascists of varying stripes.
What do you think has made antifascism so successful in Greece and where do you think it is going now?
I think it is rooted in the country’s history and can be traced back to the resistance to the Nazi occupation of Greece, which was particularly brutal. There was also the country’s civil war in the immediate wake of WWII, and the military junta of its recent past, so many Greeks have actually lived under authoritarian and fascist rule. The military junta did not collapse until 1974 and the events responsible for its collapse were put into motion by a student uprising at the Athens Polytechnic University. So there you also have the lived experience of successful popular resistance.
It is hard to say where antifascism in Greece will go, just like it is hard to say what will happen with Golden Dawn and other far-right parties. I cannot say one way or the other what will happen if they are prosecuted, if that will lead to their street supporters packing up their bags or if it will lead to more violence. We also do not know if it will lead to a splintering of their supporters — as we have already seen with some of the other far-right parties in Greece. Cheap imitations of the British Combat 18, neo-Nazi groups like Crypteia, but they have not tried to build a big popular base like Golden Dawn did.
Antifascists in Greece were up against a party that very openly, until very recently, identified as National Socialist. So there was no debate over the nuances of whether or not some groups should really be considered fascist. It was obvious; they did Nazi salutes, they said what they wanted, they said who they were in their literature. They never tried to rebrand themselves and they would not be able to if they tried. So, in that regard, it was easier to build a broader coalition of left and anti-authoritarian groups that converged into an antifascist movement.
How do you compare Italian far-right groups?
Italian groups like CasaPound are openly fascist. They deny that they are involved in violence, but in my reporting I found quite a few people that were attacked by them. They have an interesting approach in that they have latched to Matteo Salvini and The League now that that has become a successful endeavor. They were running candidates in some local elections before and they had some success in the poor Roman suburbs. The antifascists responded pretty effectively, their effectiveness stemming in part from having a really broad coalition that included faith leaders who were standing up to CasaPound.
But Italy has so many options when it comes to the far-right now, and CasaPound is just one of several. A lot of people in the US seem to wonder about the Five Star Movement, with a recurring description by some people on the left that the movement defies the “left-right dichotomy.” They are in a coalition with the Northern League, which I do not think any party with progressive or left-wing values would do. In some cases they have been pretty openly linked to anti-immigrant sentiment. Those are the main catalysts in Italy right now; the teetering economy and migration. If you are allied with the Northern League and Matteo Salvini on that then I do not think there is much cause for celebration on the left.
What role has the identitarian movement played in the growth of the far-right?
I think the identitarian movement is really important, especially in Austria and Germany. They have very successfully sculpted an image of themselves as preserving multiculturalism by “opposing intolerant people.” That is their narrative. German leaders of the identitarian movement make claims that they are standing up against anti-Semitism by blocking Muslim immigration. And I think they managed to convince a lot of people with that narrative.
They usually resent the comparison to the Alt-Right, but I do not think it is incorrect. They are not out in public Sieg Heiling and their primary focus is immigration from Muslim majority countries, so that has been their rallying cry. They expanded when they tried to block ship in the Mediterranean sea that were picking up refugees from Northern Africa. Then it became clear that it was more about their image of Europe as white.
They have also built ties to far-right political parties in France and other places, and they have tried to hide their links to established far-right parties like the AfD and the Front National as well as the old neo-Nazi guard for a while, but now that has come to the public’s attention thanks to the work of antifascists and vigilant investigative reporters. In Germany, antifascists were really on-point about confronting the identitarian movement. For example, Robert Timm, the identitarian movement’s Berlin-based spokesperson, told me that his car got smashed up regularly and he could not go a week without facing attacks or having his house vandalized. So it had a clear impact.
There is this phenomenon of the far-right political party — slightly more moderate than outright fascists — in Europe that we do not really have in the US because the two-party system. Do you think the far-right in Europe rests on those national populist parties and their ability to pull supporters from the conservative mainstream?
That is a terrain that they have correctly identified as fertile for them. If you look at Austria, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — which is a party that was formed by former Nazi officers — is now the junior coalition partner of the conservative party. They are very openly anti-refugee, anti-Muslim and anti-migrant, but they also keep finding themselves embroiled in anti-Semitic scandals. That approach, of taking fascist politics and promote it via populist parties that can build coalitions, has been really successful.
It has worked in German with AfD and with the Northern League in Italy. The focus for the Northern League was “Euroscepticism,” opposition to migration and “dog whistling” rather than open discussions about racial purity since that stuff tends to alienate people. But it was always at the core of what they were saying.
Do you think that there is any really meaningful coordination between these far-right parties in Europe and fascist organizations in the US, or do you think it is more wish fulfillment on the part of US organizers?
I would say that it is important that within Europe the cross-border fascist alliances are pretty important because they can collaborate together in the European parliament. For instance, in Greece, there were Italians and people from the Nordic Resistance Movement coming quite often and spending a good deal of time with Golden Dawn. What we know is that was happening at a time when Golden Dawn was engaged in a very brutal campaign of street violence against migrant and leftist communities.
It is not inconceivable that there is some degree of tactic sharing and strategizing and training with the Americans that come to Europe. I know that there have been some big names from American white nationalist circles that have come to places like Greece. Matthew Heimbach, the founder of the Traditionalist Workers Party (TWP), has built ties with Golden Dawn. Andrew Anglin, of The Daily Stormer, spent some time in Greece and was popping up at Golden Dawn rallies, taking selfies and so on.
With Heimbach, he saw tactics that he could try to use, but was never successfully able to deploy. For example, Golden Dawn gained a lot of support filling in the gap caused by austerity. So they used to run “Greek’s only” food banks, blood donations and clothing drives. So they did this grassroots community organizing that was built on selling their message and providing services for ethnic Greeks rather than migrants. The same in Italy with CasaPound, when they were occupying and squatting buildings; a tactic that has been used by leftists for a long time, but they put the caveat that these apartments they were occupying would be for Italians only. Heimbach tried to do some stuff like this in the United States, but it was mostly a grift and a flop.
Earlier on, the relationship between Golden Dawn and like-minded organizations in the US was incredibly important. During the late 80s and the 90s, Golden Dawn was active in translating white nationalist literature from the US. Their publications regularly told the story of movements like “The Order,” the white supremacist terror group, and praised them and discussed how that was a model Golden Dawn needed to emulate. William Luther Pierce, the leader of the National Alliance, came to Greece for a big conference of far-right and fascist parties in 1998. They were even doing cheap knock offs of The Turner Diaries set in Greece. They toned that down later when they started growing and got into parliament for the first time. So there was this important building of ties, but it is hard to say if it went beyond solidarity and community building and into something more substantial.
How central is Islamophobia to the growth of the far-right in Europe?
It is absolutely central, absolutely pivotal to the growth of the far-right in Europe. When I talk about the growth of anti-refugee sentiment, of course not all of the refugees coming into Europe are Muslims, but Islamophobia imbues the entire group. The AfD campaigns on a multitude of pretty openly racist ideas; they have talked about closing down mosques and deporting as many Muslims as possible. In Greece it is the same thing; while Golden Dawn is a much more hard-line party, they have done similar things like the campaign to block the first “official” mosque in Athens. In Austria, the FPÖ has really focused on Muslims and refugees and one of their officials even floated the idea of not just refugee camps but what he labeled as a “place to concentrate them all” in camps. The anti-Muslim sentiment is huge.
Even places like Slovakia and Croatia, where there are virtually no refugees — it does not make a difference. For them, it is the imagined threat of refugees that matters, not their actual presence. Whether or not this is simply a cheap strategic tool differs from case to case. In Hungary, it is just sheer manipulation by Viktor Orbán to place such an intense focus on the idea of Muslims “swarming the country” or something. In 2015 the number of refugees who actually stayed in Hungary was well below a thousand — compared to countries like Germany who took in around 800,000. But it was effective in drumming up fear.
Out of the countries you have looked at, where do you think that the far-right is going to continue to gain ground in the next four or five years?
If you are talking about sheer size, I expect Germany will see more growth among the populist far-right. And with that there will be opportunities for the more overt, jackboots neo-Nazi movement to engage in violence. It might get very, very violent in Greece if Golden Dawn gets declared a criminal organization and is disbanded, I believe they might lash out in violence. At the same time, if they are not convicted then I feel like that sends a message of impunity for the murders and the pogroms and the full daylight lynchings that they have already carried out and they will know they can continue doing these things. In either case there could be violence.
I think that we will probably see support for the far-right grow in Italy as well. It is one of the first entry countries for a lot of migrants and refugees. Those are people coming from boats that set off in Libya, the refugees coming from a country with open slave markets and civil war and having crossed probably several countries and then landing in Italy. The government of Italy then openly says it will not accept more boats and quietly sends a message to fascists on the ground that something has to be done. So I think that problem will continue there, as well as the economic and corruption issues across the country’s established center-left.
What do you think the best examples of these country’s antifascist mass movements, and what can they do to stem the continued growth of the far-right in the next few years?
I think that Greece’s antifascist movement is really important to observe. The antifascist movement there is really broad, which serves it really well. You have people who will openly and directly confront the neo-Nazis in the streets and at the same time you have a lot of solidarity from unions, other working class organizations and some political parties. So antifascist organizing looks different than in the US, and, depending on the day, antifascism could take the form of open clashes with Golden Dawn or it could be a non-violent campaign to get Golden Dawn kicked out of a certain union.
Also, you have places in Greece, like neighborhoods in Athens, where there has been a real concerted effort to build a culture of antifascism. Rather than just going out to defend refugees sleeping in public park from far-right attacks, you also take proactive measures like squatting a building and turning it into a residence for refugees and migrants. And I would describe that as antifascist as well. You see a real effort to build an alternative, not just to resist.