People of a certain age grew up under the influence of a great moral lesson. In the middle of the last century, the world had been brutalized by the rise of fascism, with Nazism an exemplar of evil unparalleled in history.
The rise of fascism seared the conscience of the world. The Holocaust demonstrated a dimension of evil that people had never imagined before, and people everywhere, not just the surviving Jews, vowed “never again.”
That’s why the rise of the neo-fascist right in Europe is so disquieting. It is not useful to equate the present danger to the extremity of Nazism, but Harold Meyerson, columnist for The Washington Post, has drawn some troubling parallels.
His column comes in the wake of elections for the European parliament, which helps to manage the affairs of the European Union. In those elections, far-right parties shocked the center left and center right by winning 30 percent of the vote. The far right shares certain ideas: opposition to the European Union itself, hostility to immigrants, extreme nationalism and, following the example of Vladimir Putin, a growing homophobia.
Meyerson describes five factors that have contributed to the rise of the extreme, anti-Europe European right. One is the treaty that created the European Union, locking members into an inflexible system that punishes struggling nations. Second is the economic downturn that undermined economies and produced depression-level unemployment. The third is the intransigence of Germany, which has insisted on imposing economic austerity on debtor nations. The fourth is the tendency to target scapegoats — immigrants and gays. The fifth is the systemic inequality that has only grown, making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
These five factors create a troubling resonance for anyone familiar with the rise of Nazism in the 1920s and ’30s. That was a time of economic depression, disorientation and resentment after the cataclysm of World War I. The victorious powers had imposed punishing reparations and other conditions on Germany, allowing the Nazis to exploit the German sense of grievance and a new form of virulent nationalism. To further poison the caldron, the Nazis made use of scapegoats by fomenting the anti-Semitism that produced the Holocaust.
Meyerson points to some of the European parties today, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, which glorify violence, as the Nazis did, and which are openly racist and anti-Semitic. That parties such as these in Greece, France, Hungary, Britain and elsewhere can gain a foothold in troubled times is a worrisome reminder of how things can go seriously off track.
In Meyerson’s view, the tea party right in America is part of this trend, especially its noxious targeting of immigrants. (Showing an adept use of scapegoats, Sarah Palin said Thursday that illegal immigrants were getting better health care than veterans.) Thus, Meyerson said, right-wingers such as Patrick Buchanan have been praising Putin for his attacks on gays. They perceive moral strength in what they see as traditional moral values.
As we ought to have learned, vilifying minorities does not demonstrate moral strength. Further, if the financial establishment remains locked in orthodox thinking in difficult economic times, we have seen that it can have a punishing effect on the great mass of the population. That is what the formulas for fiscal austerity cooked up by the European Union and advanced by Republicans in the U.S. Congress have been doing.
Putin’s mischief in Ukraine and the rise of the ultra-right in Europe demand that the establishment shake itself free of doctrines that have made things worse and caused Europeans to look for scapegoats. It’s not so easy to do. As conditions worsen, the right tends to push the very policies that have caused economic damage in the first place. Because they are expert in exploiting resentments, this sometimes succeeds. The lessons of World War II have not been forgotten, however. European and American willingness to stand up to Putin ought to signal a willingness to learn from the past, looking for remedies rather than scapegoats.MORE IN Editorials
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