Ghosts of a Tortured Past: Europe’s Right Turn

Ghosts of a Tortured Past: Europe’s Right Turn

In the annals of European politics, the elections of spring 2010 will undoubtedly be viewed as a watershed. Under the twin pressures of the global financial slowdown and the Greek economic crisis, far-right parties made significant and worrisome electoral gains in Hungary, Belgium, and the Netherlands. It would be ill-advised to blow these developments out of proportion. Since the 1980s, the presence of xenophobic, right-wing populist parties has been a persistent blot on the European political landscape. Few European nations have escaped. But the rub lies in this very “persistence.” One of the trademarks of these parties has been a willingness to disrupt Europe’s reigning, if timorous, democratic-humanitarian political consensus. That consensus is predicated on respect for the values of human rights, constitutionalism, and the rule of law. The far-right parties threaten to take European politics in a very different direction: one that harbors affinities with the authoritarian national-populist trends that predominated during the 1930s, W.H. Auden’s aptly named “low, dishonest decade.”

On the one hand, remembrance of the hecatombs of the Second World War, in which an estimated fifty million persons lost their lives in the European theater alone, have helped (with some notable exceptions, such as the Yugoslav civil war) to inoculate Europe against the threat of a bellicist, anti-democratic relapse. On the other hand, the electoral breakthroughs of the far Right serve as a constant reminder that Europe has yet to resolve many of the underlying political problems that led to the conflagration of 1939-1945. Foremost among these are structural unemployment that consistently hovers around 10 percent and the failure, so far, to create a meaningful European identity that transcends both the antagonisms of regional difference and the arrogance of national sovereignty.

Hungary’s alarming right turn has its historical origins in the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, as a result of which the nation, as part of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire, lost two-thirds of its territory. Today approximately 3.5 million Hungarian nationals are scattered among the neighboring states of Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Austria, and Ukraine. This situation provides ample grist for the mill of the unabashedly racist and revanchist Jobbik Party, which garnered an unprecedented 17 percent of the vote and forty-six deputies in the April 2010 parliamentary elections. Jobbik openly embraces anti-Semitism and hatred of Roma. Its leaders rail against the influence of “Jewish capital”; lamentation about “Gypsy criminals” is another of its standard refrains. Jobbik’s leaders sport regalia of a banned paramilitary organization that proudly evoke the interwar, fascist Arrow Cross. The party’s spiritual adviser, Pastor Lorant Hegedüs, is known for his anti-Semitic diatribes and has publicly feted convicted Holocaust denier David Irving. Not to ...

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