In Athens, a popular far-right party condemns Jews as a source of the country’s misfortune and recycles the ancient lie depicting them as “Christ killers.” In Hungary, the prime minister fails to disassociate himself convincingly from an anti-Semitic and increasingly powerful fascist group. Scenes from Europe in the 1930s? No. Both examples, sadly, of European politics today.
The Greek organization is Golden Dawn, now the third most popular party in the birthplace of democracy. The Hungarian party is Jobbik, which is rising in influence. Nearly 70 years after the defeat of Hitler, Mussolini, and European fascism in the Second World War, hateful, right-wing ideology has returned in nearly every European country. While none of these parties is strong enough to win power, they are often violent and aggressive. And they are intolerant of immigrants, Jews, and other minority groups that don’t fit their twisted definition of what Greeks, Hungarians, and other Europeans should look like.
Golden Dawn has drawn worldwide attention for its crude bigotry, race-baiting, and use of the swastika and Nazi salute. Long an obscure cellar dweller in Greek politics, it has risen steadily in the polls as Greece’s economic crisis has worsened during the past three years. In the 2012 national elections, Golden Dawn surprised by winning 7 percent of the vote and 18 seats in the Greek Parliament. It is now at over over 11 percent in recent polls. Party legislators brawled with leftists in the Greek parliament last week. Earlier this month, another Golden Dawn leader tried to punch the mayor of Athens at a charity event and, in missing, hit a 12-year-old girl instead.
During the last few months, Golden Dawn has been particularly critical of the American Jewish Committee, in part for having invited Greek Prime Minister Andonis Samaras to speak at its Global Forum in Washington next month. Golden Dawn has castigated the AJC in outrageous, derogatory language and cartoons, describing Jews as “loan sharks and tyrants of the Greek people.” My friend David Harris, executive director of the AJC, describes the threat this way: “Golden Dawn does not even attempt to camouflage its ideology of hate” and “represents an insidious outlook that cannot be ignored today.”
Just as the Nazis and Mussolini preyed on people’s base, primal fears during the economic crises of the 1920s and ’30s, Golden Dawn targets poorer Greeks living in desperate times, with youth unemployment nearing 50 percent.
If not taking Hitler seriously soon enough was a great mistake of democratic leaders in the 1930s, how should Europe and the United States react today? Some find laughable a party that glorifies Nazis in the 21st century. But that is a naïve reaction given the anger, prejudice, and hatred that fuel many European fascist movements. It would be a serious mistake to assume they are all harmless far-right crackpots.
The battle to roll back Europe’s neo-fascists begins with Europeans themselves. Just last week, a Council of Europe official suggested Greece ban Golden Dawn from Greek political life. Europe’s most senior leaders, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande, have a special responsibility to lead the charge. They can start by ostracizing Hungary’s mercurial prime minister, Viktor Orban, should he not condemn the Jobbik party in plain and unmistakable terms.
Americans, too, need to speak up. Our greatest achievement is construction of a society based on openness, diversity, tolerance, and freedom. In addition to guarding against our own far-right groups, we should continue to condemn fascist groups like Golden Dawn. We can also reaffirm our democratic links with the old continent. For all the talk about the pivot to Asia, Europe still ranks as our most important economic partner and most loyal ally in NATO. President Obama’s call for an ambitious new free trade and investment agreement with Europe can revitalize the trans-Atlantic alliance and strengthen European democracy in the process.
We share with Europe the deepest historical, social, and political connections, which go all the way back to the European discovery of America itself. We’re now called upon to defend them against a shameful ideology assaulting all that Europe has achieved since the close of World War II.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.