Europe’s democratic mask is slipping

At a time when Europe is coming apart at the seams, it is all the more unsettling to see the rise – not entirely unopposed – of right-wing populist parties.

The antics of these groups are often reported in the media because it is in the public interest to know what is going on. But populist politicians are also highly media-savvy and in some cases own major newspapers and television channels. They know how to manipulate public opinion.

Editorially independent newspapers are one place to seek alternative views and opinions – however unpalatable they may be. Recently The Guardian noted the ominous rise of right-wing politics in Austria, pointing out that the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is by no means a new kid on the block (“Vienna calling”, 10 May 2016):

“Founded in the 1950s by groups consisting mainly of former Nazis, [the FPO] was marginal for decades. Then, in the 1980-90s, it reinvented itself under the leadership of Jörg Haider. It toned down its nationalistic pan-German rhetoric and put a new emphasis on anti-establishment populism. When Haider joined a ruling coalition in the early 2000s, Austria was sanctioned by other European countries for backsliding on democratic principles – a first in the history of the European project. The FPO’s current comeback is an alarming development not just for Austria but for a whole continent. Unlike in 2000, when most populist parties were on the sidelines, the FPO’s rise today will embolden other extremists, from France’s Marine Le Pen to Germany’s AfD.”

This is alarming. One way of shafting Europe is for an informal coalition of populist parties in different countries to agree on continent-wide policies that discriminate or demonize or worse in the name of everyone else. In “Right wing populist parties on the rise” (Cyprus Mail, 4 March 2014), Ruth Wodak cites the deliberate construction of scapegoats for society’s problems:

“Some parties gain support via an ambivalent relationship with fascist and Nazi pasts (e.g. in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France). Others focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam (e.g. in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland). Some restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities (e.g. in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom). Still others endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda (e.g. in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia).”

The Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial also known as the Nameless LibAustria retains its hallowed place in Europe’s cultural imagination (think Mozart, Maria von Trapp, and Sachertorte). But despite vaguely repenting its support for Nazi Germany, dark currents still flow beneath the surface. In 1996 an emerging sense of culpability saw the Austrian government commission British sculptor Rachel Whiteread to design a Holocaust memorial for its capital city, Vienna. The result was the haunting “Nameless Library”, a sealed concrete room symbolizing the untold stories of the Holocaust’s victims. After many delays, it was unveiled in 2000.

FPO.jpgFifteen years later, in 2015, Austria’s Catholic and Protestant churches apologized for their anti-Semitism in the period before and during the Second World War. And that same year the Vienna Philharmonic published a 55-page scholarly investigation into its “ambivalent loyalties” from 1938 to 1970. Yet in parallel with this wracking of consciences, Austria has seen the rise of a so-called Freedom Party that preaches aggressively populist nationalism and reactionary rhetoric that often encompasses racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. The Freedom Party poster reads: “Love your neighbours. For me these are our Austrians.”

Is the mask slipping and is this the real face of 21st century Europe? “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But history is not only repeated out of ignorance. It is repeated because people keep quiet; because they do not protest; and most ominously because many actually condone what is being said and done. The rise of far-right populist parties risks plunging European countries into the old tyranny and it is up to decent people to prevent it from happening.



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