The fascists are back - but the old thugs have been joined by new activists sporting blue blazers over their black shirts. Roger Eatwell reports.
As the Russian armies neared the Fuhrerbunker in late April 1945, Adolf Hitler decided to marry his long-standing mistress, Eva Braun. In a curious reversal of symbolism, the ceremony marked an end rather than a new beginning, for shortly afterwards the Fuhrer and his bride committed suicide.
For much of the subsequent 50 years, historians and social scientists have held that European fascism was essentially a phenomenon of the inter-war years, which died as a major force in the ruins of Berlin. In the decades immediately after 1945, pockets of diehards continued to meet, drink and to fight the occasional election - sometimes with a modicum of success. Yet all this was small beer compared to the inter-war years, when even in countries like Britain fascists could mount major mass rallies.
In recent years, however, there have been growing signs that a fascist revival is taking place. This resurgence has come in different guises and must be measured in different ways.
For most people, the word "fascism" conjures up images of alienated youths, wearing Nazi insignia and shouting "Sieg Heil" as the boot goes in. This image has if anything been strengthened during the 1990s by the violence which broke out in Germany after reunification. The number of violent incidents by extremists - mainly aimed at asylum seekers and Gastarbeiter - more than doubled between 1991 and 1992. The latter year left 17 dead and 687 seriously injured.
Before jumping to the conclusion that this is primarily a German problem, it is worth noting that there is evidence that racial incidents are mounting rapidly in Britain. There were 130,000 such incidents in 1994. Some figures from anti-racist groups show that there may have been more racially-motivated murders in Britain than in Germany.
Academics differ about the causes of racially-motivated violence, but the main explanations focus on the growing loss of respect and hope among a section of the less skilled male population, which encourages the scapegoating of "immigrants". A growing sense of powerlessness in a world characterised by "hyper-change" also seems to be more generally promoting violent responses among people (for instance, "car rage").
Most assailants are not members of extremist parties. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the activities of extremist parties help to condition a climate of hatred, especially in urban areas where there are large ethnic communities. Some of the smaller, radical parties even seem to be seeking a violent ethnic backlash as a way of polarising politics in the future, and encouraging support for the mass expulsions.
In recent years, neo-fascism has taken on a second image: that of the blazer, the double-breasted suit and apparent respectability. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen gained 15 per cent of the vote in the 1995 presidential elections; 14 years earlier he could not even find the 500 signatures from officials necessary to run for the presidency.
The Front National has undoubtedly benefited from some of the general socio-economic factors which have encouraged racial violence. However, it is important to stress that its social base comes from all walks of life. Although it exploits anti-immigrant sentiment, the Front National seeks to distance itself from the fascist tradition, portraying itself as a respectable French party. This is helped by a sophisticated political rhetoric which is used to hide the core beliefs of many at the centre of the party - namely a rejection of the pluralist liberal democratic order.
This last point is equally true of the Italian Social Movement, which has renamed itself the National Alliance. In the 1994 legislative elections it gained 13.5 per cent of the vote, a result which was followed by the appointment of the first fascist ministers since the fall of the Benito Mussolini regime in 1945. By late 1994, opinion polls showed that the young leader of the Alliance, Gianfranco Fini, was the most popular politician in Italy.
The Alliance undoubtedly benefited from the general climate of political corruption in Italy. But Fini's claim that the party is now "post-fascist", that it has disowned totalitarianism and racism, has helped it gain further respectability - a trend helped by the growing academic rehabilitation of aspects of the Mussolini regime.
An often-ignored aspect of the neo-fascist revival is propaganda, a surprising omission as classic fascism placed great emphasis on the role of images and language in manipulating people. Neo-fascist groups produce a remarkable amount of propaganda. There are several papers and journals associated with the Front National, each targeted at a slightly different group. The ideas expressed and iconography can also be surprisingly sophisticated. For some time the Italian Social Movement-National Alliance has produced material which plays on left-wing as well as right-wing and Catholic images as a way of broadening its appeal. Recently, it has also borrowed from the language of the French Nouvelle Droite, which has had an important impact on many groups around Europe.
The Nouvelle Droite had its origins in the late 1960s, but emerged from the shadows after the late 1970s. It sought nothing less than the creation of a new language for fascism, disowning the more overt manifestations of the past. Of particular importance has been its attempt to move away from hierarchical versions of racial thought: in its place, the Nouvelle Droite argues for naturalness - the way in which all groups wish to preserve their own identity. Hence there is nothing inferior about Arabs (or whomever); it is just that their place is in their own country.
Until recently, these ideas were only disseminated among a handful of the more serious neo-fascist thinkers and strategists. Indeed, the espousal of such views was potentially damaging to the more street-violent type of neo-fascist party. However, they are now beginning to be disseminated more widely on the Internet (see box).
It is important not to overstate the extent of the neo-fascist revival, or assume that there is an irreversible process at work. The latest statistics on violence in Germany show that it has decreased since 1993, when stricter asylum laws were introduced and the police began to take a tougher line - including the banning of several neo-fascist groups. The main German anti-immigrant party, the Republikaner, which seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough at the turn of the 1990s when it won representation in the European parliament, is today badly divided and its vote has slumped. In part it suffered because images of neo-Nazi violence after 1991 helped revive fears of fascism, and helped to de-legitimise the party.
However, a clear dual trend appears to be at work across Europe. On the one hand, a set of parties is emerging which are learning to present themselves in more respectable terms, as part of honourable national traditions, and using coded language. On the other, a less organised wave of racially motivated violence is gathering force.
Which is the more dangerous? In the short run, and especially for the most likely victims who include homosexuals and anti-fascists as well as the ethnic communities, the violent strand is more menacing.
In the longer run, the electoral wave seems more ominous. There is a growing lack of faith in mainstream political leadership; old ideologies of both left and right are losing their appeal. In the event of a serious economic downturn in Europe - or a major event such as the rise of Islamic fundamentalist regimes in North Africa (a particular fear in France) - it will be hard to prevent a second great wave of fascist support.
Roger Eatwell is senior lecturer in western European politics at the University of Bath. His book, Fascism: a History, was published last month by Chatto and Windus.
Hate email: fascism on the Internet
The Internet has been a "hot" subject in the media recently. But for some time the advantages of computer networks have been known to many of Europe's neo-fascists. Email especially has been used to keep activists in touch and provide a sense of belonging, an important psychological need for groups whose membership is often numbered in hundreds. But recently there has been an explosion of material on the net which offers succour to neo-fascists. These include various white power and nationalist newsgroups (which often attract contributions from anti-fascists/racists), and the creation of several sites on the world wide web. The latter are especially interesting as they are often visually well-presented, and can include sophisticated graphics. There has been a particularly important attempt to put Holocaust Denial material on the web. While to the uninitiated, such propaganda may seem to be the political equivalent of the "scientific" claim that the earth is flat, it can sometimes be deceptively convincing to those not steeped in fascist history.
There is an even greater amount of American militia material available. While strictly not fascist as it is hostile to the state and often linked to religious fundamentalism, the militias are white supremacist and often addicted to conspiracy theory.
A wide variety of neo-fascist literature - from sophisticated Nouvelle Droite positions to calls for racial war - is, therefore, now set to reach a rapidly growing audience, by-passing the law (for instance, Holocaust denial literature is illegal in France and Germany).