Like all European Jews, I was taught about the Holocaust during childhood. The facts of the event are too staggering for even an adult to comprehend, let alone a child. But the explanation given was fairly straightforward: the German people went through some kind of temporary madness; the “good guys” (Britain, The US and the Soviet Union) went to war; we won and killed Hitler; surviving Jews were freed from the camps; it couldn’t happen again.
Some less palatable facts were left out of the account; the Holocaust was massive in scale, but was just one of countless European attacks on Jews and Gypsies throughout history; it wasn’t just the Nazis, or just the Germans, but a mass genocidal movement that rose spontaneously across large parts of Europe; the only reason it may not happen again was that this time it was a “success” – so many Jews were killed, and so many more fled to New York and Israel that Europe’s thirst for Jewish blood may have finally been sated.
What was “special” about Jews and Gypsies? Simply this: that both groups originated outside of Europe. And Europe hates outsiders.
Most people I know like the simplicity of the “one-off madness” theory. It saves thinking too much, and avoids any worry that similar could happen again. British Jews in particular like to blame Germany for everything; acknowledging you live in a continent that has taken repeated joy in slaughtering our ancestors is too much for most Jews to think about.
I believed in the simple view myself until I started travelling to Italy on a regular basis. I’d fallen in love with the style and beauty of the country, and learned to speak Italian to a good level. Visiting a friend’s family in the Alto Adige, a mixed Italian/German province in the far north-east of the country, helped open my eyes. It was casually explained to me that the city council of Bolzano (the main city of the region) regularly changes hands at elections – between the German-speaking Fascists and the Italian-speaking Fascists. I thought this must be some mistake; surely Fascism died in 1945, never to return?
While in Bolzano, I accompanied a friend to visit her father’s grave. She thought I’d be interested in the Jewish section of the cemetery so we walked around it. She said she didn’t think there were any Jews left in Bolzano – but she didn’t know where they had gone. That was my moment of revelation: by punishing the Nazis for the crimes of WW2, most of the guilty had gone free. History had been re-written. As Europe rebuilt, it had learned fewer lessons than it liked to pretend.
The European far-right struggled to re-establish itself for decades, but bit by bit it has returned to strength. The movements are deeply adaptable – unlike its cousin in America that finds it hard to hate anyone except black people, the European far-right is pragmatic in its choice of scapegoats. It’s no longer considered acceptable to blame Jews for everything? Then parade your “love” for Israel and blame Muslims instead. Homosexuality has become acceptable in Europe? Then gays will no longer be lynched – in fact the new fascists positively embrace homosexuality, brandishing their “tolerance” to show how “intolerant” Muslims are (cleverly ignoring the fact that European gays used to travel to Morocco on vacation when they were not acceptable to the average European).
Suddenly, apparently within a few months, far-right nationalism is confident and resurgent. The seed of this growth was in large part sown on 9/11, but it’s taken a decade for the anti-Muslim narrative to evolve. Mostly, the new nationalism is finding strength in the same places that embraced fascism in the 1930s: France and Italy, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, across much of Europe. Nationalism is presented in fresh, acceptable forms. While we were on the lookout for jackboots and racist mobs, it instead presents itself in the form of Geert Wilders, who has gained popularity in The Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France, and the boringly-British duo of Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage in the UK. It cloaks itself as “concern” over “excessive” immigration or as “defending our sovereignty” from the European Union. We forget so fast that Europe, by nature, is the world’s most warlike continent, and that the EU has created the longest period of peace in European history.
So here we are again – it’s not so much that far-right nationalism is back, it’s just that we forgot it never went away.