Europe’s creeping fascism

Europe's Futures alumni Luke Cooper on his last visit to Hungary

Just along from the Hungarian Parliament Building, visitors to Budapest can find Shoes on the Danube Bank. Consisting of sixty shoes facing the river looking westwards, it is a deeply poignant memorial to the Budapest Jews who were murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross government between 1944 and 1945. They were asked to remove their shoes before being shot. Their bodies fell into the river.

Those killed in this way were only a fraction of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust. In 56 days during the summer of 1944 alone, Hungarian authorities worked with the Nazi regime, to deport 437,402 Jews, primarily to the extermination camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Standing so close to the Hungarian Parliament, the memorial is a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the terrible atrocities committed during the Second World War.

New and old forms

There is, of course, nothing specifically Hungarian about these experiences. Europe has an intensely violent and racist history. No corner of the continent can claim innocence when it comes to the history and legacy of fascism.

The sheer horror of this past can also sometimes blind us to the emergence of nationalism and fascism in new forms. If there are no extermination camps then should we be content that the contemporary far right has adapted to, and accepted, democracy and minority rights? Progressives and democrats in many European countries today face this question squarely. Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain, to name only some of the most prominent cases, are all countries that have either a growing or consolidated far right presence in their national political scene.

Perhaps because of the history attached to the terminology of fascism, many observers are reluctant to describe these developments in such language, preferring instead to label it ‘far-right populism’. The danger of this linguistic shift is that it can aid the normalisation of these new far-right forces into an accepted part of the European political landscape. Twentieth-century fascism did not, after all, begin the journey to the extermination camps with acknowledging this as its goal.

Part of the mobilising power of the new far-right in Europe lies in the ‘memory politics’ of how twentieth-century fascism is thought about today. The new far-right rejects any notion of national responsibility for fascism. They claim they are not in continuity with these historical movements, while drawing on an idea of majority-white victimhood which resembles classical fascist discourses: that a liberal elite is systematically disadvantaging white-native populations to the benefit of ethnic and religious minorities.

Luke Cooper

Luke Cooper is an Associate Researcher on the London School of Economics Visions of Europe project.

From September 2018 until April 2019 he was Europe’s Futures Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. During his fellowship he focused on his research on what he referes to as the ‘dual crisis’ of the European Union: the combination of the economic and the refugee crises.

Photo: © ERSTE Foundation / Peter Mayr

Illiberal democracy

Today, Hungary stands at the centre of these developments. Since 2010, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz government, the country has pioneered what they call ‘illiberal democracy’. For international observers the language Orbán and his party use is particularly striking for just how explicitly they reject liberal norms. They oppose the liberal notion that civil society has rights and freedoms in relation to the state on the grounds that these are private associations, which have not been elected by the majority. They use similar ‘majoritarian’ sophistry to reject the idea that minority groups and ethnicities have fundamental human rights.

Whereas far-right parties are usually thought of as becoming more moderate as they move closer to power, Fidesz tells a different story. The party began life after the fall of communism as a young, liberal, even idealistic party, but overtime has become deeply conservative. Zsuzsanna Szelényi, a Hungarian oppositionist, left the party in 1994. She draws a parallel between Orbán’s autocratic takeover of the party from 1992 onwards with his rule in office.

‘Very early on Victor Orbán… pushed the party… with a strong hand… The whole decision making process, especially related to party finances, very quickly became un-transparent…’ she says. For Szelényi, it was Orbán’s desire for power, rather than any deep ideological commitment to nationalist values, that has motivated him.

Concentration of power

Many Hungarian oppositionists share this perspective. They argue the often-shocking pronouncements of the Fidesz government on migration and Islam are used cynically to win support and de-legitimise opponents.

Dániel Bartha, the director of a Budapest-based think-tank, argues the biggest concrete effect of the Orbán regime has been ‘power concentration on a massive scale’. Fidesz has created a new loyal elite in business, public institutions, universities, and the media, which is justified through the language of Hungarian nationalism and economic development.

One effect has been the abolition of a level-playing field between parties competing in elections. Vast amounts of taxpayers’ money have been spent on government ‘information campaigns’, for example, which have targeted George Soros and outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as the figures representing a pro-immigrant, anti-Christian conspiracy of global liberalism against Hungary. Independent media has also been aggressively marginalised as the government has lavished advertising revenue on supportive outlets, while boycotting the critical – with its business supporters then joining in, starving them of funds. They are also accused of turning public sector broadcasters into uncritical supporters of the government.

International appeal

Orbán’s rhetoric is without nuance and caveats. His speeches are all translated into English by the Hungarian government and published online. This leaves the impression that he is keen to promote these views globally. Conservative politicians have arguably assisted these efforts. Fidesz remains a member of the centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP), albeit currently suspended pending an investigation. Manfred Weber, former leader of the EPP, tweeted his congratulations to Orbán following his 2018 victory in the Hungarian elections, in spite of the fact that just a few days earlier Orbán had told Hungarian voters they faced a struggle to save their homeland from ‘the alchemical workshop of George Soros’ and ‘Brussels’ that ‘want to let in the immigrants’. ‘Migration’, he added, ‘is the rust which would slowly but surely consume our country’. The combination of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, where Jews are attacked for giving support to Muslim immigration, is a key theme of the new far right.

Other centre-right politicians have also happily aligned with the Fidesz regime. In March, Orbán spoke at a conference in Budapest on migration alongside former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Orbán used his speech to outline his version of the so-called ‘great replacement’ alt-right conspiracy theory. According to the latter the liberal, multicultural elite is conspiring to replace the white Christian population with non-white immigrants.

In Britain, Orbán’s biggest supporter is Nigel Farage, who recently said, ‘thank God, there is one European leader who is prepared to stand up for his principles, his nation, his culture, and his people’. EU institutions will be a critical theatre for the fight against the rise of fascism in the decade ahead.

First published on 12 July 2019 on

This text is protected by copyright: © Luke Cooper / redpepper. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Sculpted shoes as a Memorial for Jews killed during World War II besides the Danube in Budapest. Photo: © iStock / Marc Dufresne

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