Ian Kershaw: Ghosts of Fascists Past

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ian Kershaw is a historian of twentieth-century Germany. His most recent book is Hitler: A Biography (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010).]

A prominent British government minister, Baroness Warsi, herself a Muslim, claimed just recently that Islamophobia has “passed the dinner-table test” in Britain and is seen by many as normal and uncontroversial. She warned of growing intolerance, prejudice and bigotry toward the Muslim faith and its adherents. In reply, some religious and social commentators have suggested that growing numbers of Muslims in Britain give rise to legitimate concerns. They have asked whether strict adherence to the Islamic faith is compatible with the values of Western democracies. Even to pose such a question, people object, is to engage in a covert form of racism. However, the claims continue. It is further asserted that the advocacy of sharia law, disregard for women’s rights and opposition to all forms of assimilation into Western society by some Islamists justify doubts about compatibility. The controversy over the place of Islam in British society is inextricably linked with the additional concern about homespun Islamic terrorism in light of the evidence that the 2005 al-Qaeda bombings in London were perpetrated by young Muslims who had grown up in the UK, and whose deadly actions were apparently and worryingly supported by a minority among the Muslim population.

Though the comments of the minister related solely to Britain, there is little doubt that they could be replicated in many other European countries. If we add to the mix the anti-immigrant feeling that is widespread in many parts of the Continent, then racism, it has to be admitted, is far from eradicated. How dangerous is it, given these countries’ baleful histories of racism and fascism in the not-too-distant past? Not surprisingly, some have asked whether Europe is moving toward political extremes. Do the signs point that way? Is Europe indeed on the road to new racial intolerance that could give succor to the extremist Right and even offer it new, promising prospects?

Certainly, the bright lights of optimism that burned in Europe when the Iron Curtain came down twenty years ago were all too quickly extinguished. Hopes that the collapse of Soviet repression in the Eastern bloc and the removal of the threat of nuclear confrontation would usher in a new era of peace, unity and prosperity rapidly evaporated. In the 1990s, aggressive nationalism in the territories of the imploding post-Communist state of Yugoslavia brought the return of war and ethnic cleansing on European soil. The demise of the Soviet Union, some had declared, meant “the end of ideology” or even “the end of history.” Such assertions also soon rang hollow. By early in the new millennium, Europe was having to attune to the sounds of Islamic jihadism. The seismic waves from the 9/11 attacks on the United States left no European country untouched. Europe immediately became part of the proclaimed “war against terror,” leading to involvement in costly, extended and highly divisive military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorist outrages in London and Madrid showed that no European capital was safe from suicide bombers. In public consciousness, the threat from Islamic terrorism replaced the old bogeyman of the “Red Scare.” Greatly intensified security at airports was only the most visible sign of an enhanced surveillance society, as safety from extremist violence was weighed in the balance against personal liberties, which were often seemingly viewed by governments as less important.

Meanwhile, the rapid widening of the global economy and the integration of new member states from Eastern Europe into the EU liberalized and extended labor markets. With that came the inexorable movement of poorer migrants seeking work in the wealthier economies of Western Europe. This soon produced social and political strains, with much animus directed at the newcomers. Though the immigrants were actually important to the continued economic growth of the wealthier nations, their settlement—largely in poorer parts of towns and cities—was often greatly unwelcome. Many people, themselves underprivileged and living close to the poverty line, objected strongly to “interlopers” who, they thought (usually incorrectly), were being given unfair advantages in employment opportunities, housing allocation and the granting of social benefits. The basis for a potential revival of fascist tendencies was thus laid...

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