In the 1920s and 30s, when Europe was recovering from a devasting war and crushing economic meltdown, far-right parties swept across the continent and took power one by one.
As Germany and Italy challenged the regional order, European nations decided to turn a blind eye to the annexation of some part of Austria and Chechoslavakia by Germany, a policy known as Appeasement. The idea was that Germany and Italy would stop stoking tensions in Europe if they were given some concessions. But their demands never ended and their appetite was never satisfied. The policy didn’t work out. Some historians even argue that these policies even made Germany much stronger as it headed to World War II.
Over 90 years later, we are witnessing a mild comeback of far-right groups in Europe. Hitherto fringe groups in European politics have started challenging mainstream political systems. In 2015, when refugees flooded Europe, it had become a political fodder for far-right parties. In subsequent elections, parties ran on anti-migrant talking points and secured significant popular backing.
Populist, anti-immigrant parties with far-right discourse secured power in countries like Italy and became junior coalition members in others. There is no question that we need to address this troubling trend.
Hillary Clinton thinks she has an answer. In her interview with the Guardian last week, she said that Europe needs to get a handle on migration because “that is what lit the flame.”
“I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
Let’s remember what happened the last time European powers tried to appease fascist governments. For over two years, Britain and France (with the blessing of the Roosevelt administration) ignored Germany and Italy’s land grabs. Germany’s thirst was never quenched. In the end, it turned Europe into a bloodbath.
Revisionist fascism usually survives by stoking fears, designating a vulnerable minority as a scapegoat and adopting an ultra-nationalist agenda that ranks other races as inferior. Today, that scapegoat is immigrants.
Immigration is just another talking point for far-right and neo-Nazi groups in their political campaign against the establishment and mainstream politics. It taps into people’s worst impulses, exploiting a politically explosive and sensitive matter to score political points. In the 1920-30s, it was the Jews and communists. Today, it is immigrants.
One should be exceptionally naive to believe that far-right groups threaten mainstream parties in Europe because countries like Germany opened its doors to immigrants and refugees. It is even mind-boggling to argue that neo-Nazis won’t flourish if European governments do what exactly they demand: Curbing immigration.
Make no mistake — the source of fascism in Europe is not migration and its elimination won’t solve it. It is true that refugees and immigration policies are hugely divisive subjects that undermine mainstream center parties. But effectively addressing the refugee problem won’t dissolve far-right groups.
Today, neo-Nazi movements are thriving not because refugees are flooding Europe. It is booming because Europe still holds this poisonous idea that one race is superior to others. In the 1930s, when fascism was on the march in Europe, migration wasn’t the issue.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t deal with the refugee problem. It is a festering problem that requires urgent attention, threatens to roil European politics and gives undeserved leverage to countries like Turkey (Turkey can easily change Europe’s political map by letting refugees travel to Europe). Addressing root problems that generate refugees will be a better solution to the issue that is exploited by far-right parties in Europe.
Solving the refugee problem requires an enormous amount of diplomatic and sometimes military effort. It takes time. Under these circumstances, Clinton could’ve said that center political parties in Europe should change their public narrative in a way that would address the fear among the public and prevent the issue from becoming a talking point for anti-migrant parties.
At the heart of her misguided remarks lies the lack of understanding of who neo-Nazis are and what type of tactics they use to undermine democracies. Appeasement is not the solution. Burying their venomous ideology is.