While Owen Smith and the Labour right play political football with antisemitism, Kevin Ovenden looks at the serious rise in fascism across Europe
The oath of allegiance taken by members of Golden Dawn in Greece identifies their greatest enemy as the “Eternal Jew” – Der Ewige Jude was the title of a Nazi propaganda film from 1940.
The leader of the Greek fascist party, Nikos Michaloliakos, has been videoed telling supporters: “We are the seed of the defeated army of 1945. We are National-Socialists.” That is, Nazis – acolytes of the particular strand of fascism developed in Germany by Hitler and his NSDAP, the Nazi Party.
The anti-racist movement in Greece obtained that and many other videos and documents relating to Golden Dawn just under three years ago. An anti-fascist uprising following the murder of Pavlos Fyssas on 17-18 September 2013 forced the then government to sunder its back channel relationship with the fascists and to allow a prosecution of Golden Dawn for its many crimes.
Tomorrow will mark three years to the day since one of those crimes: the near fatal attack on Sotiris Poulikogiannis, president of the Metalworkers Union of Piraeus, and about 30 other members of the PAME inter-union front, led by the Communist Party of Greece.
They were set upon by a Golden Dawn “battalion squad”. That is the direct translation from the Greek. What it refers to precisely is rendered in German as the Sturmabteilung, literally the “storm department”. In English, the term is stormtroopers. They were the brown-shirted paramilitary force, the SA, which numbered a third of a million men in 1932 and were the defining feature of Hitler’s Nazi party. The Sturmabteilung was what the German elites thought they were “hiring”, in the words of conservative politician Franz von Papen, when they brought Hitler to power in January 1933.
The attempted murder of Communist trade unionists by a Greek Sturmabteilung three years ago is part of the ongoing trial of Golden Dawn. The party is not a uniquely Greek contemporary phenomenon.
Golden Dawn is part of a network of fascist organisations in Europe. The closest equivalent of substance is Jobbik in Hungary. Like Golden Dawn, it holds third place in its national parliament. It has its stormtroopers.
A maniacal antisemitism remains at the core of the worldview, and is an organising ideological principle, of these dangerous forces, even as they highlight other targets of convenience, as circumstance dictates.
In Hungary, one of the main targets is Roma people, who are still the most marginalised and discriminated against ethnic group in Europe. They too suffered a genocide in Nazi-occupied Europe. Not one European state treats them as a people who survived near extermination.
There are multiple groupings of far right forces in Europe. Some are centred upon Marine Le Pen and the chameleon-fascist Front National in France. Another is developing around the AfD, the Alternative for Germany, which made a further, shocking breakthrough last weekend in the regional state election in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
They vary in strategies for the conquest of political power. They differ also in precise ideology, which for them is malleable according to the central drive to take over the state and its repressive arms. The distinctions between the variegated far right forces are important. But they are neither absolute nor immutable.
All of the far right pose as a radicalisation of the politics of the conventional right in their respective national contexts. If that is where you place yourself on the political spectrum, then you need to demonstrate constantly your radicalism in words and deeds against the mainstream right wing forces if you are to advance and to eclipse them.
And those forces of “the centre” are everywhere turning to racist and reactionary policies. Those are now more constitutive of the way the European political system seeks to sustain itself than at any time I have lived through.
We shall see in the next few days whether the Austrian presidential election will be postponed, on account of incredible bungling by the Austrian state itself. It is so incredible that it forces you to consider whether there is a sinister purpose behind it.
Twelve months ago large numbers of ordinary Austrians showed extraordinary powers of organisation efficiently to provide food, water, transport and temporary accommodation for hundreds of thousands of refugees passing through their country.
Now the flabby bureaucracy of the Austrian state is proving incapable of organising even the postal vote in a national election. The result of that is to boost the claims of the far right FPO – echoing Benito Mussolini – that only it can bring order out of the chaos: “We can make the trains run on time”, or at least issue the postal ballots competently.
The FPO straddles a shifting line on one side of which stand the outright adherents of “the defeated army of 1945”, which in the 1940s reorganised the European rail network to destinations we know only too well.
It pins on its lapel the Kornblumen, the cornflower. That was the coded sign between 1934 and 1938 that Austrian Nazis used to recognise one another. It was also the favourite flower of German Kaiser Wilhelm before the First World War. The FPO plays on the ambiguity. We are just pan-German and nationalist, they say, not genocidal Nazis. But if you want to make that clear, why adopt a symbol both share?
FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache visited Israel earlier this year and went to the state’s museum of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem. He was greeted by leaders of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. Strache was invited by Eli Hazan, Likud’s head of information and external communications, and former Likud MP Michael Kleiner. How much more kosher can you get?
Beleaguered decent opinion in Israel did not think so. Many pointed out that four years earlier Strache had posted a cartoon of a corpulent, hook-nosed, Jewish stereotype being fed morsels by “The Government” with an emaciated “People [Volk]” of Austria and of “Aryan” Europe looking on wistfully.
The Austrian paper Die Presse reported that Strache’s motive for the visit was “to make himself kosher in Israel” in order to be accepted elsewhere. So – a visit to the Holocaust museum of Yad Vashem is now to be a free pass. It is bestowed by hard right Israeli politicians who value any militantly anti-Muslim stance, for it is to that reactionary bolster that the Netanyahu government of Israel turns just as much as European elites do as a central means to legitimise themselves.
The bones of the Holocaust dead become turned to slaked lime, the better to whitewash the electric blue of the cornflower mascot, a cipher for pan-German Nazism.
Palestine and the state of Israel are incidental, and merely instrumental, to what are fundamentally European discontents and political processes. A Pew opinion survey this year found soaring anti-Muslim racism in Europe and some increase in antisemitism. It looked at attitudes. It did not examine the social position of Muslims and Jews or their treatment by the state and by other centres of power in Europe.
If you mention anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racism together, all sorts of people try to see them through the prism of somewhere outside of Europe – Palestine and the territory of the Israeli state. But the strongest finding of the Pew research was this: those in Europe who hold the worst views of Muslims are also the most likely to hold antisemitic views of Jewish people.
It is a European conceit to bury that fact under the conflicts of the Middle East, at the centre of which stands the struggle of the Palestinian people. antisemitism sits with Islamophobia as a European problem. It is capitalist Europe itself which is proving incapable of living with a growing ethnic-religious minority within – Muslims – without recourse to violent and eliminationist racism.
And, notwithstanding the advances of “Jewish Emancipation” in the 19th century and despite the reaction to the barbarism in the middle of the century that followed, it still constructs for itself an irresolvable problem out of the “Jewish Question”.
In 1905 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky described what a failing society and elites turning to the politics of racism could lead to. A sudden and violent eruption – the Russian word for which is pogrom:
Everything is allowed him [the member of the antisemitic gang]. He is capable of anything. He is the master of property and honour, of life and death.
If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano. He can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a small girl while the entire crowd moves on…
He exterminates whole families. He pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone dares to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel …
There exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened by alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of anything. He dares everything.
That was well before the Holocaust, at a time when the forces of reaction were perfecting their fusion of anti-leftist and racist politics, the better to serve the old order. Over a century on, and what do we find in Britain? Papers and pundits spouting: “Trotsky”, “antisemitism”, “Yad Vashem” and… “Sturmabteilung”.
All of it is turned to petty politicking, as demonstrated by Corbyn’s opponent, Owen Smith, who evinces not the slightest knowledge about antisemitism or racism generally, nor any track record in fighting either. None of the game-playing is even remotely aware of the actual and pressing danger. A businessman, invoking his Jewishness, equates the rising left around Corbyn with Hitler’s Brownshirts, who murdered and tortured to death the defenders of the labour movement and of democracy in Germany. Blasphemy upon the memory of barbarism.
“Why did the heavens not darken? Why did the stars not withhold their radiance? Why did not the sun and the moon go dark?”
So asked of god or of history – or of both – an anonymous chronicler who survived the massacre of the Jewish community in Mainz, in what is now Germany, in 1096. The Jews of Mainz and Worms and other towns were killed as a kind of send off to the First Crusade – an early piratical European encounter with peoples further east.
Over a thousand years later, we must – I suppose – refute the smears of our pipsqueak opponents. But let us not allow them to deflect our sight from the darkening before our eyes. It is as apparent as the shadow cast by the falling autumn sun.
The most execrable thing the saboteurs of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party have done is to play fast and loose with these questions.
We on the left and of the working class movement face a double burden. It is to refute their petty lies. At the same time it is to maintain a level head and to establish a combative united front to crush the rising danger of reaction.
When it comes to that, a good leader of the Labour Party is better than a bad one. But there are far, far greater things at stake than just who is the leader of a political party. Not understanding that is a reflection of the kind of mentality which in 1933 permitted the Nazi seizure of power in Germany and all that followed.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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