The Radical Right in Europe

, July 26, 2012

Vol. 12, No. 17    

  • The rise in radical-right social and populist movements over the past ten years has been remarkable. While once these were on the political fringes, they now carry political weight in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Latvia, and Slovakia among others, as well as in the European Parliament.
  • These groups oppose ethnic and cultural diversity. They foment public disorder with marches and rallies to harass and intimidate Muslims and other migrants, and there is growing liaison and even coordination among them. Their street violence provokes reactions from Muslims, especially Islamists, and an escalating spiral of action and counteraction is emerging.
  • The radicals do not target Jews, and several even profess to be pro-Israel. The reality, though, is that their members are sometimes former neo-Nazis.
  • It is important not to exaggerate these groups’ successes. So far, the radical right is represented in only a minority of national parliaments, and some researchers believe that their share of the vote may even have peaked in some countries.
  • What particularly distinguishes the European extreme right from its forebears is its tendency to violence. While some activists promote street violence, other small groups are plotting terrorism, a matter of obvious public concern after the Breivik incident and revelations about the German National Socialist Underground.
  • In an assessment it published at the end of 2011, EUROPOL stated that: “The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. The threat will most likely come from lone actors but organised underground groups also have the capability and intention to carry out attacks.”

Defining “The Right”

There is a continuing problem for researchers of the far right: namely, to define the terms and differentiate between the far right, the radical right, and the extreme right. However, in a sense, these definitions may be somewhat static and limiting as they can fail to reflect process and complexity.

The contemporary far right in Europe is rapidly moving away from the narrow ultranationalism that characterized it in the twentieth century toward a genuine and distinctive European agenda. This is evidenced in similar demands, growing liaison and coordination between national groups, and attempts to build supranational caucuses like that of the now defunct Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty group in the European Parliament, and the more recent European Social Movement.

The far right increasingly presents a transnational phenomenon, with some common, national, basic features. Two elements in particular are aiding these developments: the Schengen Agreement, which allows free access within the European Union, enabling all forms of cross-border travel, and the ever-increasing penetration of information and communication technologies, in particular the use of Web 2.0 social networking.

Here I will follow the definitional lead taken by the editors of the recently published Mapping the Extreme Right in Contemporary Europe. My chapter in that volume examines how and why the extreme right is developing and seeking closer interconnections within Europe.1

According to the editors’ formula, the far right comprises all of the extraparliamentary right. Within this category, the radical right encompasses the emerging anti-immigrant populist and social movements, which are racist, sometimes antisemitic, and may have neofascist or neo-Nazi origins, but which may also have rejected these. The extreme right includes neo-Nazis, neo-Nazi skinheads, autonomous nationalists, and third positionists, the majority of whom pursue antidemocratic and sometimes violent means to promote their ideologies.

A recent analysis by Michael Minkenberg provides a basis for examining the former group, the radical right, more closely. Right-wing radicals promote the myth of a homogeneous nation, with radicalized criteria of exclusion. Their populist ultranationalism is directed against the concept of a liberal and pluralistic democracy with its underlying principles of individualism and universalism.2 Minkenberg describes four ideological variants within the radical right: the autocratic fascists, the racists and ethnocentrists who are not necessarily fascist, the populist authoritarians organized around a strong leader, and the religious and fundamentalists.

Religion and geography are strong influences. Historically the far right was stronger in Catholic countries than in Protestant ones. In the 1930s it took hold in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Hungary, though Germany was an exception, being part Catholic and part Protestant. The Central and East European radical right focuses particularly on past ultranationalisms, and on reacting to globalization and recessionary crises.

The Rise of the Radical Right

The rise in radical-right social and populist movements over the past ten years has been remarkable. While once these were on the political fringes, they now carry political weight in the parliaments of Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden, Greece, Latvia, and Slovakia among others, as well as in the European Parliament.3

The core motivations for the contemporary radical right are opposition to immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, and economic concerns. The former constitutes the main planks of the platforms of the Sweden Democrats, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium, the Front National in France, Alleanza Nazionale in Italy, and the English Defence League in Britain.4

These parties and movements are adept at using social media to amplify their message, recruit, and organize. Some are social networks rather than formal political parties, and a recent European study noted that their online social-media following dwarfs their formal membership. They present a more youthful profile than the neo-Nazis, and their management and leadership structures are usually flatter and often networked rather than the traditional hierarchical model.5

These groups oppose ethnic and cultural diversity; they are antiestablishment and ambivalent if not hostile to liberal representative democracy. They foment public disorder with their marches and rallies to harass and intimidate Muslims and other migrants across Europe, and there is growing liaison and even coordination among them. Their street violence provokes reactions from Muslims, especially Islamists, and an escalating spiral of action and counteraction is emerging.6

In March 2012 an attempt to link the national defense leagues across Europe, at a counter-jihad meeting in Aarhus, Denmark, failed as only some dozens attended. But further attempts to join together will be made.7

The harassment of asylum seekers and visible minorities receives little media coverage in some countries. Police forces may be unreliable sources of information, and it is on civil society organizations that researchers must rely for information.

The radicals do not target Jews, and several even profess to be pro-Israel. The reality, though, is that their members are sometimes former neo-Nazis.8

However, despite many similarities between groups, the radical right is not completely homogeneous, and it presents different challenges to social and political systems in different states. Although their presence may not constitute a crisis of democracy, their way of operating, and particularly their opportunistic adopting of the language of liberal democracy so as to attract disaffected voters, is a significant development and sometimes quite novel in nature.

These movements embrace information and communication technologies and operate across national borders. Some groups even have multilingual websites. They have been successful in mainstreaming their issues and thereby influencing policy formulation, shifting social and political attitudes, and lending an air of legitimacy to policies founded on intolerance. They foster and thrive on mistrust and disillusionment with mainstream political structures, and their presence weakens social cohesion and undermines the social fabric of democracy.9

Still, radical-right politicians are predominantly nonviolent and operate within the rules of democracy. Some seek an element of respectability and are actively trying to disassociate themselves from historical ties to Nazism and violence.

It is important not to exaggerate these groups’ successes. So far, the radical right is represented in only a minority of national parliaments, and some researchers believe that their share of the vote may even have peaked in some countries.10

Decline of the Extreme Right

As for the extreme right, while it has not been eclipsed by the radical right, its membership is declining. In Britain, the British National Party and the National Front have seen their support drop drastically, and the annual reports of several European domestic security agencies likewise indicate declining membership within the traditional neo-Nazi groups, though not necessarily reduced activity.11 At the same time, new neo-Nazi groups have emerged in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Greece, Hungary, Ukraine, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.12 These extreme-right groups owe their origins and development to some different issues from those of the radical populists.

First, attempts to resurrect Nazism after the war failed everywhere in Europe because of the obvious legacy of horror over what it had done, and later because of ineffective leadership and lack of cohesion. Effective surveillance and interdiction by law enforcement agencies also undermined plans. Sometimes the violent reaction of antifascists and the extreme left drained much of the rightists’ strength.

Second, new ideologues such as the American Francis Parker Yockey, the Belgian Jean Thiriart, and the Frenchmen Alain de Benoist and Maurice Bardeche offered new directions.

Yockey maintained in the late 1940s that the age of narrow nationalism was dead and that the organic development of a white Europe was necessary to save Western civilization. Thiriart and his successors asserted that the trappings of Nazism had to be discarded if the extreme right was to attract younger members. His Jeune Europe adopted some leftist elements and embraced the Palestinian cause; his successors also advocated collaboration with the Soviet Union. De Benoist argued for a nonegalitarian Europe based on culture and freed from its Christian roots.13

What began to preoccupy the extreme right in the postwar years was not the pursuit of a totalitarian state but the generation of a white European consciousness and culture, and a growing awareness of the negative economic and cultural effects of globalization. The extreme right has also been concerned over recession and unemployment brought about by economic collapse and the transfer of economic activity to low-cost producers in Asia and the Third World.

But the major concern of the extreme right at present, like that of the radical right, is the growing presence in Europe of new migrants whose cultures and religions are seen as alien. The new right, too, exploits anxieties about migration, globalization, and perceived cultural threats rather than traditional neo-Nazi tropes.

A second set of influences has come from extreme-right American thinkers. Former Ku Klux Klan leader and sometime Louisiana legislator David Duke, who lived in Ukraine, Germany, and Austria for years, has advanced the idea of white European and Russian unity against the Jews. Louis Beam, another former Klan leader, is regarded as the theoretician of the leaderless resistance model, which advocates direct and violent action against government by self-directed small cells or lone actors.

The late William Pierce, a white-supremacist leader and promoter of white-noise rock music, wrote The Turner Diaries and Hunter, which have had enormous influence on the violent extreme right. The first of these novels depicts the violent extermination of Jews and nonwhites and a revolution to overthrow the U.S. federal government; the second deals with the targeted assassination of couples in interracial marriages and civil rights activists.14 These books provided models for extreme right-terrorists Anders Breivik; David Copeland, the London nail bomber; Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and others. Yet, while the European extreme right is attracted to and influenced by the American extreme right, it is also repelled by American cultural and economic hegemony.

A Tendency to Violence

What particularly distinguishes the European extreme right from its forebears is its tendency to violence. While some activists promote street violence, other small groups are plotting terrorism, a matter of obvious public concern after the Breivik incident and revelations about the German National Socialist Underground. All authoritative investigators, however, minimize the threat in comparison to other forms of terrorism.15

The Dutch domestic security service has reported three times since 2005 on the establishment of “tougher, violence-prone neo-Nazi groups.” This service recently published a survey on extreme-right radicalization, which, it stated, was its largest-ever investigation.16

Within almost the same timeframe, the German domestic security agency was reporting that German neo-Nazis were increasingly prepared to use violence, and twice in 2005 the agency confiscated large arms caches. It also interdicted the 2005 Kameradschaft Süd plot to bomb the rededication ceremony at the Munich synagogue, which could have decapitated Germany’s political leadership and that of the Jewish community in one stroke had it succeeded.17

Breivik’s assault in Oslo had a prequel in 2003 when Swedish white-power extremists plotted to bomb the parliament in Stockholm and murder young people in large numbers.18

Britain too has its extreme-right would-be terrorists, and currently holds seventeen extreme rightists in prison convicted of terrorism offenses. Although a couple of these are crazed loners, others devised sophisticated plots, one involving a viable biochemical ricin bomb and another a substantial amount of military-grade explosives.19

These may have been isolated “lone wolf” plots, but they are all products of a common ideology, and enabled by easy access to information on the internet as well as ease of travel within Europe. In 2007 EUROPOL reported that: “Although violent acts perpetrated by right-wing extremists and terrorists may appear sporadic and situational, right-wing activities are organised and trans-national. For instance, details regarding possible targets are collected and disseminated on the internet.”20

The following year EUROPOL posted an analysis by the British National Community Tension Team, a domestic police intelligence unit, identifying an increasing number of lone wolves who share “an ideological or philosophical identification with an extremist group, who do not communicate with the group they identify with.”21

European security forces’ surveillance of the shift from street violence to terrorism is generally effective. It is to be hoped that the lessons of the NSU case, in which three neo-Nazis evaded arrest for almost fourteen years after committing a string of robberies and murders, while living a normal life, have been learned. This has not, however, stopped activists from plotting. In 2011 five Spanish neo-Nazis were arrested in Germany in connection with a planned arson attack in Barcelona, and the British police announced in May 2012 that they had made an arrest in connection with a new terrorist plot where the suspect’s home was full of Nazi material.22

European Governments Have Barely Begun to Face the Threat

Nevertheless, any assessment of European governments confronting the far-right threat must conclude that, for the most part, they have been incoherent and inconsistent. Muslim migration and Islamist terrorism rightly dominate concerns, and many governments have barely begun to think about any threat from the far right at all. It is only since the recession really took hold, with the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese bailouts and the dramatic increase in unemployment and loss of public confidence, that some of these governments have begun to consider that the far right may also now pose a threat.

Some police forces, as first responders to a public-order or terror threat, have investigated the far-right threat and most have specialist units focused on it. Others, like the Dutch and Czech forces, have initiated investigations and published their findings. In an assessment it published at the end of 2011, EUROPOL stated that: “The threat of violent right-wing extremism has reached new levels in Europe and should not be underestimated. The threat will most likely come from lone actors but organised underground groups also have the capability and intention to carry out attacks.”23

Some states are considering the use of bans as a response. The Germans are again weighing a ban on the National Democratic Party, and Russia has just banned the transnational Blood and Honour group.24

Yet, aside from police action, there has been virtually no research on any connection between violent and nonviolent forms of far-right activity. No one is yet exploring the potential continuum from radicalization to terrorism, and whether the conveyor-belt process that is apparent in Islamist radicalization is also present in far-right radicalization. There is little discussion so far at the governmental level on how communities might counter far-right extremism, as there is with Islamist extremism, though the British and the Dutch are taking some tentative steps in this direction.

From the somewhat narrower perspective of the Jewish communities, there is concern that the radical right is shifting public discourse in a more intolerant direction, and that some governments are failing to respond to or understand the danger that lies ahead if they allow this to happen.

 

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Notes

 1. Michael Whine, “Trans-European Trends in Right-Wing Extremism,” in Andrea Mammone, Emmanuel Godin, and Brian Jenkins, eds., Mapping the Extreme Right in Contemporary Europe (London: Routledge, 2012).

2. Michael Minkenberg, “Trends and Patterns of the Radical Right in Europe: East and West,” Workshop on International Developments in Right-Wing Extremism, Southern Poverty Law Center and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Montgomery, AL, 30 April–2 May 2012.

3. Matthew Goodwin, “Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe,” Chatham House Report, London, 2012, ix.

4. Ibid., 2. For a survey based on some of these parties, see also Matthew Goodwin and Vidhya Ramalingam, “The New Radical Right: Violent and Non-Violent Movements in Europe,” Institute for Strategic Dialogue, 2012.

5. Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell, and Mark Little, The New Face of Digital Populism (London: DEMOS, 2011); Paul Jackson, “The EDL: Britain’s ‘New Far Right’ Social Movement,” Radicalism and New Media Research Group, University of Nottingham, 2011; Jamie Bartlett and Mark Little, Inside the EDL: Populist Politics in a Digital Age (London: DEMOS, 2011).

6. See, e.g., Goodwin, “Right Response,” 15-16, 20. See also David Lagerlof, Jonathan Leman, and Alexander Bengstsson, “The Anti-Muslim Environment: The Ideas, the Profiles and the Concepts,” Expo Research, Stockholm, 2011; Matthew Goodwin and Jocelyn Evans, “From Voting to Violence? Far Right Extremism in Britain,” Hope not Hate, London, 2011.

7. Kevin Rawlinson, “Far right unites in European initiative,” The Independent, 27 February 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/far-right-unbites-in-european-initiative; Mark Townsend and Richard Orange, “Far-right supporters agree with armed attacks,” The Guardian, 3 March 2012,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/03/far-right-supporters-armed-attacks/print.

8. Jackson, “The EDL”; Goodwin, “Right Response”; Goodwin and Ramalingam, “New Radical Right.” For recent approaches by far-right groups to Jewish communities, see, e.g., Charlotte Boitiaux, “The National Front and the quest for the Jewish vote,” France 24 International News, 14 January 2012; Matthew Taylor, ”BNP seeks to bury antisemitism and gain votes in Islamophobic campaign,” The Guardian, 10 April 2012; Charles Johnson, “Vlaams Belang: Friends of Israel?,” little green footballs, 10 November 2008, http://littlegreenfootballs.com/article/31871_vlaams_belang.

9. Goodwin, ibid.; Goodwin and Ramalingam, ibid.

10. Goodwin and Ramalingam, ibid., 33.

11. “Elections Report, Thursday 3 May 2012,” Community Security Trust, London,

http://www.thecst.org.uk; “Annual Report 2010,” General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD), Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, The Hague; “Annual Report on the Protection of the Constitution,” Federal Ministry of the Interior, Berlin, 2009, 2010; Elizabeth Carter, The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure? (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005).

12. See, e.g., the annual reports on “The Issue of Extremism in the Czech Republic,” Ministry of the Interior, Prague, 2010, 2009, etc

13. For useful background, see Martin Lee, The Beast Reawakens: The Chilling Story of the Rise of the Neo-Nazi Movement (New York: Little, Brown, 1997).

14. Ibid.

15. See, e.g., “Threat Assessment: Extremism in Norway after the Terrorist Acts on 22 July 2011,” Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), Oslo, 29 July 2011; “Counter-Terrorism Working Group Conclusions,” EUROPOL, 2011, 2-3. Note also the following data compiled by EUROPOL for the “EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report” between 2006 and 2011, which quantifies the threat of far-right terrorism but contrasts it with the far greater threat from other forms of terror:

Far-right terrorism arrests—86

Islamist terrorism arrests—1056

Other terrorism arrests (single issue, national liberation, etc.)—2661

Far-right failed, foiled, and successful terrorist attacks—7

Islamist failed, foiled, and successful terrorist attacks—7

Other failed, foiled, and successful terrorist attacks—2399

16. “Right-Wing Extremism and the Extreme Right in the Netherlands,” AIVD, The Hague, March 2011.

17. See successive annual reports on “The Protection of the Constitution,” Federal Ministry of the Interior, Berlin, 2005-2011.

18. “Annual Report,” Sakerhetspolisen (SAPO, Swedish Security Service), Stockholm, 2005.

19. See “Cases Concluded” reports by the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Crown Prosecution Service, in particular those of Terence Robert Gavan (2011) and Ian and Nicky Davison (2011), available at http://www.cps.gov.uk/publications/prosecution/ctd_2010.html.

20. TE-SAT, 2007, 4.

21. TE-SAT, 2008, 39.

22. TE-SAT, 2012, 28.

23. TE-SAT, 2012, 6.

24. “Blood and Honour Organisation Recognized as Extremist,” SOVA Centre for Information and Analysis, Moscow, 30 May 2012, http://www.sova-center.ru/en/xenophobia/news-releases/2012/05/d24526/?print=1.

Michael Whine

Michael Whine is the Government and International Affairs Director at the Community Security Trust, and Defence and Group Relations Director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews.