There is a specter haunting Europe.
It is creeping into visibility in Spain, in Albania, Russia, Poland, France, England and perhaps most immediately, in Greece. It thrives on shadows; the darker places within us all, of fear and insecurity, then it glides in, offering an inevitably cruel luminescence. It moves gradually though, confident in the power of its righteous insidiousness. It makes deals: accept our terms, it declares, and together we can rise. We can triumph over the darkness around us and create a new morning. We can push your doubt away and replace it with certainty. We can erase weakness, and make you strong, it says. We can replace anxiety and make you confident again. Join us, it pleads, and we can help you feel strong again, but now you will be joined in a new family and together, we will restore the Good.
For us, for “our” people.
We have heard this promise before. It’s the cheap allure of cultural purity and nationalist pride, of racial ideology, of religious chosen-ness, and when the rains of social or economic uncertainty fall, somehow everyone else, everyone outside that select group, becomes suspect. Or worse.
Take Greece, for example. According to one Human Rights Watch video presentation on Greece, “we are seeing attacks on migrants and asylum seekers with frightening regularity.” Their description of Greece is disturbing: “Xenophobic violence has reached alarming proportions with gangs regularly attacking migrants and asylum seekers. The attackers are rarely arrested, and police inaction is the rule. Access to asylum procedures remains difficult, and the recognition rate for refugee status remains one of the lowest in Europe…” Racist violence is surging, women are among the victims now, and allegations of torture in police custody, the casual denial of human rights, threats and intimidation are escalating.
The Athena Institute, which monitors extremist violence from its offices in Hungary, declares, “Differences among victim types make Greece the most troubled European country with the third highest victim number and the second highest victim/fatality ratio: more than half of the victims of major incidents died in that country until 2010 — even before its present crisis got full-fledged.” Things keep getting worse.
Golden Dawn may seem to be only black-shirted, over-enthusiastic nationalists who get edgy too easily, but we would do good to pay attention and not dispense with the lessons of the past, believing we have arrived at a stage in history when we have gotten past those lessons, when good intentions alone will suffice.
Well, they won’t suffice. For most people, the word “fascism” is simply an angry epithet to throw at any person or idea one finds morally repugnant or, beyond the pale. It is hurled without irony by those holding bona fide fascist sentiments at the corporate Obama, as it was by milquetoast liberals at the inanities of Bush-era policies whose parallels they refuse to see in his successor. In such an environment, it has become a near-meaningless term, one that is used almost always incorrectly.
But there is history. Fascism is a real word, and it has real meanings. The phenomenon the word describes manifests similarly, no matter where it arises and what particular forms it takes.
It preys on insecurities around diminishing “traditional values” (which always seem to include keeping women from controlling their own bodies) and around masculine fears of displacement by women who assert their rights, or work outside of home.
It elevates the masculine in other ways too, but twists it into hyper-macho posturing, persecuting gays and those perceived as effeminate with ridicule, social ostracism, and finally, with violence.
It corrodes the spirit of human solidarity, transforming it into an ethnic or cultural tribalism in the most pejorative sense of that word.
It is frequently supported by religious authorities, of whatever faith.
It elevates the military and adopts martial uniforms, symbols and language for its cause.
It takes the grievances of the working classes and expropriates their language, obscuring the real causes of their misery and instead, focuses their attention elsewhere, blaming things on the more vulnerable elements of society: in addition to the women and homosexuals noted above, immigrants and minorities are often first, unions and other activists of the Left who resist soon thereafter.
It is tied to, or receives support of the capitalist class and the financiers of industry.
It bonds antithetically, pitting “us” against “them”, with the category of “them” growing ever-wider and expanding the scope of remedies to protect “us” from “them” to include expulsion and murder.
It sucks the Life out of communities, pitting newcomers against the embittered forces of the comfortable status quo.
It steals the enthusiasm for Life from impressionable youth who face debt peonage or unemployment, making them bitter, easy targets for demagogues in the period before full adulthood.
And into this developmental interregnum, fascism takes that youthful spirit of fraternal revolt against authority, and warps it into revolting against the Enlightenment values of critical thought, tolerance for differing ideas, and the protection of minorities from the excesses of mob actions.
It turns all this instead into an authoritarian, patriarchal push against any societal force deemed weak, such as democracy. It eventually transforms into a xenophobic rage which lashes out at the immigrants, refugees and gays, those of different colors and those of differing views, different religions, cultures, and anyone who, in the end, is not like “us”.
So what can we do? I’m not sure, but 75 years ago, as the world faced another growing fascist movement, many quickly responded.
Back then, without an Internet or email or even fax machines, men from around the world knew that the forces of fascism had to be stopped and they assembled international troops to travel to Spain to do just that. Without their respective government’s support, they joined together and fought the forces of Spanish fascism (Falangismo) heroically. These International Brigades consisted of men from all classes (about 35,000 of them from 52 countries) who knew of the impending darkness falling over Spain, which was also deepening in Italy and Germany. Gathered into several Battalions, the George Washington Battalion and the Abraham Lincoln Battalion were the most well-known USAmerican contributions, totaling 2800 volunteers, with the latter becoming the emblematic symbol of this resistance in popular culture (referred to inaccurately as the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade”).
No conscription notice pulled them from school to travel thousands of miles to “defend their country.” No draft lines were assigned to them as they awaited posting in some far-off frontier. They didn’t need the apparatus of the State to tell them that democracy, and quite possibly, civilization itself was at stake in this early, pre-WW2 period, and they meant to fight it. But, unfortunately for all of us, they failed. The forces of Germany and Italy, with military and material support from capitalists everywhere, including the US, aided the falangists of Spain, and throttled a noble resistance which, had it succeeded, might have made all the difference in the following years. But we’ll never know. And Spain was plunged into a darkness it has only recently and incompletely, recovered from.
The men who joined the International Brigades knew what would come —and when it did during the Second World War, in horrifying numbers we can still barely wrap our minds around, from Moscow to the Atlantic coasts of Britain and Spain, from N. Africa to the China, from Burma to Okinawa, it changed everything. Our world suffered a paroxysm of violence so widespread, that even heads of state otherwise committed to empire felt the need to create a mechanism to avoid future wars, the United Nations. Some even sought to ban it altogether. But we now know how that noble idea has turned out: dominated by the “Great” (sic) Powers and prevented from any threatening decision to the Owners of the world. Banks and currency manipulators, with support from governments and under the guise of a united Europe, have now caused the most threatening crisis to Europe—and possibly to the world—since the Second World War. The only choices we have left, so we are told, include tweaking the system, pushing more austerity, bailing out more big banks with public funds, and more neo-liberal globalization, which will impoverish millions more around the world. Nevertheless, many students of history, all around the world feel queasy. We recognize a pattern, a loose confederation of trends rising, and this time, we have precedent to lead us. If fascism is not stopped in Greece, the whole Balkans may succumb to the evils of church-sponsored nationalism, racist expulsions, curtailment of democracy, and rule of the bullies. We know which way this heads, because we’ve been this way before.
No one can predict for certain if Greece will become the “tipping point” which will spawn a revival of fascism in Europe. And probably such calls for action are premature. Greece, after all, is not yet in a civil war, fighting in the streets for the very survival of its democracy. Still, something must be done, because the situation is collapsing. With every EU demand for more austerity, with each push to punish working class Greeks for the sins of the criminal class which fleeced them, with each approval (or, at least, lack of rebuke) these fascist bullies receive from the police or the church, we will see people uniting under the most noxious umbrella whose shade has ever rested over Europe, and which brought ruination to hundreds of millions in the last century.
Either we stand with the people of Greece to resist these pernicious impulses now, or we may see, first there, then later in Spain and Portugal, in Italy and France, and in other societies buffeted by the cruel effects of neo-liberal austerity, similar calls for a specious and dangerous “unity.” “Unity” for an end to immigrants’ rights, a “unity” to reclaim some mythical, “traditional” style of living which entrenches the wealthy (as it always does) relegates the poor to subservience, and asserts an ethnic chauvinism anathema to progressive values everywhere. It is a unity, alright; a unity of thugs and tyrants. The brownshirts in Germany were just that, and they too, were once dismissed by the “serious” commentators who backed the status quo. The black shirts of Golden Dawn in Greece today might still be supported by only 10% of the population today, but their aggressive growth and steady trajectory need to be taken seriously. Really seriously.
None of us live alone—our world connects us in ways both too crass and too subtle for us to think that we are not intricately tied to one another. And the trends which are sparking outrage and resistance, reaction and violence in Europe today are trends we too will not escape. No moment lives alone, either. Each has an historical context which informs and nourishes what occurs today. In Germany, Spain and Italy (and elsewhere) in the early 1930s during those troubled times, unemployment was high, Left alternatives were weak, resentment against others oozed in the streets, and terrible insecurities pushed nominally good people, the middle classes, into supporting the forces of hatred and nationalistic fervor. In our time now, these trends have reawakened and we may face what Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breitvik calls, in his correspondence to German neo-Nazi prisoner, Beate Zschäpe, (whom he considers a kindred “militant nationalist”) “the first rain drops which indicate that there is a massive purifying storm approaching Europe.”
We can resist such a storm if we but fight back now.
Before it’s too late.