WASHINGTON -- An Italian wine company recently sparked an uproar when it introduced a new brand with a picture of Adolf Hitler on its label. The same company also produces bottles of wine featuring Benito Mussolini's picture. A marketing strategy that uses such images might be dismissed as a tasteless joke if not for the fact that a multifaceted neofascist revival has gained alarming momentum in Europe since the end of the Cold War.
The revival is not orchestrated by a sieg-heiling dictator flanked by men in brown shirts and swastika armbands. Rather, a new breed of right-wing extremists have trimmed their sails to suit the political moment. Realizing that the fascist game can be played in many ways, the more sophisticated tacticians underwent an ideological face-lift and mainstreamed their message for the sake of democratic appearances.
The end of the bipolar Yalta system demagnetized everybody's compass and provided fresh opportunities for the Front National in France, the Austrian Freedom Party, Italy's National Alliance, Vlaams Blok in Belgium and other right-wing extremist parties that have successfully tapped into widespread post-Cold-War uncertainties. The rise of these mass-based electoral movements has coincided with a dramatic increase in hate crimes throughout Western Europe, where a racial assault occurs once every three minutes, according to the European Parliament.
Peddling a ready-made politics for the economically disenchanted, far-right demagogues have touched a raw nerve by deceptively linking jobless statistics to the number of guest workers and asylum seekers in their countries. The presence of 20 million migrants in Western Europe is perhaps the most visible sign of the major structural transformation that has accompanied the emergence of a global economy, with its interdependent markets, unfettered capital mobility and novel information technologies.
Third World and Eastern European immigrants are routinely depicted as a threat to national identity, as well as economic stability, at a time when the Western European work force is reeling from high unemployment, stagnating wages and cutbacks in social services.
Neofascists posing as national populists have gained at the ballot box by coupling their anti-immigrant message with harsh denunciations of the 1991 Maastricht Treaty and its plans for a common European currency. They have also benefited from foraging on a political terrain where the ideological distance between the mainstream parties has shrunk. This has propelled the growth of the extreme right, which appeals to disillusioned voters by assuming the mantle of the opposition and attacking a corrupt, bipartisan status quo.
Lacking new ideas and eager to deflect attention from their own policy failures, mainstream politicians throughout Western Europe have been all too willing to fix the blame for complex social and economic problems on immigrants. Government officials mouthed neofascist catch-phrases that put the onus on foreigners for crime, drugs, job scarcity and nearly every other difficulty. Before long, it was politically correct even among socialists to speak of an invasion of foul-smelling aliens.
But this imitative response did not lessen the appeal of far-right candidates; instead, it served to legitimize many of their ideas in the public mind. By jumping on the xenophobic bandwagon, mainstream politicians incited an atmosphere of racial hatred, which opened the door even more for the jackals of the far right. The growing popularity of radical right-wingers forced mainstream parties to adjust their policies to stop the hemorrhaging of their electoral base. As a result, government officials in one country after the next removed the welcome mat for refugees and adopted other extreme-right policy measures.
In Austria, the ruling coalition tried to steal the thunder of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party by imposing sharp restrictions on immigration. But Haider still gained credibility. In October 1996, his party won 27.6% of the national vote, only a shade behind the two mainstream parties. Haider, who recently claimed that all soldiers in World War II, whichever side they were on, fought for peace, is poised for a serious run for chancellor.
In France, mainstream leaders kowtowed to Jean-Marie Le Pen's up-and- coming National Front. In 1994, the French National Assembly, hoping to take the wind out of Le Pen's sails, reversed a law that granted citizenship to anyone born on French soil; henceforth, the privilege of bloodline would supersede all other factors in determining whether someone is a French national. But Le Pen's party continued to expand its base of support, grabbing 3.7 million votes in recent legislative elections that saw the pendulum move from conservative to socialist after swinging dramatically the other way a few years ago.
Gianfranco Fini's National Alliance commands roughly 15% of the electorate in Italy. His breakthrough came in 1994, when his neofascist party was given five ministerial posts and several other key assignments in a short-lived coalition government headed by billionaire media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi. This broke a long-standing antifascist taboo and established a precedent for conservative politicians, who had previously shunned alliances with the ultraright. Several public opinion polls indicate that Fini is currently Italy's most popular politician.
In Germany, the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has been able to buck the trend and successfully defang its neofascist opponents. In effect, the CDU became what it set out to destroy. In addition to passing tough anti-immigrant legislation, top CDU officials routinely talk of "Middle Germany" when referring to what had previously been Communist East Germany. Germany's federal budget also describes former East Germany as "Mitteldeutschlands," thereby lending credence to neo-Nazi revanchists who insist that parts of Poland and the Czech Republic rightfully belong to Germany.
By mimicking the language of the far right as part of their calculated attempt to stay in power, German leaders have perpetuated long-range problems that make the future appearance of a more virulent strain of nationalism likely. With unemployment officially above 12% (the highest since Hitler), discontent is rife. "A lot of people think that the increasingly difficult problems can be managed only with authoritarian means," says psychologist Horst-Eberhard Richter, as if an open society can't manage capitalism, and only a hard hand and an iron broom will work."
Although there are definite parallels to the interwar years, today's neofascist movements have emerged under a unique set of circumstances. Ironically, their success has hinged to a great extent on their ability to distance themselves from the historical image of fascism. While some small, marginalized neo-Nazi groups still cling to the heritage of the Third Reich and the Mussolini regime, the more astute fascist strategists understand that it is best not to advertise their fidelity to the creed. Thus Le Pen, who founded the Front National 25 years ago while selling recordings of Hitler's speeches, insists that his movement has nothing to do with fascism, which he dismisses as an antiquated Italian doctrine. Fini calls himself a "post-fascist." Similarly, Xavier Buisseret, formerly the editor of a Holocaust-denial journal and the leader of a Flemish terrorist organization that was banned by the Belgian government, tried to moderate his image when he became the propaganda chief of Vlaams Blok, which is currently the biggest vote getter in Antwerp, Belgium's second largest city.
Fascism is on the march again. No simple formula, however, can predict how strong contemporary fascist movements or their functional equivalents will become. "It is only a matter of time," predicts historian Paul Johnson, "before the fascism of the 1990s, under new names, of course, and 'responsible' leaders, becomes respectable." That time may already have arrived.
Martin A. Lee is author of "The Beast Reawakens," a book about neofascism.