'Hitler didn't Twitter'

Does the election this week of two British National Party members, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, to the European Parliament signal the renewed rise of fascism? Two leading British historians share their verdicts

Michael Burleigh: Author of The Third Reich: A New History

We should be wary about the rise of the far right, but not panicky. I don’t like these stupid historical analogies—this is not a re-run of the 1930s. We live in a very different world, and these parties organise themselves in a very different way.

Hitler didn’t Twitter. And we haven’t had a catastrophic European war, with resentments about how it ended.

We should also be cautious about saying that an economic recession inevitably leads to the rise of the far right. The fascists came to power in Italy long before the Depression. In Germany, most of the unemployed voted for the communists.

It’s too early to say whether the right-wing parties that did well in the European election will have any historical significance or whether they will offer a Europe-wide threat to mainstream politics.

I suspect they may be better coordinated than left-wing parties, but they’re all subtly different.

We should also be aware that right-wing parties can evolve. It’s odd that the evolution of communist into Eurocommunist parties was recognised, but these right-wing parties are seen as mysteriously static and rooted in the 1930s.

You just have to look at the British National Party to see how it’s trying to adapt to changed circumstances, ramping up its hostility to the European Union while playing down other aspects of its policy.

The left has a vested interest in playing up the threat of fascism. It uses it to re-oxygenate itself; Labour was doing it again before this election.

A better approach is to take the BNP seriously. Don’t turn them into martyrs by banning them from the airwaves. Ask them about their other policies: how they would get us out of recession, their foreign policy.

Launch an assault on the BNP brand, and don’t let them appropriate nationalist symbols, such as the Spitfire they were using on their posters in this election.

The real story is that the centre-right has done very well across Europe. Where far-right parties have been elected in the past they have tended to be woefully incompetent and lackadaisical, and on the whole they haven’t been re-elected.

Supporters of the BNP tend to be disaffected Labour voters who are voting as an act of defiance against the political elite—and the elite has given them plenty to be defiant about.

The real danger, though, may come in the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Countries there have been hit by severe economic turbulence, they have little experience of democracy and politics is volatile. Parties can come from nowhere and win power.

Richard Overy: History professor at Exeter University and author of The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars

The BNP have been around for a long time and have never managed to make a serious breakthrough. This should be seen as a protest vote at a difficult moment; it does not mean the United Kingdom electorate is swinging in favour of fascism.

The [Eurosceptic] UK Independence Party (Ukip) vote is more interesting. With the loss of public confidence in Parliament, growing nationalism and alarm at terrorism, you might have expected those votes to flow to the BNP.

A loss of confidence in parliamentary institutions is characteristic of all periods when fascists have come to power—in Italy and Germany, for example—but on this occasion the BNP has not done especially well. People have preferred to vote for Ukip.

Parliamentary politics in the UK will eventually be restored, but almost certainly not under Gordon Brown.

I’m more worried about the drift to the right in the rest of Europe, where the mood is fearful, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam and deeply hostile to the left. Europe clearly feels embattled because of factors such as terrorism and the rise of China, and has been moving to the right for some time.

But we shouldn’t interpret this right-wing drift as a return to fascism with a capital F, which was a phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a revolutionary movement asserting a violent imperialism and promising a new social order.

Far-right parties now are based on fear—of immigration, of being Europeanised. They have no vision of a new social order, nor can they legally campaign for the replacement of a democratic government by an authoritarian regime. —-

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