The recent surge of the radical right in Europe raises questions about whether the idea of a ‘Nazi state of emergency’ requires wider consideration.
In October, the radical right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) came second in elections in the East German state of Thuringia, pushing Angela Merkel’s CDU into third place. Although the AfD failed to unseat the state’s ruling party, Die Linke, the result is further proof that for all the condemnations and, perhaps more worrying, for all the decades of the country’s attempts to ‘come to terms with the past’, the radical right is flourishing in Germany. Just two weeks before the elections in Thuringia, a synagogue in Halle was attacked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, by a gunman whose shooting spree only failed to kill more people than the two who died because his homemade weapons malfunctioned. That event did not prevent some 23% of Thuringia’s voters from opting for a party of the radical right.
It is in this context of heightened anxiety over the AfD’s success that the Dresden city council announced recently that it was declaring a Nazinotstand – a ‘Nazi state of emergency’. The motion to declare this state of emergency was proposed by local councilor Max Aschenbach of Die Partei, which is often described as a ‘left-leaning satirical political party’ because it was founded in 2004 by the editors of the satirical magazine Titanic. It is hard to decide whether calling a ‘Nazi state of emergency’ in Dresden was another of Die Partei’s pranks, yet the fact is that the city, the birthplace of Pegida, is one of the most challenged in Europe by the radical right.
The concept of a ‘state of emergency’ is one built into most constitutions, allowing for a suspension of the rule of law in times of great need, such as war. This is not the situation that Dresden finds itself in. But Die Partei’s proposal reflects a growing sense of trepidation that without drastic countermeasures, the rule of law and democratic norms are under severe threat. This is a motion designed to highlight that threat more than a serious suggestion that the rule of law should be held in abeyance.
On their own, the events in Dresden seem like an outlier in European politics, the local expression of a very specific problematic set of circumstances in Saxony. Yet in recent days and weeks, other events across the continent raise the question of whether the challenge of the radical right to democratic politics justifies the wider application of the idea of a ‘Nazi state of emergency’.
Apart from the elections in Thuringia, voters elsewhere have followed the recent European pattern of deserting traditional parties of left and right, fragmenting the political scene and opting for extremist parties in record numbers. In Italy, although the radical right League was ejected from government in August 2019, the party has re-entered power in Umbria, where it won 57% of the vote in October in a coalition with the Brothers of Italy and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. In Spain, the party of the traditional right, the Partido Popular (People’s Party) saw its vote rise in the November 2019 general election (Spain’s fourth in as many years) following its disastrous showing in April, when it took only 16.68%, now winning 88 seats and 20.8% of the vote, whilst the governing Socialist Party (PSOE), despite coming out on top with 28% of the vote, won 120 seats, three fewer than in April and insufficient to form a majority government.
The news of the night was that the radical right party, Vox, gained 15.1%, putting it in third place and more than doubling the number of seats it holds in the Cortes, from 24 (April) to 52. Even though the local issues shaped support for Vox – the party’s hard-line stance on Catalan separatism, most obviously – that is true of everywhere; but voters also know that when they vote for parties of the radical right they are getting a whole bundle of ideological positions which run counter to what has been mainstream since the end of World War II – or in Spain’s case, where the past seems ever-present, the end of the Francoist regime in 1975. The traditional binaries of Spanish politics seem well and truly broken – and in that Spain mirrors the continent as a whole.
Beyond elections, other recent events indicate a shift in attitude across Europe. If in Dresden there are calls to defend the city by calling a ‘Nazi state of emergency’, in Italy police action has been required to defend one particular person. Liliana Segre, an Italian Senator and Holocaust survivor, has now been given a police escort after the volume and severity of the online threats she receives escalated to new heights (or, more accurately, plumbed new depths). As reported in The Guardian, the occasion for the decision was the government’s decision to approve Segre’s proposal to establish a parliamentary commission to combat racism, antisemitism, and incitement to hatred.
The lifetime of 89-year old Auschwitz survivor is emblematic of how Europe has changed since the end of World War II. In the 1970s when the Republikaner or other ‘neo-fascist’ parties won a couple of percentage points in elections, it was considered a matter of continental soul-searching. It is apparently the new normal in European politics that parties of the radical right win upwards of 10% and sometimes enter government in power-sharing arrangements, and, most perniciously, shape as well as reflect the public mood and discourse. When a Holocaust survivor needs police protection for suggesting that racial hatred should be combatted, then the rhetoric of the ‘Nazi state of emergency’ seems to have gone beyond satire, and not just in Germany.
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