Modern incarnations of European nationalism create stark political and ideological divides

The extremist, bombastic rhetoric of Donald Trump has garnered excessive media coverage and has debatably precipitated right-wing movements across the world, particularly in Europe.

The result of these movements in a bevy of European countries has provoked mass comparisons to the notorious rise of fascism over the continent throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

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Demonstrators from the far-right PEGIDA movement in Germany gather in Frankfurt in 2015. (Photo by Flickr user freie-presse.net)

But are these comparisons accurate? It is important to take into consideration a variety of complex factors that characterize the Europe of today versus the Europe of the past.

Jim Bjork is a senior lecturer in Modern European History at King’s College London and has extensively researched nationalism in modern Europe.

“It’s a big debate and discussion by a lot of people these days, including historians and colleagues that work on some of the earlier periods. I think drawing too close of a comparison goes too far,” Bjork said. “Some comparisons are legitimate. You do see some of the same frustrations with economic insecurity that a lot of these movements in the 1930s had.”

The nationalism that arose in Germany and other countries was predicated upon a nation’s identity against a neighbor, whereas the European nationalism today is more diffused and influenced by globalization.

Tomasz Blusiewicz is a PHD candidate in history at Harvard’s Center for European Studies and has published articles on a variety of subjects, including foreign aggression in Nazi Germany and the economic structures of many Eastern European countries.

“The nationalisms that we saw before World War II in Europe were more directly oriented against neighboring countries. If you look at Germany, it was directed pretty straight-forwardly against France, who was seen as a great power that could threaten their national existence,” Blusiewicz said. “It’s a different kind of nationalism now in the sense that it’s a globalized situation. The number one agenda of parties like Pegida in Germany is the wave of recent migration and recent refugees in Europe, which was never the case before World War II.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over a million refugees from Africa and the Middle East have arrived in Europe since 2015.

“The refugee thing is the number one issue because this is what’s mostly driving the populist, nationalist sentiment, especially the admittedly very disorganized way in which the European authorities form border control troops, they just failed in any way to direct the flow of refugees,” Blusiewicz said. “Some people are legitimately concerned and when they see the current authorities not being able to cope with the situation in any way, then they are attracted to this kind of radical rhetoric.”

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Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini speaks in Milan in February, 2018. (Source: Creative Commons)

The far-right Alternative for Germany party received 12.6 percent of votes and 94 Bundestag seats in the country’s September 2017 general election. In Italy, the vitriolic, anti-immigrant Lega Nord, led by the radical interior minister Matteo Salvini, jumped from 4 percent to 18 percent in the March 2018 General Election.

Michael Mosser, a lecturer in the International Relations and Global Studies department at the University of Texas at Austin, said there is a strong concept of the “other” defining modern European mentalities.

“People from Turkey and Syria are coming in as refugees, but from a Central European perspective, they don’t rationally understand that these folks are fleeing civil war,” Mosser said. “They believe pretty strongly that ‘They’re not us, that they’re here, they’re taking and they’re sort of overwhelming us.’”

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A rising nationalist movement in Poland has provoked many demonstrations in support of Polish sovereignty. (Source: Creative Commons)

Poland, which will receive 85 billion Euros between 2014-2020 from the European Union, has seen a strong nationalist movement as a result of the ascension of the Law and Justice Party. Recent spats between the Eastern European country and Brussels have garnered consistent attention, with Poland being viewed as an instrumental player potentially embodying a significant political and ideological divide between Eastern and Western Europe.

“There is one group of people in Europe who say ‘We need more integration” and there is the other group of people like the Law and Justice Party. They say we need to go back to a model that worked in the 70’s and 80’s, with the European Union being essentially a free-trade zone and national states being responsible for everything from border control to immigration policy,” Blusiewicz said. “To this, you can add the general division of people who are open to globalization and people who are more concerned with preserving national identity.”

Another major player influencing the gap between Eastern and Western European mentalities is Russia.

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A military parade marks the 42nd anniversary of victory in the 1941-45 Great Patriotic War in Red Square. Russia is one of the major political players influencing the unity and stability of the European Union. (Source: Creative Commons)

“Russia is one hundred percent interested in weakening, possibly making the European Union disappear. Russia is very actively emphasizing all possible differences and conflicts in the European Union,” Blusiewicz said. “It’s a very disconcerting, concerning phenomenon because up until 2014, it has always been the case that Eastern European, Central European countries stuck together whenever they felt threatened by Russia.”

One of the primary forms of leverage Russia has been utilizing to entice Eastern European nations like Hungary is energy.

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Vladimir Putin, Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso attend a news conference after an EU-Russia summit in 2014. (Source: Creative Commons)

“Many European nations are legitimately dependent on Russian energy, so this is where real politics happens, which is who gets to deliver gas and oil to Europe, because Europe has very limited resources in terms of energy carriers,” Blusiewicz said. “This is really what’s at stake because everything else, these ideological battles, like religion and identity politics, are kind of a cover-up in many ways.” 

Even with the influence of right-wing leaders like Salvini and Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, the question of whether these extreme movements will continue to gain ground throughout the continent remains uncertain.

“The thing that we need to be really careful about is that this isn’t the 30’s redone. We’re not yet in the 30’s,” Mosser said. “Those comparisons are easy to make but they’re a little bit dangerous. I think that actually gives a bit more credence to some of these folks. It makes it actually more legitimate than it really is.”

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