Next month marks the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi regime. But May will also see over 100 candidates standing for the fascist British National Party (BNP) in the general election.
How is a party like this able to pose as a legitimate part of the political system within living memory of the Holocaust? The answer lies in the way fascist groups across Europe have adapted to modern day conditions — and in how mainstream politicians have allowed them back into the political arena.
As the full horror of Nazi rule became known after 1945, fascist activists eventually came to the conclusion that their survival depended on avoiding any association with Hitler and Mussolini.
Instead they would present themselves as “respectable” people who spoke “common sense” on issues like immigration and asylum.
In France those who built Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National (FN) argued that lessons had to be learned from the way society had changed since the Second World War. In the 1930s many European economies had been on the brink of collapse. But crises in the postwar period were not as deep.
There were no longer millions of desperate people looking for drastic solutions to bankruptcy or mass unemployment. Neither did the prospect of socialist revolution seem as immediate as in the 1920s and 1930s.
Above all the modern state was much stronger than it had been between the wars. Parliamentary democracy appeared more stable than before. The state employed more people and provided welfare provision for millions.
One of Le Pen’s acquaintances wrote, “If the fascist flame is to burn again, it cannot burn in the same way.” The conclusion drawn by the FN was that a long term strategy was needed. Fascist parties had to reach out to wider layers of the population, “in order to transform them in our image”.
This meant an electoral base was more useful than an armed wing. Dressing up in uniforms, talking about racial superiority and fighting on the streets would only lead to isolation. FN members were urged to dress smartly, avoid violent confrontations and sound as mainstream as possible.
When the FN was set up in 1972, its aim was not just to scapegoat immigrants, nor simply to win a few seats in parliament. It wanted to build a mass fascist organisation capable of uprooting democracy and smashing the left.
The legacy of Hitler had simply been adapted to new conditions. In The Anatomy of Fascism historian Robert Paxton argues that direct action and electioneering are complementary, not contradictory, tactics for fascists.
Like its inter-war predecessors, modern fascism tries to cultivate both respectability — giving it a foothold in national politics — and anti-establishment credentials used to build a movement against democracy.
Alongside its stress on elections, the FN argued that its supporters would have to “assert themselves on the streets in large scale demonstrations”. Those entrusted with doing this included ex-Waffen SS officers and veterans of the collaborationist Vichy regime.
The issue that gave these people respectability was immigration. This was because mainstream parties proved incapable of offering effective opposition to the FN’s racist stance on the question.
Socialists like Francois Mitterrand claimed that France’s capacity for immigration had reached its limit. Rightwingers like Valéry Giscard d’Estaing talked about an “invasion”. Le Pen’s response was to proclaim himself at the centre of political life.
The FN’s “respectable” image led many to see it as an extremist and xenophobic organisation, but not a fascist one. Because the FN had dropped many of the surface features of fascist movements, those who argued that it needed to be confronted and prevented from organising were often a minority.
But parties like the FN and the BNP do not seek respectability as an end in itself. Le Pen’s response to every election success was to raise the stakes and shift the boundaries of what it was acceptable to say in public.
In 1987, a few months after the first FN deputies were elected to parliament, Le Pen referred to the Holocaust as a “detail” of the Second World War.
In the years that followed he spoke of his belief in racial inequalities and made jokes about the gas ovens. He did this to harden up electoral support and build a core of activists committed not just to racism, but to fascism.
Once it had achieved its electoral breakthrough the FN tried to assert itself on the streets. Five years after its first election success the party marched through Paris on May Day, in a deliberate provocation to the left. Since most of the left did not see the FN as fascist, it faced no direct challenge on the streets.
During the 1990s, as unemployment rose and a series of corruption scandals discredited the mainstream parties, the FN achieved unprecedented electoral success. But two things happened to put the party on the defensive.
A wave of strikes in 1995 led to a backlash against the scapegoating of immigrants, and anti-FN groups began a campaign of disrupting FN activities wherever possible.
For the first time the FN found itself under pressure. The organisation split in two under the strain. But the lack of a concerted campaign aimed at preventing the organisation from recovering gave it scope to regroup and revive.
Some modern fascist parties today have the potential to build mass movements. None have yet succeeded in doing so. But Le Pen’s Front National, along with Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance in Italy, have shown themselves to be durable phenomena.
The prolonged nature of the crisis means that such parties can take a long time to establish themselves — but also a long time to break down. Even when fascist groups have been defeated over the past two decades, opportunities have arisen for them to re-emerge.
This was the case in Germany and in Britain in the 1990s. Small groups that made headway at the start of the decade were beaten back by anti-fascist opposition, only to resurface again a few years later, sometimes in a different guise.
In 1993 the BNP won a local council seat in Tower Hamlets, east London. A concerted anti-fascist backlash then plunged the organisation into crisis. Its leader, Nick Griffin, argued it could only recover by cleaning up its negative image. BNP members would have to avoid spelling out exactly “where they come from and where they want to go”.
This strategy was based on the model of the FN. The BNP used the FN’s first election successes as examples of how a single victory could transform a marginal organisation into a “slick, sophisticated, more electorally appealing party”.
Election success, the BNP noted, had enabled the Front to maintain its hardcore support and reach a much wider audience. The BNP called on the thugs who made up most of its membership to ditch their flight jackets, skinhead haircuts and swastika badges. But this was just window dressing.
“As long as our own cadres understand the full implications of our struggle, then there is no need for us to do anything to give the public cause for concern,” Griffin argued. “We must at all times present them with an image of moderate reasonableness.”
Fascism, as Robert Paxton argues, is not static or uniform. It develops in stages. Before attempting to seize power it forms a movement. Then it tries to become rooted in the political system as a significant player. It is shaped by specific national circumstances. It develops as it interacts with society, growing into the space available to it.
How much space fascism has depends on the political alliances it forms — and on the actions of its opponents. In Italy, Austria and France movements of fascist origin have become rooted in the political system. In Britain the BNP is trying to do the same.
The racist electioneering of politicians like Michael Howard is providing it with space in which to grow. But so too are those Liberal and New Labour politicians whose campaigns against asylum seekers and “anti-white racism” are targeting the victims of racism rather than the perpetrators.
Griffin is well aware of the favour they are doing him. He says, “The asylum issue has been great for us. It has been quite fun to watch government ministers and the Tories play the race card in far cruder terms than we would ever use, but pretend not to. The issue legitimises us.”
The space open to the BNP is not solely determined by the actions of mainstream parties. On issues such as racism, neo-liberalism and war, society today is further to the left than when fascist organisations began to re-emerge in the 1980s. But the existence of organisations like the BNP indicates that society is also highly polarised.
Defeating fascism partly depends on what political alternatives the left can build. But effective opposition to fascism is also vitally important. Experience shows it both limits the scope for fascism to spread and prevents it from functioning properly as a movement.
The re-emergence of fascism in the postwar period has been based on its ability to make links between its hard core activists and peripheral support. Broad based, united and consistent opposition that disrupts its operations, limiting its ability to meet, leaflet and campaign, can break this link and prevent such movements from becoming rooted in the political system.
Jim Wolfreys is co-author with Peter Fysh of The Politics of Racism in France