COVER

EUROPE'S NIGHTMARE

AN EXPLOSION OF XENOPHOBIA REVIVES THE GHOSTS OF A CONTINENT'S OLD DEMONS

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 23 1992
COVER

EUROPE'S NIGHTMARE

AN EXPLOSION OF XENOPHOBIA REVIVES THE GHOSTS OF A CONTINENT'S OLD DEMONS

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 23 1992

EUROPE'S NIGHTMARE

AN EXPLOSION OF XENOPHOBIA REVIVES THE GHOSTS OF A CONTINENT'S OLD DEMONS

COVER

Let us entertain no illusions. Something evil is afoot.

—German President Richard von Weizsäcker

The evil that von Weizsäcker referred to when he addressed a crowd of 350,000 in Berlin last week is painfully apparent across Germany and much of the rest of Europe: violent attacks on foreigners, desecration of Jewish cemeteries and opinion polls showing an upsurge of intolerance. To the casual observer, Europe’s old demons of nationalism and antiSemitism seem to have slipped their leash once again. That impression could only be reinforced by the sight of von Weizsäcker delivering his appeal for tolerance from behind the shields of a phalanx of riot police after anarchists had pelted him with eggs at what was supposed to be a peaceful march in favor of “human dignity.”

The explosion of xenophobia across Germany, spearheaded by small groups of fanatical fascists, is the most spectacular sign of Europe’s sour new mood. But there are larger concerns than the posturing of neo-Nazis. In half a dozen countries, far-right parties with articulate leaders have attracted rising support in elections.

The Republicans in Germany, France’s National Front, the Freedom Party in Austria and Belgium’s Flemish Bloc have different regional shadings, but their core message is the same: white Europe is under threat from invading foreigners. And their solutions are uncannily similar: stop immigration and throw the foreigners out. The message may be simplistic, but it has some appeal. The far right has won seats on local assemblies, and a new poll shows that Germany’s Republicans would win their first seats in the federal parliament in a national election.

Experts are even more concerned by the rightists’ effect on mainstream parties, which now echo some of the extremists’ rhetoric. In France, conservative leader Jacques Chirac spoke openly about “noisy, smelly immigrants”—language usually associated with the National Front’s bombastic chief, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl warned recently that the influx of asylum seekers might provoke a “state of emergency”—and fuelled rather than calmed fears. Meanwhile, the far right watches with satisfaction as mainstream politicians adopt their slogans. “Today they criticize our measures,” says National Front strategist Bruno Megret. “Tomorrow they will try to borrow them.”

Europe’s voters have moved to the right for many reasons. The end of the Cold War made established political patterns seem outdated, and it discredited the leftist parties. Many of Le Pen’s working-class supporters formerly supported the French Communist Party, and their vote for him amounts to a gesture of defiance towards the established parties. “This is

essentially a protest vote,” notes Michael Hodges, a specialist in European politics at the London School of Economics. “It’s not a vote in favor of these parties actually taking power.”

The other issue driving the rightists’ recent successes is immigration. There is a widespread perception across Europe that the continent is being flooded by immigrants—mostly poor, non-white and non-Christian. In fact, demographers say there is no such influx into most countries. Regular immigration is actually down substantially from its high point in the early 1970s, from 1.2 million in 1973 to about 800,000 annually now. But behind the scare talk lies a deeper fear: that the number of non-white

Europeans is rising quickly because of their higher birthrates. Multiculturalism, a familiar concept to Canadians, is alien to Germany or France.

Germany, though, does have a real problem with newcomers—not the common immigrants, but rather with the tens of thousands of arrivals claiming political asylum there every month. The crisis arises not because Germany dislikes foreigners, but because it has one of the world’s most liberal policies towards would-be refugees. Its 1949 Constitution guarantees refugees the right of asylum, which caused few problems when the ¿ron Curtain shut Germany’s borders to the east. Now, the influx of asylum seekers has reached unmanageable proportions: a record 368,000 in the first 10 months of this year alone, up a staggering 81 per cent over 1991. And a large proportion of them are being lodged in eastern Germany, whose people never learned to deal with foreigners during half a century of dictatorship.

Frontiers: Mainstream politicians are reacting to temper the backlash, but only slowly and often clumsily. European Community ministers plan to meet at the end of November to discuss tighter security around the EC’s outer borders as they prepare to abolish frontiers between member states. In Germany, Kohl wants to amend the constitution to limit the right of asylum and give police the power to turn away many wouldbe refugees at the border. But his critics charge him with pandering to the right by failing to order a determined crackdown on violence against foreigners when attacks started last year.

Already, respected political figures are drawing dark parallels between Germany’s current problems and the ill-fated Weimar Republic, the shaky, post-First World War democracy whose collapse in the midst of political violence paved the way for Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Those comparisons are vastly overdrawn: Germany now has a strong economy and the great majority of its people support the political mainstream. Von Weizsäcker himself cautions that Weimar failed “not because there were too many Nazis too soon, but because there were too few democrats for too long.” Fortunately for Germany, and the rest of Europe, there are now plenty of democrats prepared to challenge the extremists and the evil afoot across the shaken continent.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Berlin with MARK RENOUF in London

MARK RENOUF