Thuggery, joblessness, expelled refugees: Is Europe returning to the hellish 1930s?


LONDON -- Fear is riding in the cockpit of Europe as the worst recession in a half-century grinds on. Everywhere people are alarmed by the atrocities of extremists, incidents of growing frequency that, for some, recall the dangerous days of the 1930s.

Xenophobia flourishes, stimulated by the widespread perception that Europe is about to be engulfed by refugees from the continent's south and east, as well as from Africa and Asia.

Nothing reflected that fear so clearly as the British home secretary's decision Tuesday to ban from Britain 180 Bosnian refugees -- women, children and elderly approved by the Red Cross as "victims of war with terrible need."

Creative and strong leadership at the national and international levels in Europe seems in short supply.

On every side, obdurate minorities frustrate the progress desired by majorities.

In France, a small fraction of farmers holds up a trade deal between the United States and the European Community that would advance the fortunes of over 100 countries, and help propel the world out of recession.

In Germany, a few thousand neo-Nazis raise the fright level throughout the country and bully the political establishment into deporting Gypsies and diminishing Europe's most humane asylum law.

The French political process contends with Jean Marie Le Pen, who has raised his National Front Party to prominence by blaming everything from unemployment to social malaise on Arabs (not the rich kind) in France, some immigrants, many French born.

In Britain, the hard times trigger racist attacks on blacks and West Asians.

They have also have thrown up one of the weirdest of phenomena: Nazi Rock, a music of hate and belligerence favored by right wing Skinheads, the tattooed men with the big boots and penchant for kicking in people's heads. The bands popular among them are Skullhead and Screwdriver.

In Italy, the right-wing Lombard League suggests that the country be cut in half, rich north from poor south, sort of like the rest of the United States' divorcing Mississippi and Alabama.

Alessandra Mussolini, the beautiful granddaughter of Benito, strives to make fascism fashionable again as a member of Parliament, representing the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement. "My grandfather was a great man," she has said. "I have a bust of him in my bedroom."

Now, attention is drawn to a country previously not much noticed in this context, but the country that gave fascism its longest period of legitimacy in this century, Spain.

A little over a week ago, four masked gunmen burst into an abandoned discotheque in a Madrid suburb and shot to death a homeless immigrant from the Dominican Republic, Lucrecia Perez, and seriously wounded another.

The killers, according to Madrid's civil governor, belonged to a Spanish neo-fascist gang.

Thus, Spain is experiencing the same anxieties as Germany, France, England, Italy, all the rest. Unemployment is climbing. The recession's grip tightens.

The reaction there is much the same. Signs appear: "Criminal Immigrants," "Spaniards First." North Africans are assaulted; Latin Americans, people like Mrs. Perez, are accused of stealing jobs from Spaniards.

The message is much the same in Spanish as it is in French, German or English.

Cause for unease

Clearly there is cause for unease, although not panic.

Hugh Mial, of the Royal Institute of International Affairs here, notes that voting for established right-wing extremist parties in Western Europe has increased in the past few years, but not alarmingly.

Mr. Le Pen's National Front, which claims 14 percent of France's national vote, advanced only 4 percentage points in four years.

It took the right-wing German Republikaner Party six years to move from 3 percent of the national vote to its current 8 percent.

In other countries -- Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Sweden, Italy-- none of the legitimate extreme right-wing parties has yet to move past 10 percent, according to Mr. Mial's statistics.

"There has been gradual growth over the years," he says. "Not very dramatic, but in the context it's a pretty solid group of people who are supporting fairly unacceptable policies within the democracies."

They remain tiny minorities. But some of them are violent. Europe, in fact, is virtually tyrannized by its violent minorities.

Thus, parallels are drawn with the 1930s, that era of depression when demagogues stoked people's darkest instincts and the world drifted into war. Many in Europe remember those days, which is why so many are so scared.

Academics and diplomats tend to discredit such comparisons. They emphasize instead the great differences between then and now, the anti-racism marches, the reactions of right thinking Europeans.

"There are no mainstream parties with street cadres fighting it out in the streets," says Christopher Husbands, the London School of Economics expert on right-wing extremism in Europe.

In terms of the violence, "we're still talking about people measured in the thousands rather than in the tens of thousands."

As long as that persists, it remains a police matter rather than a political matter."

"The recession was much more appalling then," adds Mr. Mial. "The sense of deep frustration and resentment [was] stronger."

Memories of 1930s

But memories continue to trouble people who have seen what happens when serious problems are not addressed, when bullies are not confronted. The memories are always there.

For instance, when the trade talks between the United States and the European Community broke down recently, pundits recalled how protectionism in the 1930s froze international trade and tipped the world into the Great Depression.

The cry went up: Don't let it happen again!

The current talks were stymied because a troubled French government led by President Francois Mitterrand was afraid to run afoul of a violent minority of French farmers.

There is no leadership evident in Paris. Although the talks resumed yesterday in Washington, agreement has yet to be reached.

On the EC level, the president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, was judged to have helped sabotage the trade talks.

Mr. Delors, who is supposed to be evenhanded as leader of the EC, was perceived as acting in the French interest rather than for the broader interest of the European Community.

Meanwhile, Britain stumbles toward the end of a failed presidency of the EC, which it assumed in July. Back then it was thought Britain would give an impulse to the widening of the community and to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty on European Union. It did neither.

As things stand, Britain is likely to be the last country to ratify the treaty designed to take the EC to a common currency.

British Prime Minister John Major is poorly regarded by his public. Rebels against his European policy within his own party make his 21-seat majority in the House of Commons far from dependable.

And in Germany, the Social Democratic Party, which had been opposed to modifying the constitution to make asylum more difficult, gave in this week and agreed to support a tightening of the law.

Lesson unlearned

Germany has been the most generous toward the refugees from the former Yugoslavia, having taken in 235,000 with the promise of absorbing another half million.

But fear is rife among Germans that their country is being swamped, and so far German appeals to other EC states to take their share of the refugees from the Balkan war have not been entirely successful.

The future is bleak indeed for refugees in Europe. The walls are going up, and again the parallel with the 1930s is advanced: Europe's failure to open the doors to Jews fleeing the Nazi holocaust is recalled.

"The parallel with the 1930s is a fair parallel with the provision that [unlike back then] people are being taken in by some countries," says Claude Moraes, director of Britain's Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Britain and France he finds particularly culpable.

"They are not taking people who are genuine asylum-seekers," he said. He also expects "a narrowing of the definition of asylum" to come out of a meeting here in London at the end of November of EC immigration ministers, with Britain in particular pushing for the tightest interpretation of international asylum treaties.

Britain has only taken 4,200 refugees from the former Yugoslavia; France only has 1,108.

But smaller and poorer countries -- Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Turkey and Hungary -- have taken many, many more.

The most significant lesson of the 1930s that seems to have gone unlearned in Europe is how to respond to governments that use force to get their way.

Europe's faltering approach toward the Balkan crisis could be the most dangerous lapse yet.

Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- a country recognized by the European Community -- has hardly been stopped or Serbian gains turned back.

This, despite a lot of talk by European leaders at the London summit on the former Yugoslavia in August that violent changes of existing borders would not be tolerated.

Tolerated they are, and now there is danger of the war's spreading into Kosovo province and Macedonia, and a possibility of Greek, Albanian and Turkish involvement.

A wider war in the Balkans would be just the thing to raise the level of fear throughout Europe even higher. Not to mention the level of guilt.

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