Fascist Family Feud

Why Europe’s xenophobes just can’t get along.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Two weeks ago, former leader of Austria’s Freedom Party Jörg Haider called for a pan-European coalition uniting anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-EU forces around the continent. Apparently Jean-Marie Le Pen’s crushing defeat at the hands of Jacques Chirac hasn’t stopped Haider from dreaming of a Nationalist International. And with rising anti-immigrant sentiment across the continent, you can see why. But Haider’s vision faces a rather large problem: The Continent’s anti-immigrant parties hate one another just as much as they hate Davos Man. Europe’s nationalist politicians spend so much of their time condemning other nationalist politicians that they’re losing sight of their core competency: the relentless demonization of Muslims and other foreign elements. It’s a veritable Fascist Family Feud.

In a strange game of less-extreme-than-thou, Haider has distanced himself from Le Pen, calling the unreconstructed Vichyite’s positions “indefensible” and accusing him of having “racist positions in his program.” Belgium’s Flemish-supremacist Filip Dewinter, on the other hand, loves Le Pen, calling him a “brother in arms,” but has described Haider disapprovingly as “very moderate” despite his “provocative statements” (though Dewinter’s Vlaams Blok would reportedly “have no objection to an alliance with the Freedom Party”). Others take the pox-on-both-your-houses position: Italy’s Mussolini-loving Gianfranco Fini condemns Le Pen as “an ultra-nationalist, anti-European fascist” and refuses to contemplate any alliance with Haider, while in the Netherlands the late Pim Fortuyn’s party maintains that it “does not wantto associate with people like Le Pen or Haider.” Pia Kjærsgaard’s Danish People’s Party goes even further, refusing to countenance any kind of cross-border cooperation: “We defend Danish interests and we have no plans to create a pan-European party.”

This wasn’t what Haider envisioned at all.With his Hasselhoffian good looks and magnetic charm, Haider was long considered the far-right boogeyman to beat. But since Haider’s debut on the world stage, he’s slipped into obscurity, occasionally crawling out of his native Carinthia to hobnob with the likes of Saddam Hussein. Le Pen’s success convinced Haider he could return to glory by uniting Europe’s far-right parties under the name “New Europe.” But Haider wanted center stage all to himself, so he pointedly excluded Le Pen, the grand old man of European hate, from his proposed coalition.

Haider claimed that, unlike Le Pen, he was not racist, xenophobic, or anti-Semitic. “His verbal excesses are completely alien to me,” says Haider, the man perhaps best known for praising Hitler’s “proper employment policy.” By isolating Le Pen, who had replaced him as Europe’s villain of choice, Haider had reason to believe that other anti-immigrant politicians would rally around him. So, instead of building on his archrival’s success, Haider looked to the far-right’s “enormous potential in Denmark, Holland, and Italy,” a first step toward a “consolidation” of Europe.

But Haider faces a few obstacles in fulfilling this grand design, namely the Danes, the Dutch, and the Italians. “We have deliberately refused all contact with far-right parties,” says Peter Skaarup, the deputy leader of the Danish People’s Party. (Despite Skaarup’s claim, a delegation of DPP members traveled to Austria in the summer of 2000 to meet with—who else?—Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party but were sent packing, quite possibly for being too “far-right.”) As for the Dutch, Pim Fortuyn angrily rejected comparisons to Haider and Le Pen, arguing before he was assassinated that “Right-wing in Holland is to the Left of the Tories in England.” And a spokesman for Italy’s National Alliance, when asked about Haider’s proposed pan-European party, said, “There is not the slightest possibility of collaborating either with Le Pen’s party or Haider’s.” (The party, as you can see, has come a long way since 1994, when leader Gianfranco Fini identified Benito Mussolini as “the greatest statesman of the 20th century.”)

None of this should come as a surprise. Just as Europe’s Third Way politicians tried to rid themselves of socialism’s sharper edges, those castigated as its Third Reich wannabes are successful precisely to the extent they project an image of sober-minded moderation. Goose-stepping around town in paramilitary gear isn’t going to win votes, and neither will associating with foreign politicians lambasted in the press as neo-Nazis—even if those politicians share the exact same views. In February 2000, Haider named not Le Pen or Slobodan Milosevic as his inspiration, but rather a very different European politician: “I will be prepared to lead a government of reform under the Freedom Party and we will take ideas from the program of Tony Blair.”