Symbolism. That’s what the European parliamentary elections are really about. Voting for representatives to a legislative body that has no real power but is a “symbol” of a united Europe.
So what is the symbolism of two antisemitic, neo-Nazi parties — Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik — gaining three seats each in the newly elected parliament? And of the grand-daddy of post-war extremist political parties, France’s Front National, winning the French poll outright?
Well, in the case of the latter, Marine Le Pen has, at least publicly, carried out a successful detoxification of her party, modernising it and moving away from the antisemitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
According to Jean-Yves Camus, a researcher at Paris think tank IRIS, and the acknowledged expert on antisemitism in contemporary Europe, “Jean-Marie le Pen is a child of the Second World War. Marine Le Pen was born in 1968. She is not a Holocaust-denier, like her father. These issues mean nothing to her.”
Ms Le Pen, says Camus, is a politician intent on power. Her father’s pugnaciously expressed antisemitism and racism is not the way to government.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case elsewhere in Europe where the old hatred speaks its name loud and clear — even where the Jewish community is tiny. It is good politics. There are votes in those old, antisemitic tropes.
That is certainly the case in Greece, where 87 per cent of the community perished in the Holocaust, one of the highest proportions of any country. Today, there are only 5,000 Jews living in Greece, yet, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s recent Global Survey of Attitudes to Jews, 69 per cent of Greeks, the highest in Europe, harboured anti-Jewish views.
Eighty-two per cent of Greeks surveyed by the ADL said it was “probably true” that Jews have too much power in international financial markets. This is a key point in understanding how Golden Dawn, one third of whose leadership is on remand and whose spokesman sports a massive swastika on his bicep, managed to secure close to 10 per cent of the vote.
When the “international financial markets” lost confidence in Greece’s ability to repay its debts in 2011, a catastrophic series of events was set in motion that led to the fall of the socialist government. A bailout was organised under exceptionally harsh terms that effectively condemned Greece to depression-style economic contraction. Unemployment remains around 26-28 per cent.
In Greece, these international markets, and their guardians, the troika of the IMF, European Central Bank and EU, are seen as outsiders who have come to the country not to help but to punish Greeks. To win votes, it is easy to hint at the old tropes about Jewish bankers controlling the world.
Interestingly, however, no overt statements along those lines have been reported from the Golden Dawn campaign. Indeed, the neo-Nazi party has gone out of its way to present itself in a more moderate light. Supporters of Golden Dawn have included former top civil servants and senior military officers — including two generals who served assignments with Nato.
It is not clear whether the new moderation is behind the strong showing. At a guess, it is not. But it is likely that Golden Dawn’s vote is more an anti-EU vote than an antisemitic one.
Jobbik in Hungary has been causing concern much longer than Golden Dawn. Founded 11 years ago, Jobbik has already displaced the socialists and is now the second party in Hungary. A far-right opposition to the already right-wing, nationalist Fidesz, Jobbik has also tried to moderate its act as its performance at the ballot box has improved. The problem for the party’s leadership is its long trail of nasty past statements that reveal just how full of Jew-hatred they are.
Last year, the World Jewish Congress met in Budapest. Jobbik organised a protest outside the conference hall. Their leader, Gabor Vona, told supporters: “The Israeli conquerors, these investors, should look for another country in the world for themselves because Hungary is not for sale.”
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the great deportation of Hungary’s Jews. Four trains a day carrying 3,000 Jews each left for Auschwitz. In just under two months, 400,000 Jews had been deported. The genocide was organised by Adolf Eichmann and several hundred SS officers. It is not possible that so few could deport so many without considerable help from the local population.
Unlike Greece, Jews are still an important presence — in Budapest, at least. Because of this, the arguments about the events of May 1944 still carry weight in Hungarian politics.
Supporters of Jobbik are keen competitors in the suffering Olympics. “The war brought everyone sorrow,” a local mayor named Miklos, from a village near Heves told me. Then came Communism and 1956. More sorrow.
But again, the Jobbik vote is as much anti-EU and anti-globalisation as antisemitic. Indeed, around the continent, the extreme-right parties, like the FPO in Austria, won seats by being anti-EU, and anti-international finance. If their arguments are code that it’s the Jews’ fault — well, the politicians do not care.
Perhaps the only exception was the election of Udo Voigt of Germany’s neo-Nazi NDP, who once called Hitler a “great man”. Holocaust-denying Voigt does not seem to feel the need even for the sheen of acceptability.
The symbolism of these elections is simple: while EU countries continue to languish in low growth and traditional parties offer no good solutions, a minority will turn to new parties who blame old scapegoats.
Michael Goldfarb is a journalist and author