Are Europe's days of Fascism long behind us?
Illustration by Catherine O’Brien

Or does Fascism live on through the presence of the far-right across Europe today? To answer this question, it is useful to go back in time to the 1930s. Fascism was particularly strong, and we should compare it to the modern-day far-right, specifically Marine Le Pen’s party. By noting the similarities and differences between the past and present, we can hopefully understand if fascism is once again present in Europe.

In the 1930s, fascism had a large presence in Europe; some fascist groups made it into power, such as the Nazis in Germany. Other less successful groups still enjoyed a huge, nationwide membership, such as Jacques Doriot’s Parti Populaire Français (PPF) in France. 

Fascism in the 1930s arose during a time of crisis. The effects of the Great Depression caused mass tension and uncertainty across Europe. In France, for example, unemployment rose from 273k in 1932 to 433k in 1936, as well as intense political confrontations between right and left. These conditions were not remedied by the five different cabinets within two years. Germany, already the worse off since the Versailles Treaty which required it to pay billions in reparations, experienced levels of unemployment well over six million. 

In such conditions, a vulnerable and stressed population is easy to manipulate. One such way the PPF manipulated the population was through blaming the politicians in charge for causing France such misery. It claimed that France should be prospering after WWI. However, due to the politicians’ supposed incompetence it was in “the worst political, social and moral crisis of its history”. The Nazis’ success in the September 1930 Reichstag elections is also attributed in large part to the Depression’s effects and the lack of a united front among the more centrist parties at the time.

Similar conditions emerged after the 2007 crash. There was again, mass unemployment, and proposed that 20,900 jobs “would be done away within the [French] public service”, not to mention the population’s lack of confidence in President Sarkozy. According to certain political theorists, the anxiety from such uncertainty causes many to turn towards alternative political groups. These groups displayed a dogmatic and intolerant stance in order to escape their difficulty. 

We see this dogmatism and intolerance in Marine Le Pen’s language in her 2012 election manifesto.  Like in the 1930s, Le Pen, leader of the then National Front (NF), displays distaste for the politicians. She claimed that the situation had continued to worsen since 2007 and that the economic crash was not wholly the reason. Recalling the lack of faith in Sarkozy, she stated that he had failed to deliver on his promises. Thus, France had suffered. Again, in 2016 she accused the political leaders at the time of defending their own “special interests” at the expense of the French people. This suggests a maliciousness on the part of said leaders.

Another defining feature of fascism is xenophobia; targeting a group in the country who they do not see as the ‘true’ people of that country in an attempt to turn others against them. In the past this often manifested in the form of anti-communism or antisemitism. Doriot claimed that the French Communist Party was a “political instrument” of Russia which would lead to France losing its “freedom of thought… [and] freedom of expression”. The Nazis made their anti-Semitic ideas legal through the Nuremberg Laws, forbidding Jewish people and those of ‘German blood’ from marrying. One of the first was to exclude Jewish people from holding public office or civil service positions, and eventually they were denied German citizenship. 

Xenophobia lives on today through the far-right parties. Le Pen’s NF, or currently the National Rally (NR), and Germany’s AfD espouse a very similar message regarding Islam. In the AfD’s 2017 manifesto, they claim that “Islam does not belong to Germany” and that “the legal provisions of the shari’a are incompatible with our legal and value systems”. Le Pen also claims, in a 2016 interview, that some who follow Islam “consider sharia to be superior to all other laws and norms, including the French constitution”. France and Germany both have large Muslim populations; 8.8% and 6.1% respectively

There are, however, differences between 1930s fascism and the modern far-right. The fascist parties of the past were distinctly antidemocratic; an important characteristic of fascism. It must be noted that this can exist while a group participates in democracy; both the PPF and Nazis participated in electoral politics while displaying anti-democratic tendencies. Members of the PPF had to swear a loyalty oath to Doriot. Additionally, they performed other fascist rituals such as the Roman salute and a strong emphasis on militarism.This authoritarian party structure suggests that PPF members were deferential to an individual before democracy. Hitler used paramilitary intimidation and banned certain opponents from voting in order to secure passage of the Enabling Act in March 1933. Legally, this gave him dictatorial powers; a far-cry from a democratic, free and fair election. 

Le Pen, on the other hand, has displayed commitment to democracy. Her process of dédiabolisation sought to soften the NF’s reputation among the public. Prior it had received harsh criticism when Le Pen’s father and founder of the party, Jean-Marie Le Pen made anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments. This may show a wish to distance herself and the party from the extreme and align itself with the mainstream. However, only time will tell. Historian, J. P. Brunet claims that fascism hides its true character to appear favourable to the public. It reveals only once it gets into power. Marine Le Pen has shown potential to reach Presidential office, making it to the final round of the 2017 election. Who knows what could happen if she wins in 2022. 

We are still feeling the effects of 2007 crash. Not to mention that we are facing another likely more extreme economic disaster due to COVID-19. Many companies have come into difficulty and will either have to close in certain areas or close entirely. The level of unemployment has already skyrocketed across Europe and many other jobs have been put at risk. Judging from the events following mass uncertainty in the 1930s and the similarity in the messages put forth in the past, it is important that we be aware of the danger of the far-right.