Photos used with permission from Österreichisches Außenministerium/flickr, Italian Government, Bwag/Commons
September 30, 1938. “Peace for our time.”
Former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain believed that, by accepting the demands of a fascist leader, he would lead Europe to balanced prosperity.
At that moment, the democratic civilizations in Europe gave the go-ahead for Hitler’s despicable perversion and abuse of populist rhetoric and nationalist policy, allowing him to annex sovereign territory of the democratic Czechoslovakia.
Though Europe has fortunately not encountered a similar crisis since then, we find ourselves currently at a tipping point. Across Europe, right-wing populists are gaining power every day by appealing to lingering nativist sentiment.
Already, nationalists have entered government in Austria, through the political party FPÖ, Hungary, through authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Italy, through the far-right Northern League, and Poland, through the increasingly undemocratic Law and Justice Party. Meanwhile, Europe’s regional superpowers, the UK, France, and Germany, are all seeing nationalist leaders on the rise.
These populist governments pose a dire threat to Europe’s stability and democracy. Many nationalist leaders have embraced dictators like Vladimir Putin, inviting Russian interference in fair elections.
Russian involvement in electoral politics has already brought down the government in Austria. The 2017 Federal Election resulted in a coalition government between the center-right ÖVP and the FPÖ. The FPÖ was initially founded in 1956 by former Nazis.
This government was removed in early 2019 after it was revealed that the FPÖ leader requested Russian funding for his party in the prior elections. After the 2019 snap election, the ÖVP was reelected into government and is expected to reestablish its partnership with the FPÖ.
Under the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, the Austrian government aggressively pursued policies to assimilate foreigners and refugees.
One of his most controversial policies was mandating German language classes in schools with more than eight “extraordinary students,” or students with limited command of the language. This law was criticized for its logistical infeasibility and for discriminating against students of foreign origin.
This government also targeted the Muslim community, shutting several mosques and expelling dozens of imams. Although the official reason behind these actions was concerns over the mosques’ connections to radical Islam, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz felt the need to justify the move by saying that “parallel societies” did not belong in Austria.
This repudiation of cultural diversity and religious liberty, two key aspects of any democracy, should cast serious fears over Austria’s direction and the dangers of a nationalist party in government.
The recent coalition government in Italy, which has since collapsed, is no different. Up until early 2019, Italy was run by a partnership between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the nationalist Northern League.
Far-right leader Matteo Salvini, while serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, enacted fiercely anti-immigration policies, closing all of Italy’s ports and denying access to ships full of migrants and refugees, decrying so-called “clandestine immigration”.
Salvini also proposed to create a register of Roma people in Italy who have been a target for his racially tinged politicking. Salvini declared that a census, reminiscent of totalitarian regimes, was necessary because the Roma people could not be deported from their home country.
Like the FPO in Austria, Salvini’s party was forced out of government after he attempted to call for snap elections. While the west may breathe a sigh of relief, rid of these dangerous populists, a global trend of nationalism is still on the rise.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon has recently formed an international group of nationalist parties and leaders, like Salvini, Hungary’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán, and Dutch populist Geert Wilders. Bannon recently leased a monastery in Italy to serve as an academy to train future alt-right leaders.
Though his group is yet to catch steam and has faced setbacks, such as the lease on the monastery being overturned, Bannon’s global association of far-right authoritarian leaders has a great deal of potential.
By creating a network of nationalist leaders, this group may one day have the ability to mobilize vast swaths of people harboring nativist sentiment. And a global surge in undemocratic governments will kneecap the progress made over the past 200 years.
It’s easy to forget political movements in far-away countries. In truth, what happens in Italy or Hungary is unlikely to affect us. But each instance of the alt-right gaining power is just a symptom of a global wave of populism.
Now, it is the responsibility of voters in democracies everywhere to stop this movement before it takes power. Because once authoritarians take power, the cost of removing them is nearly insurmountable.