Europe's New Politics of Fear

There is a new divide in Europe. Not an iron curtain, but an iron intolerance as politicians revert to blaming minorities for their nations' woes. In Western Europe it is Muslims. In Eastern Europe they are Jews, Roma, and gays. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders surged to an election victory in March on the back of anti-Muslim, anti-Quran populism. In Hungary the Fidesz Party won big in recent elections with attacks on "Jewish capital…which wants to devour the entire world." To the right of Fidesz is the openly anti-Jewish Jobbik Party, which won just two seats fewer than the Socialists. Its leaders want to wear the neo-Nazi uniform of the pre-1939 Hungarian Guard when they take their seats in Budapest's Parliament.

Contemporary political scientists do not like to highlight anti-Semitism. They prefer the term "radical populism," but to anyone with half a sense of European history, the parallels with an older, Jew-baiting politics can no longer be dismissed. Economic dislocation and a rapid loss of confidence in traditional politics gave rise to ultranationalist movements in the first half of the last century. Now a global recession and the hunt for someone to blame as jobs and incomes disappear is producing the same toxic politics.

The Fidesz leader, Viktor Orban, was a youthful evangelist for liberalized open markets after 1990. Now he strikes a much more nationalist tone. His Socialist opponents had to accept an austerity IMF package. Unlike Greece—which is being helped, so far, by its euro-zone partners—Hungary was alone as boom-time euro loans to buy houses and cars had to be paid back in an ever-devaluing forint. Blaming the Socialist government, globalization, and international capital was easy. But Fidesz went further. In a bid for votes on the far right, a Fidesz parliamentarian, Oszkar Molnar, says it's time to give "primacy to Hungarian interests over those of global capital, Jewish capital."

Like Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front in France, Jobbik has the support of about 15 percent of Hungarian voters. The Czech right-wing ODS Party has had to dismiss its leader, former premier Mirek Topolánek, after he attacked the Jewish origins of the current Czech prime minister and castigated the gay transport minister. In a new book, The Populist Radical Right in Poland, the Oxford-educated Warsaw political professor Rafal Pankowski writes: "Antisemitism is crucial to the Polish populist right. The number of Jews in Poland today is minimal, but the anti-Jewish prejudice serves as a code for a general hostility to diversity and to Polish [liberal] democracy." For the time being, criticism of nationalist politics is suspended as Poles mourn President Lech Kaczynski and other national leaders killed in the air-crash tragedy this month.

But the record of his party activists—including Michal Kaminski, Poland's best-known M.E.P. and leader of a small right-wing group in the Strasbourg Parliament—is disturbing. An admirer of the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, Kaminski uses ugly language about gays, and says he will apologize for the killing of Jews on Polish soil in World War II when "Jews apologize for killing Poles."

Mainstream political parties have sought to play down the rise of minority bashing. But Fidesz is affiliated with the center-right European People's Party, which groups Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democratic Union Party in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement government in France, and ruling conservative parties in Sweden, Italy, and Belgium. When Austrian rightist Jörg Haider entered a coalition in Austria a decade ago, the European Union held Vienna in a political quarantine until Haider was removed. But Fidesz has a massive majority built on attacking "Jewish capital" in language even Haider didn't dare utter.

So radical populism—anti-Muslim in Western Europe, anti-Jewish in Eastern Europe, and anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant rhetoric everywhere—is no longer fringe politics. In Britain's gen-eral election, all the main parties are seeking to appease anti-foreigner feeling with language on immigrants that they would not tolerate if applied to British citizens living and working abroad. Comparisons with prewar Europe should not be overdrawn. Fascism is dead and not coming back. But a new politics of intolerance is afoot in Europe, and no one knows how to deal with it.