At the end of his 1981 book “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.,” George Steiner asks his readers to imagine the unimaginable. The year is 1980, and Mossad agents have just taken an implausible prisoner in the Latin American jungle: Adolf Hitler.
In the novel’s alternative timeline, the former dictator flees Germany after 1945 and escapes into trans-Atlantic hiding. Held captive by a squad of Nazi hunters, the now 91-year-old delivers an exculpatory speech reflecting on humanity’s future. “In a world that has tortured political prisoners and has stripped the earth of plant and animal,” Hitler exclaims, “the ‘one out of hell’ was thought to have been extinct.” One day, however, his kind would return, and their “crimes were to be matched and surpassed by those of others.”
It is difficult to miss the contemporary resonance in Mr. Steiner’s sentences. Four decades after his novel was published, the far right is once again on the march. While the trend is clearly global in reach, stretching from New Delhi to Washington, one continent has undergone a strikingly unified drift to the extreme right: Europe.
Vanguards such as Hungary and Poland have been under far-right rule for some years. Today, countries such as Italy and Finland are governed by its forces, and in Belgium, France and Sweden they edge closer to office. Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni — a member of the Brothers of Italy, a party with a direct lineage to Mussolini’s fascists — stands out as the face of the nationalist international, with figures such as Viktor Orban, Mateusz Morawiecki and Marine Le Pen flanking her.
Europe’s extreme-right tide has been a long time coming. Early breakthroughs punctuated the 1980s and ’90s, with a period of steady advances in the 2000s, not least in Austria, where the far right entered government. But in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, an important shift has taken place. Rather than mere electoral contenders or shapers of public opinion, Europe’s far-right parties now appear as plausible and normal forces of government. Long a purely oppositional force, they are moving into the halls of power.
What explains this new and alarming development? After the votes for Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016, followed by electoral breakthroughs for Ms. Le Pen and the Alternative for Germany party, many sought to explain the far-right’s rise through the concept of populism. Yet the explanation always hid more than it revealed. For one thing, it implied that the far-right leaders were authentic representatives of a forgotten people — even when the politicians in question often had elite backgrounds. For another, it seemed to blame the rise of right-wing forces on irrational voters, overlooking those that have held power on the continent in the past 30 years.
Since the signing of the Maastricht treaty in 1991, which locked in low public spending and deflation, European politicians have increasingly become beholden to business interests at the expense of citizens. Through this process, which the political scientist Peter Mair termed “elite withdrawal,” representatives grew hesitant to make grand promises to voters, lest any threaten their pro-market policies.
They thus had to find another way of maintaining control. That is where the far right came in handy. By invoking the threat of impending right-wing extremism, mainstream politicians could present themselves as the lesser evil. As long as their power was untouched, politicians seemed relaxed about how political common sense — notably on immigration and welfare — slipped ever farther to the right.
It largely worked. For close to three decades, mainstream parties across the continent held sway, undisturbed by serious opposition. But they were, if anything, too successful. Without the counterforces that once balanced Europe’s unstable societies — such as the strong left-wing parties and unions that were defeated in the 1970s and ’80s — European rulers lost discipline. Under their watch, inequality rose, economies malfunctioned, and public services began to wither. In this parlous setting, the far right gradually managed to position itself as the only credible challenger to the system. After gathering support on the sidelines, its time has come.
Europe’s far-right drift inevitably invites historical comparisons. A prominent one has been that the continent is experiencing a return to the 1930s, a high tide for extremist forces. Yet the comparison lacks bite on many fronts. Europe’s fascists, for one, rose to power in a period of intense social confrontation: Hitler and Mussolini prevailed after labor movements tried to instigate revolutions. A muscular proletariat is conspicuously absent from the European scene today, fatally weakened by deindustrialization and loose labor markets.
In contrast to the 1930s, when fascist street violence flourished, the contemporary far right thrives on demobilization. Ms. Meloni’s party won a majority of votes in an election in which nearly four out of 10 Italians stayed home, with turnout down by almost 10 percent from the country’s previous vote. In France, Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally has long received its best tallies in parts of the country that have the highest voter abstention rates. And in Poland, the Kaczynski family behind the Law and Justice party rules over a country where fewer than 1 percent of citizens are members of a political party.
There is another critical difference, too. Hitler and Mussolini promised their national elites the equivalents of the colonial empires that their French and British competitors had long ago acquired. Today’s far right has an alternative worldview. Rather than expand outward, their main desire is to shield Europe from the rest of the world. They have accepted that the continent will no longer be a protagonist in the 21st century; the best one can hope for is protection from the hordes. In Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel “The Camp of Saints” — which has become a manual for the contemporary far right — the aim of Europe’s supposed saviors is not to conquer Africa but simply to keep its inhabitants south of the Mediterranean.
Low ambitions define the far right’s international approach, starting with the European Union. For decades, far-right parties focused their ire on the bloc’s undemocratic constraints, even championing exit from the union. Such defiance has died away. Far-right politicians still fulminate against immigration laws but say less about their nations’ reliance on European funds. The union, for its part, is increasingly geopolitically dependent on the United States and its industry is losing out to China. While Hitler tried to break an Anglo-American order and made a bid for global domination, Europe’s new authoritarians are happy to occupy a niche within the existing power structure. The goal is adaptation to decline, not its reversal.
Europe’s far-right advance does not follow a natural law. In Spain the far-right party Vox lost voters in the last election, partly because of the left-wing coalition government’s impressively low inflation figures. Yet Vox did manage to shift Spain’s political center of gravity to the right. Though many Spanish farmers were unable to sow this year because of this summer’s persistent drought, climate issues hardly figured as a theme during the campaign. In other countries, notably the Netherlands, the far right’s popularity has severely undermined efforts to mitigate the damage of climate change.
In a world that destroys “plant and animal,” as Mr. Steiner’s Hitler predicted, the “one out of hell” seems to have made his return. Yet he has hardly come in the guise we expected, presenting dangers that are wholly new.
Anton Jäger (@AntonJaegermm) is a lecturer in politics at Oxford University and the author, with Arthur Borriello, of “The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession.”
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