PARIS — There is something rotten in Europe. A kind of fetid wind, or foreboding gust, is blowing through.
The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) nearly won the presidential election, the best result for a far-right party since World War II. The FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer, might have shown the friendly face of an uninhibited far-right movement, but lurking behind it are bitterly xenophobic, Islamophobic and Eurosceptic ideas.
In Slovakia, neo-Nazi leader Marian Kotleba, governor of the Banska Bystrica Region, strengthens his influence with each passing day. On March 5, his Our Slovakia party entered the national parliament for the first time, with 14 elected representatives. In his home stronghold, Kotleba organizes "local defense" militias that persecute Roma people and mistreat artists, whom he considers "decadents."
Across central and eastern Europe the migrant crisis has governments on edge. In Hungary, controversial nationalist leader Viktor Orban sums up his policy in two words: "zero migrants." His country refuses to enact a program to relocate 120,000 refugees that a majority of European heads of state voted to support on September 22, 2015.
In the meantime, thousands of Syrians are gathering in camps along the Greek-Macedonian border or in the Greek islands. They survive in appalling sanitary conditions that are shameful for the European Union, whose original political ambition was to be a vanguard of human rights.
Never before has the EU been so violently torn apart by centrifugal forces. This is no longer just a bad dream. On top of the refugee crisis and the rise of populism, Europe is dealing with the fear of terrorism, the after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis, the Greek crisis and the temptation of some member countries to leave the EU. On June 23, the UK will decide in a referendum if it wants to break away from Brussels. Danish and Dutch Eurosceptics dream of similar initiatives in their own countries. The single currency, once a symbol of prosperity, is now off-putting.
Even staunch Europhiles are wavering. Mario Monti, prime minister of Italy from 2011 to 2013 and a former European commissioner for internal market and services, recently told Politico that the EU was "heading towards disintegration."
Seduced by nothingness
What's happening to us? How, and why, did the European dream turn into a nightmare? How are these undercurrents shaking Europe to the core?
To understand the situation, we must first avoid two pitfalls. The first would be to give in to the siren songs of doomsayers. There's nothing easier in a bad situation than to predict the worst. And it's not a new reaction: On the Old Continent, nihilist pessimists have always seemed more credible and less suspicious than soothing optimists. And yet, no one does so little to further the debate as doomsayers. They have nothing to offer, except their fascination for nothingness.
School children in Germany in 1934 — Photo: Bundesarchiv
The second pitfall would be to rely exclusively on the past to understand the present. Of course, we're tempted to compare the 2008 crisis to the Great Depression of the 1930s, and today's rise of populism to the surge in far-right groups back then. And to conclude that, since like causes produce like effects, we're headed for disaster. Sophistry!
"To extract something familiar from something unknown relieves, comforts, and satisfies us, besides giving us a feeling of power," Nietzsche warned in his Twilight of the Idols. Explaining the present by referring to the causes of past problems is the best way to overlook new facts, to lock yourself into fantasy instead of grasping reality. That's a recipe for misguidedness, if not outright foolishness.
No, today's Europe doesn't actually resemble Europe of the 1930s. This truth neither minimizes the danger nor denies the resurgence of old nationalist reflexes. It's an indispensable prerequisite for a new way of thinking. But that won't appear just yet.
After all, it took 20th-century historians and political experts some time to understand how Europe could sink into World War II's murderous folly. Hannah Arendt's groundbreaking book The Origins of Totalitarianism was published in 1951 in the U.S. and only 20 years later in France. In it, the German philosopher explained how Hitler and Stalin's unprecedented regimes emerged in the wake of a disintegration of class societies devastated by crisis, and their replacement with unstructured societies composed of furious, isolated individuals who were ultimately seduced by totalitarian ideology.
As we wait for the Hannah Arendts of tomorrow, we shouldn't give into the tyranny of fear, whether it's a fear of the other, of the refugee or of the future. In the general population, this sort of thinking fuels sheep-like acrimonious instincts. Among society's elite, it encourages cowardice and sows the seeds of dissension.
We — citizens, leaders, employees, artists and researchers — need to work on defeating the tyranny of fear. It's a Sisyphean task that requires modesty and clarity, a permanent fight against condescension and nihilism. The path will be full of traps. But there can be no way back.