In the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville, the debate on the problematic nature of the “alt-right” has been relaunched. In this mix of Trump-supporting Clan members, ethno-nationalists, and outright Nazis, it is hard to see the long-term implications of these movements.
Numerous commentators are quick to find excuses: “they are angered by identity politics” or “emboldened by the violence of Antifa.” However, national socialism isn’t simply an easy way of upsetting the political Left on Twitter. It’s a toxic ideology with far-reaching societal consequences.
In Europe, German National Socialism caused immeasurable destruction. Its ideological influence is, however, still lurking in the background, waiting for fertile grounds to re-emerge. The Central European country of Slovakia is a frightening display of what can come from this ideology.
Slovakia: Communism and the Rise of National Socialism
In the post-WWII era of communist rule in Czechoslovakia, extremism of any kind was suppressed and pushed underground. However, after the 1989 revolution and more pronouncedly in the first years of Slovak independence, the presence of the neo-Nazi ideology started to grow.
Last week’s Charlottesville march provided many Slovaks with an eerie reminder of their own 2000’s experience. It was during this time when one of the movement’s centrepiece actors, Marian Kotleba, organized several rallies and protest marches. With his entourage, they paraded in the streets, carrying the same Tiki torches, dressed in black uniforms inspired by the Hlinka Guard, the Slovak wartime Nazi lapdogs.
It was at that time that Kotleba’s movement tried to morph into a political party. But, it was prevented from doing so by the judiciary. The neo-Nazis then opted for a new party, ĽSNS (Ľudová Strana Naše Slovensko; People’s Party Our Slovakia). They then turned down the party’s rhetoric and started being politically active.
This pragmatic change brought them a wider support base. In the 2013 regional elections, Kotleba won 55 percent of all votes, becoming regional governor. The party’s ever-rising and nation-wide popularity manifested itself when ĽSNS won 8.04 percent of all votes in 2016 parliamentary elections, gaining nearly 10 percent of all parliamentary seats.
Generally, Slovak right-wing extremists find their inspiration in the wartime clerico-fascist Slovak State and in its president Jozef Tiso. But they also look to the broader neo-Nazi ideology. Although initially a mere sub-culture on the margins of the society and tainted with several violent incidents (such as the murder of a long-haired rocker student, Daniel Tupý in 2005), the reignited movement started organising itself and gaining more supporters. Many of its followers were anti-Romani and later anti-immigrant/Muslim and these sentiments were largely the raison d’être for the movement.
However, it would be wrong to attribute its rise to prominence only to external factors. For many people, especially in the east, these groups represent a solution to their problems. These problems, they believe, have been long ignored by previous governments.
Even though their ideology is indeed radical, ĽSNS and other groups frequently organize fundraising activities and volunteer in public services. For several months, its members also held problematic and later prohibited “order patrols” in trains across the country, in order to prevent crime on board. Their PR strategy is also highly sophisticated, with its supporters on social networks frequently posting updates about the party’s activities, pictures of its members giving out gifts to the poor, or organising social activities for local supporters.
At one of the party’s most recent PR stunts, Kotleba awarded a family of a disabled man a cheque for 1488 euros. Although the generous amount is over three times the minimum salary in Slovakia, it also held a different meaning.
The number 14 refers to a 14-word white supremacist slogan “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Additionally, 88 refers to the Nazi salute “Heil Hitler” (with H being the 8th letter of the alphabet).
The highly provocative neo-Nazi message behind the act made sure that the pictures of Kotleba handing over the cheque appeared in every mainstream newspaper. Despite it being met with general disapproval, to the right audience, it has shown that ĽSNS is helping those in distress, regardless of ideological considerations.
Unfortunately, this party is not the only player on the field – other right wing extremist groups followed suit, with Slovak Recruits (Slovenskí Branci; a paramilitary youth civic movement) regularly volunteering to help with disaster management or Vzdor Kysuce (Resistance Kysuce; a comparably more violent and highly disciplined paramilitary organisation) having a separate social help programme.
Coupling this with the movement’s sympathetic criticism of the government and its participation in mainstream politics creates a feasible alternative in the eyes of many disenfranchised and frustrated.
The New Right Messes with the Fabric of Society
Catering to the masses by selling an authoritarian and identity-based government to the people poses a great danger to Slovak society. Slovakian right-wing extremism not only managed to turn hundreds of thousands of people against foreigners and leftists, it also made an enemy out of anyone who does not stand with it. This has divided society in a way that closely resembles the situation in many Western countries.
The incidents associated with this movement continue to multiply. In 2015, a Saudi family taking a walk with their baby in a stroller was bombarded with pavement tiles in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital. This happened after a large neo-Nazi protest got out of hand. This year, a black French exchange student had half of his face slashed by a broken beer glass. Additionally, a video of a Slovak girl urinating on the Quran went viral shortly thereafter.
The government’s hasty response to these actions was a newly-founded counter-extremism force NAKA (National Crime Agency). Unfortunately, this task force often only makes the situation worse. In fact, the government’s reaction has only served to strengthen the extremist rhetoric of being victimised and targeted by the state powers. Recent blunders by the current government, corruption, scandals, and the controversy surrounding the distribution of EU funds only exacerbate the situation. Even the latest polls suggest that the neo-Nazi party is set to gain another one percent, a trend that has become commonplace over the past months.
The Duty of Anti-Authoritarians
The pretence is not that the United States will turn into Slovakia within a short period of time. It is to display the potential that these ideas can have, once they get a foothold in the thought and aspirations of everyday people.
Lovers of liberty need to stand up to authoritarianism regardless of where it emerges and why it did. There certainly is a level of satisfaction when the political Left and its narrow worldview is challenged, but it shouldn’t refrain anti-authoritarians from being vigilant.
Not all the enemies of your enemies are your friends.
This article was co-authored with Jakub Rafay. It has been published first by the Foundation for Economic Education.
Pictures are Creative Commons
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