French Prime Minister Manuel Valls wasn’t exaggerating when he labeled last week’s European parliamentary elections a “political earthquake.” Valls and his colleagues awoke to a France that handed the National Front – Marine Le Pen’s “fascism with a pretty face” – a stunning victory. Her party won 26 percent of the vote – double that of the ruling Socialist Party.
The earthquake extended across the continent. In England, Nigel Farage, who led the U.K. Independence Party to an election victory that has turned English politics on its head, threw down the gauntlet. “I don't just want Britain to leave the European Union,” he said, “I want Europe to leave the European Union."
The election wasn’t only a protest vote over high unemployment, high taxes and recession. For many voters it was a chance to join Euroskeptics in rejecting what they perceive to be a co-opting of their national identities by faceless bureaucrats sitting in Brussels.
But it is the people they elected to sit in the next Parliament who have many observers deeply worried. There is a likely bloc of 50-60 seats that could include France's National Front, Greece's extremist Golden Dawn, Hungary's Jobbik and, for the first time, a parliamentarian representing the neo-Nazi German NPD. In other words, political parties whose core constituencies are attracted by xenophobia, nativist nationalism, anti-immigrant rhetoric (especially against Muslims) and anti-Semitism are now positioned to help shape European social, economic and foreign policies. Will they join the parliamentarians seeking to douse the flames of intolerance? Or will they leverage their newfound clout to become more effective social arsonists?
Europe's immigrants and minorities are deeply shocked by these developments, but none more so than the embattled Jewish communities, who are already facing a huge spike in anti-Semitism (polls suggest there are 150 million anti-Semites in Europe). Two weeks ago, on Saturday, on the eve of the elections, two Jews were beaten as they left Sabbath services. In Brussels, a well-trained terrorist walked into the Jewish Museum and murdered four innocents.
Benjamin Albalas, the head of the Central Board of Greek Jewish Communities, told The Jerusalem Post after the elections that “[a] great number of European citizens seem to have forgotten what happened during the Holocaust and World War II. Racism and anti-Semitism are again hitting Europe. It is time for immediate action.”
Efraim Zuroff, my colleague at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, warned that the elections could be “the beginning of a new and very dangerous era in which openly fascist and anti-Semitic parties might attain entrée into government coalitions, which would significantly change the current constellation of political power in such a way that could seriously jeopardize the future of European Jewish communities.”
What is happening in Europe is not a loss only of hope, but one of memory: about World War II, about the Holocaust and about the dangers of the totalitarian movements of both the left and right that dragged Europe down into a long 20th century twilight of the soul. Many of the younger generation have never been taught, and many of the older generation – who should know better – have willfully chosen to forget.
There were 10.5 million European Jews in 1914; there are 1.5 million in 2014. A Europe bereft of a coherent, inclusive democratic culture will have no room for Jews, Roma or immigrants.
Those in the EU who are committed to inclusion have been put on notice by the voters. If they can't come up with answers, the average European will increasingly turn to the simplistic and populist forces that brought 20th century Europe to the brink of destruction.
Harold Brackman is an historian.