Competing for Victimhood: Europe’s Dangerous Elections

The political 'immune system' against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, built up by Europe in the wake of two world wars and Nazism, is steadily collapsing.

Pierre Hazan
Pierre Hazan
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A man performs a "quenelle" salute next to a line of French police officers. Saint-Herblain,  January 9, 2014.
A man performs a "quenelle" salute next to a line of French police officers. Saint-Herblain, January 9, 2014.Credit: AFP
Pierre Hazan
Pierre Hazan

An ill wind is blowing across Western Europe, and the success of the National Front in local elections in France is but one symptom. From Greece to Great Britain, Switzerland to The Netherlands, anger is rising across public opinion: Anger against immigrants, denounced as invaders and parasites; anger against the State, considered helpless or indifferent; anger against Europe, carrier of all evils.

Reactionary movements and parties are exploiting this anger through a common denominator – the manipulation of memory, national as well as ethnic – and seducing voters at the risk of igniting new tensions.

It is a cruel irony that Europe was built on the memory of two horrendous world wars and Nazi barbarism. Commemorating these wars and the atrocities perpetrated by the Third Reich was supposed to have vaccinated the continent against the ideologies of hatred and rejection – even now, this idea remains commemoration’s primary raison d'être. But, today, in a perverse reversal, it is on this very soil of memory that a reactionary identity feeds.

From north to south, a war of memory is developing across Europe. Its forms may be radically different, but they all tap the same vein: That of victim deprived of identity. “Victim of the ‘European monster,’” for the Dutch leader Geert Wilders, who believes that Islam has no place on the continent. “Victim of ‘mass immigration’”, in Switzerland. “Victim of the ‘Jewish lobby,’” for the French comedian Dieudonné and his supporters, as if recognition of the Holocaust is, somehow, in opposition to recognition of the slave trade. Memories, meant to serve as a “national cement” and as a defense against all forms of racism, have instead become excuses for confrontation and escalation.

Lacking clear goals and undermined by economic crisis, Europe today seems helpless before the rise of this conservative radicalism that turns national and ethnic identities into reductionist myth. The immune system that was created post-war to fight against xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism is collapsing or, at least, no longer functions with the same ideological efficiency. Its accomplishments persist in the form of laws and legislation, of course, but they have lost force, as – paradox – they appear as an expression of the establishment.

In Western Europe, more than six decades after the end of the World War II, reminders of Nazi crimes have been institutionalized at the risk of losing their meaning, reduced to incantatory rhetoric around “Never Again,” in the name of some hypothetical “duty of memory” without resonance with the concerns of a society racked by the idea of its own decline. At a time when social exclusion has become a real social issue, it is too rarely, in schools, part of the reflection on civil disobedience and the mechanisms of solidarity.

Managed by the authorities, Holocaust commemorations appear, rather, as an obligatory ritual of the elite, themselves disconnected from social realities. And in a world where social networks peddle the wildest rumors with astonishing success, the legal means to punish Holocaust denial has become about as effective as the Maginot Line was in its time.

Let us not take these crises of identity too lightly. One of the detonators of the war in Yugoslavia was Slobodan Milosevic’s manipulation of Serb memory in Kosovo. This clash of memory continues today. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, high-school students are taught their nation’s history according to their “ethnic origin” – Serbian, Croatian or Bosniak – with all three history programs claiming “victim” status for its community alone. Here again is cruel irony: For the past 20 years, Europe has funded, to the extent of several hundred million euros, tribunals to punish the perpetrators of crimes in the former Yugoslavia so that judicial truth could fight against denial. At the same time, students receive segregated education that perpetuates the roots of this violence.

Certainly, the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina is specific. But it underscores with force that the clash of memories can lead to dangerous impasse, fragmenting national identity and, potentially, pitting communities against one another. The wars in the former Yugoslavia show that the worst is always possible. The challenge today is to take into account the real sense of confusion that exists in Europe, while taking a stand against “the war of memory” and the very real dangers that it carries.

Pierre Hazan is lecturer at the Geneva Centre for Education and Research in Humanitarian Action (CERAH) and a guest lecturer at The Fried-Gal Colloquium on Transitional Justice at Hebrew University’s School of Law.

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