Anti-fascism was the founding narrative of a new Europe after World War II. Based on the genuine solidarity felt between the people and nations affected by the unparalleled brutality of Nazi horrors, it infused a higher meaning into the driving force behind the Allied victory – namely, the commitment to eradicate fascism.
But, like all founding narratives, anti-fascism has been misconstrued and abused by the leaders who have come in its wake. And as right-wing autocrats and far-right forces around the world continue their literal assaults on our democracies, it is time to reclaim that narrative from those on all sides who have twisted it for their own ends.
75 years after the end of the war, what should have been a moment when Europe reflects on one of its most consequential civilizational achievements has been reduced to petty arguments between neighbors. Every country, it seems, has jumped to provide its own, and often outright revisionist, take on what ‘really’ happened.
Over the past year, there has been particularly heated debate between Poland and Russia. The current right-wing government in Poland has used the memory of World War II, when it was mercilessly occupied by the Nazi Wehrmacht, to further its rhetoric of Poland as the ultimate victim of geopolitics – and not just of Nazi Germany, but of the Soviet Union as well.
This didn’t sit well with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president has been adept at translating the significant Soviet role in ending WWII to position his country – and, in fact, himself – as the ultimate arbiter of what is and is not anti-fascist. Any country in Europe or wider that he clashes with ideologically is, in his telling, a "fascist" country. It’s a tactic Putin has wielded, for example, since 2014 in Ukraine, framing Russian military intervention in the country as a "fight against fascism."
It is hard to find anyone having anything close to a good faith debate about this. Yes, the Soviet Union entered Poland within two weeks of the German declaration of war. Their entry into Poland was already set out in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a non-aggression agreement signed by the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, which gave Adolf Hitler the assurance that Moscow would not impede in his plan to invade his neighbor as long as the Soviet Union also got a slice of the cake.
The current Polish government has led an aggressive campaign to delegitimize any positive role played by the Soviet Union’s role at the end of the war in pushing Nazi Germany out of the country, mainly because of the political system it ushered in – communism, which prioritized internationalism. Many countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence resent that long period during which their national identities could not flourish. Nationalist and right-wing parties such as Poland’s governing Law and Justice party reduce the entire period from 1945-1989 to an error of history ultimately caused by the Soviet Union.
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Of course, this hatred of the communist period and everything associated with it is not limited to Poland. And not only in Poland does it come coupled with rising nationalism, especially in central and eastern Europe. Mainstream leaders and political parties have sought to rehabilitate Nazi-collaborating historical figures like Slovak leader Jozef Tiso, Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy and Croatian leader Ante Pavelic.
The rehabilitation phenomenon is not limited to the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe. France’s centrist President Emmanuel Macron stirred up controversy for celebrating World War I hero Marshal Philippe Petain who collaborated with Nazis. Italy’s former Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly called for fascist Prime Minister Benito Mussolini to be reinstated – and refuses to join the country in celebrating its defeat of fascism in WWII.
For many in the region that emerged from crumbled empires after World War I, their Nazi-era puppet governments were the first time in history they had ever had an independent state. How, the argument goes, can someone who fought for independence and more cultural and political rights for ethnic groups that had never had them before be bad? Even if they were Nazis?
While many have been quick to label Europe’s wave of ascendant, nationalist authoritarians as "fascist," it would be more precise to define it by what it is not, or by what has been lost from the post-World War II experience. A consensus that anything that reeks of fascism should not be tolerated again, or an "anti-fascist consensus."
British historian Dan Stone coined the term "anti-fascist consensus" in his book Goodbye to All That?: The Story of Europe since 1945. In this book, Stone argues that this unwritten agreement of the postwar era became the basis for European memory politics.
On both sides of the Iron Curtain, politicians constantly stoked memories of the atrocities of World War II to stifle nationalist, anti-minority or exclusionary political movements, and to maintain power. Not only was this the source of popular legitimacy in a post-WWII world, it set the basis for the modern embrace of liberal values that was the norm on the continent for so long.
"In western Europe,” Stone told me, “there was a consensus that fascism had been defeated and that anything akin to it should not be repeated." However, this wasn’t necessarily the case in eastern Europe. There, Stone says, "there was an anti-fascism imposed from above, or at times a violent suppression of anything related to it."
This, among other reasons, has led to a backlash: the strong rejection of anti-fascism as a solely Russian creation, with the death days of Nazi-collaborating WWII leaders being marked by various groups in countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Croatia and Bulgaria, and positive takes on Nazi-era leaders finding their way back into history books.
One of the reasons for it, Stone argues, is that in the euphoria that, rightfully, swept Europe after 1989 there was a rush to dispose of everything that was associated with the Cold War period.
"There were intellectuals everywhere across the region who were a little bit more cautious, and were saying, ‘Yes, it’s good that the Cold War has ended, it’s good that these authoritarian regimes are being kicked out, but that doesn’t mean that we should be rehabilitating fascists,’" Stone says.
"There is something in the anti-fascist tradition that is valuable. Their voices were increasingly silenced."
Over seven decades since the end of WWII, we have failed to preserve the key lesson from the war. Liberal democracy, for all its faults and flaws – and no thanks to the leaders who want to push the concept to its limits – has won.
Instead, there is are a growing number of states where condemning the fascist past is now be considered "unpatriotic," or a revisionist form of pro-Soviet subversion.
For the generations after WWII, those who had lived it and particularly those who had fought it, anti-fascism was very real. For those born after it – especially in central and eastern Europe – it was part of the ideological baggage they grew up with, and was increasingly alienated from their reality.
"There has to be a way to breath fresh air into the anti-fascism of the 20th century. What we see now is a revival of fascist patterns of thinking, fascist aesthetics, fascistic mobilization attacks on liberalism, on individual rights as well as on particular groups such as refugees or Muslims or Jews," continues Stone.
"It has to be divorced from the de rigueur communist way of thinking and detached from notions of taking countries down the ‘glorious path of the golden age’ and be seen as something valuable that could assist in the defense of democracy."
Una Hajdari is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe who focuses on nationalism, the far-right, and identity after socialism. Twitter: @UnaHajdari