Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Haunting echoes of 1938

For some time now, the recent trend towards right-wing nationalism in Europe has reached a disturbing pinnacle in Italy. Although the current government had - like so many other parties across the continent - been relentless in their onslaught of anti-immigrant rhetoric since before the last elections, the recent controversy truly took off last November.

In a startling echo of the darkest chapter of recent European history, the rape and murder of an Italian woman by a Romanian immigrant - and the subsequent abduction of a baby by a teenage Roma girl near Naples - led to a series of incidents of mob violence and vigilante attacks against Gypsies. The government, meanwhile, has done nothing to try and quel the xenophobic violence. When a rioting mob burned a gypsy camp close to the scene of the baby-snatching incident, with police barely managing to evacuate the occupants in time, Roberto Maroni of the Northern League said "this is what happens when gypsies steal babies."

Whilst refusing to take action against the racist attacks, however, the Northern League and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia government have been quick to launch a pogrom - there is no more appropriate word for it - of collective punishment against the Roma. As well as, for the first time, making living illegally in the country punishable by a four-year prison sentence, setting down a six-year sentence for foreigners who lie about their identity, and deporting all foreign nationals who have been imprisoned for more than two years, the Italian government has responded to what Berlusconi calls a "Roma emergency" by taking a compulsory census of the Roma people. All Roma, including children, are photographed, fingerprinted, have every detail taken on a government form, and are given an identity code. And to make matters even more surreal, the Red Cross has been drafted in to help gather the census data.

The world has been awakened to these events in the most dramatic way. On Sunday 20th July, the Daily Mail published pictures of the aftermath of two teenaged Roma girls drowning on a beach in Naples. After being recovered, the bodies were left covered by beach towels for an hour before they were collected as people continued to sunbathe, indifferent to the nearby corpses.

The parallels to Italy's history are telling enough. It was Mussolini who first expelled gypsies from Italy in 1926, describing them as "subhuman," and over the vext twenty years more than a million died alongside the Jews in the death camps. However, there is another part of European history that this most recent crackdown directly resembles - Kristallnacht. The "Night of the Broken Glass" was actually two days of Nazi-directed rioting which saw Jewish businesses and homes ransacked and burned and many Jews murdered in the chaos, and was followed by a series of brutal measures designed to punish the entire Jewish community. Most tellingly, it all occurred in the aftermath of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish boy.

These recent events, and their similarity to history, are not just a parable about the direction that Italy is heading in, but that of all of Europe. The current Swiss government came to power after an openly racist anti-immigrant campaign which included a poster of white sheep on a Swiss flag, with one of them kicking off a black sheep. The slogan underneath was "bringing safety." In France, Jean Marie le Pen and the Front National continue to garner incredible support in elections. Six million French people voted for him in the last elections. In Austria, the Freedom Party (FPO) hold six cabinet posts. In Denmark, the far-right Danish People's Party is holding together a centre-right government coalition and has drafted tough anti-asylum policies and cut aid to the third world. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Pim Fortuyn's List (LPF) is preparing to enter a coalition government with the Christian Democrat Party. Norway's anti-immigrant Progress Party has been propping up a coalition government since last October. Whilst in Portugal the Popular Party has entered a right wing coalition on the promise of tight limits on immigration. And, of course, we cannot forget that in the UK support for the BNP is growing and - though unlikely to ever enter parliament thanks to the FPTP voting system - now has a record number of local councillors.

Political discourse in Europe is on a continual rightward march, and if it is not addressed soon Italy may not be the only EU country in which people are witnessing echoes of Kristallnacht.