Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In Europe's most impoverished capitals, extremists are trading aid for support of their offensive agenda.
With so many Athenians going through tough times, the recent decision of the mayor of Athens to ban some free food handouts sounds pretty hard-hearted. Last week, he moved to halt the distribution of lunch packets in a square near central Athens, even banning public gatherings in the area for 24 hours.
He was right, of course. Rather than a genuine act of charity, the handout was a stunt by Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. You see, when the party’s members aren’t vowing to liberate Istanbul for the Greeks, attacking female politicians on television, massing to batter lone immigrants or punching little girls, they like to play act as defenders of the ethnically acceptable sections of the Greek poor. Using food and clothing handouts as a way to promote a racist, divide-and-rule agenda, Golden Dawn stage meetings where they give food only to people who bring Greek identity cards. They also use these events to display their political affiliations with pride. Following that mayor’s ban, the party staged a meeting at their headquarters, treating recipients to a blast of the 1930s Nazi anthem the "Horst-Wessel-Lied."
No one wants to begrudge hungry people food, but using food aid to promote racial hatred is a pretty low blow. Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely isolated incident. As fear-stoked far right nationalism rises across Europe in the wake of the euro crisis, several extreme right organizations have been wheedling their way into parts of civil society they’re not normally associated with. Italy, for example, has CasaPound, a campaigning group named in honor of the pro-fascist, anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound. The group first entered the public eye back in 2003 when they squatted a disused government building in Rome. Openly admitting their allegiance with fascism, they have since gained ground by providing housing for 83 people, staging cultural events and flouting the usual European far right clichés – they’ve celebrated such non-fascist figures as Che Guevara. Underneath they still remain the same old boot boys of yore, however: their leader was given four years prison for assault in 2009, while members have also physically attacked journalists they accuse of defaming them.
Beyond their publicity effect, these charitable efforts are fairly superficial, as once the potential for political capital has been milked, these sorts of groups tend to move on. French far right groups, for example, gained a few headlines a while back by serving the homeless pork soup unsuitable for Muslims or Jews. Once the spotlight was off them, they promptly dropped their food service.
Their ability to tap into people’s fears, however, is rather more effective. In a characteristic move for European societies that prefer to punch downwards rather than up, immigrants and ethnic minorities are often scapegoated as the causes of crisis, as if it were they who created the sub-prime mortgage scandal or fiscal corruption. Aside from the right’s lunatic fringes, governments are also getting in on the act. The U.K.’s conservative government has just a launched a campaign telling illegal immigrants to “go home”, which even the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, one of the country’s most anti-immigration political groups, has branded "nasty." In Italy, it’s not just socially marginal migrants who are targeted for racism. Congolese-Italian politician Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, has been pelted with bananas, likened to an orangutan and accused of wanting to introduce “tribal traditions” to Italy – the latter two comments made by elected politicians."
And in Hungary, a member of the ruling Fidesz party who said the country’s Roma were animals who "should not be allowed to exist" has gone unchallenged by a government that has taken on much of the far right’s agenda. In this climate, it’s no great surprise that the trial of right wing terrorists who murdered six Hungarian Roma has been met with widespread indifference. Athens’ recent charity pantomime may come from Europe’s most luridly awful extreme right groups. But in their attempts to demonize poor immigrants, to divide the desperate and powerless into good and bad camps and punish the latter, Golden Dawn are sadly not alone.
Top image: A man receives a food portion at a soup kitchen for the poor, from a group called "O Allos Anthropos", or "The Fellow Man", in Athens. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)