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I recently went on a trip with some old friends to Berlin for a reunion. Although we all met in Hong Kong, the German capital turned out to be an easier place to all get to and given its party reputation, it seemed an apt location. On our first morning in the city as we sat in the sun enjoying our late brunch, a strange set of events unfolded, literally, before our eyes. It began with the unfurling of a large green flag. From our view point, we could read just the word Nazi and also just visible was the Swastika, which is a prohibited emblem in modern German.
We were naturally in shock. Surely not again, we pondered? Politics had already been a hot topic among us the night before. Our American friend had been explaining to us the heated campaigning already up and running in the U.S for the presidential elections. It is a battle between two dynasties, the Bush family and the Clintons, to decide on the future of Obama’s controversial healthcare reforms, but the media is more fixated in its love/loathing of Hilary Clinton.
Our Scottish friend had also express her relief at the result of the Scottish Independence no vote, as it was dividing not only a nation but families. And of course in the UK, we were in the final stage of a fiercely fought General Election, where the usually ignored smaller liberal parties, such as the Green Party and the Welsh Assembly candidates were for the first time allowed a voice alongside the main parties at televised debates. This was brought about in an unusual fashion, due to the vociferous campaigning to be heard by the far right party, The UK Independence Party (UKIP) with it’s xenophobic manifesto of banning non-EU immigrants into the UK and a message that Britain would be financially better off it we were to leave the European Union. With the global economy shrinking, the ill-informed are laying blame on the loss of jobs on immigrants and parties like UKIP are gaining more attention than they deserve.
Thankfully, UKIP gained just one seat in parliament, but it did enough damage. The Conservatives won an unexpected majority victory, based on voters fear of the unknown and ignorance of how much the Liberal Democrats had in fact prevented the Conservatives from introducing draconian measures when they were in coalition. Despite opinion polls predicting a Labour/Scottish National Party coalition, British voters went into the ballot box full of fear this might not be well received in the City of London, due to their ideals of more taxation to equal out the wealth, they didn’t want UKIP to win seats, so they voted in more austerity and a party with a manifesto to quit Europe not too dissimilar to that of UKIP. It was the worse outcome, but the flag made me realise it isn’t just in the UK this is happening.
To see a Nazi emblem in a Berlin suburban street would have been until recently unthinkable. Of course once we stood up and read the whole flag, we realised it was saying no thank you to the Nazis. In the distance we could hear a march in progress. A huge mass of mostly young people with anti fascist banners then turned the street and held a vigil at the point of the flag. A voice on a tannoy was saying something none of us could understand but we got the message: there is a battle going on in Germany and across Europe to quell the march of conservatism and even fascism. Pegida is a far right movement with an anti-Islamification agenda in Germany, supported by middle class people many of whom are old enough to remember Hitler’s Riechstag. The party was until recently run by a Hitler wannabe until he was forced to quit.
In France, the far right party has been run by the same family for several decades. Jean-Marie Le Pen led the National Front (FN) party from its foundation in 1972 until 2011 and he made five (thankfully unlucky!) attempts to become President of France. Le Pen did however reach the second round of the Presidential elections in 2002 (only two candidates are retained after the first round). His opponent was Chirac, hardly a progressive himself. Chirac won as everyone who was not FN voted for him to keep Le Pen at bay, but it was close. The FN have several mayors in place in big cities. As a French friend told me: “What is even worse is that some people have exactly the same ideas as the FN but don’t dare to vote for them. My grandparents didn’t vote FN on principle but had roughly the same views.”
Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, now leads the party, which has become the third largest in France. She has spoken out against her father, Le Pen senior, who was recently suspended after publicly belittling the Holocaust and lauding the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime. The 86-year-old also faces being stripped of his role as honorary president of the party. The Charlie Hebdo massacre grabbed the headlines, but French Jews in Paris, Lyon and across the country are experiencing a dramatic rise in antisemitism that is barely making the news outside of the country.
Russia recently “claimed” back (ie marched into) Crimea and held a mock flash election at which the majority vote was for Russian rule. I lived for six months as a student in Kiev, Ukraine in 1998, and I never once encountered a pro-Russian person, rather a people determined to bring back their own language and culture (which it has with gusto!) It is the city where last year the city demonstrated through the bitterest months for democracy and won. But as the pro-Russian leader was forced out, Putin had to take back something – by annexing Crimea and its prized Black Sea port. Media analysts say that Russia’s state media’s propaganda machine is more active now than in Soviet times and press freedoms have been drastically eroded. Reports of Journalists being rounded up and sent to Siberia and political opponents assassinated in broad day light within striking distance of the Kremlin, could be from the script of the next Bond film but are not fiction but a daily reality in the country.Today is V.E Day, the day 70 years ago, British and Europeans took to the streets to celebrate the end of the deadliest war ever known to mankind – over 60 million people were killed, which was over 3% of the 1939 world population. It began with a rise in right wing movements and the annexation of Austria by Germany. It worries me that lessons haven’t been learned, and we are heading for another catastrophe which our children and grandchildren will never forgive us for. Perhaps the flag we saw in that cafe should be unfurled across the continent and beyond?Nazis, Nein Danke!
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