Hate in Central and Eastern Europe
Autocracy gains, Democracy loses
This is Zagreb, Croatia’s cosmopolitan capital where hate scrawl debases a prominent building in the city's center. Croatia’s official government ombudsperson for human rights issued a stinging report last week demanding stronger laws to restrict the dramatic increases in public displays of neo-Nazi symbols, alt-right racist chants, and other fascist messaging. In the 30 years since Central and Eastern European governments scrubbed off their communist coating, the young democracies have suffered plenty of setbacks, but none more dangerous than the ultranationalism now making its mark on the mainstream. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia – all NATO members on Russia’s eastern flank – are home to burgeoning hate groups with real political power. The region where citizens fought for personal freedoms and public accountability is quickly devolving into fear-mongering autocracies.
Blame is firmly rooted in this part of Europe; centuries of invasions and occupations only amplified fear of foreigners and contempt for minorities. With nationalism now surging, blame is rapidly escalating. Political leaders feed suspicion with popular attacks on the European Union, NATO, dissenting political views, Jews, and of course, immigrants.
Consider Hungary, where a history of entrepreneurship allowed an easy embrace of open markets and early democracy building, and where that openness is quickly closing. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán erected a 13’ high fence to keep out immigrants and cemented age-old assumptions that someone or something is out to destroy their culture. Recorded hate crimes in Hungary increased 700% during the year leading up to Orbán’s election. His 2018 reelection campaign read like a hate manifesto, and at the end of it he took a victory call from Trump. Orbán’s trusted adviser is former White House strategist Steve Bannon who has just announced the two are now working together to elect far-right members of the European Parliament, the EU’s legislative body.
Like Hungary’s government, Poland's too, plays on fear to outlaw political opposition, end judicial independence, and control the media. As in Hungary, Polish leaders cast their nation as the “fatherland” and their people as Christian, converging patriotism with nationalism and demanding its defense. It’s a theme repeated in cities and small hamlets dotting the entire region’s landscape.
Look west and the developing story is stunning: Germany’s post-Nazi-era-tradition of political moderation, even progressiveness, has given way to serious, controlling alt-right influence. It’s abundantly clear in the current campaign: every major candidate gunning for the German Chancellorship pays respect, if not outright homage, to what were considered only a few years ago frightening, illegal fringe groups. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ill-fated absorption of one million immigrants in 2015 gave rapid rise to heightened nationalism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism. Central and Eastern Europe has looked to Germany as its major champion to help the former communist countries integrate into the economic and military security of the EU, NATO, and beyond. If Germany loses its post-WWII moral compass and populism continues apace, there may be no check on just how far hate can go.
How can you help? Learn about the state of civil liberties in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) with Human Rights Watch and OSCE. Tap into resources at theEuropean Network Against Racism and find out how local groups respond to hate crimes. See Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt’s work, and her latest on anti-semitism and hate in CEE. If you're reading from the United States, hate crimes have soared in the past year, up 17% from 2017 according to a recent FBI report. The Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Map tracks malicious groups across the US here. Mine SPLC data for neo-Nazi organizations and the list of active Ku Klux Klan groups.
For more on how the U.S. is impacted by hate, take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map, which tracks the 953 active hate groups across the country.