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The stories fascist Europe tells itself, and how to correct them

What can the UK learn from those fighting the far right across Europe? Take history seriously

Memorial to "the victims of the Nazis", Budapest.

Fascists are obsessed with history. Their ideology is less a doctrine about the economy or the future and more a story about identity and the past. It is harvested from half-truths about great victories and cruel injustices, spun into national myths about superiority and struggle, and applied as a bandage to wounded egos in times of trouble. Fascism is a story learnt in childhood, and the fight against fascism is a battle for truth about the past.

In Hungary, the front line in that argument was, for a moment, led by Kálmán Sütö, the homeless former truck driver who sells the country’s street magazine outside the gold-plated national parliament. When Viktor Orbán’s government erected a monument to “the victims of the Nazis” not far from Kálmán’s patch, he made a placard: “Horthy was the biggest Nazi of them all!”, and signed it “Kálmán the historian”. The iconography of the memorial implies that Hungary as a whole was the victim, deflecting from the historical reality that under Miclós Horthy, the country was fascist in its own right.

For Orbán, rewriting the national story of the second world war to make the Hungarian state the victim of Nazi aggression rather than a murderer of Jews, Roma, LGBTIQ people, disabled people, communists and trade unionists allows his regime to ignore the true lessons of history, and once more to draw boundaries around who counts as ‘us’, once more to promote hatred of those very same groups.

The protests against this rewriting of history became so big that Orbán was, Sütö told me, afraid. Hungary’s post-modern dictator erected a barrier around his monument to a false past, and our homeless historian was eventually arrested for decorating this fence with a more accurate account of what happened 75 years ago. At the police station, he told me with a smile, he insisted that the officers write on his papers the full list of his specific objections.

It’s not just warped stories about the second world war which scar Hungarian history. The treaty of Trianon, signed in 1920, confirmed peace between Hungary and the allied powers of the 1914-18 war. It was part of the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire and, as far as Hungarians are concerned, they lost two-thirds of their country (the peoples who gained independence as a result have a somewhat different narrative).

Olivio Kocsis-Cake is the country’s first black MP and the leader of Dialogue for Hungary, a member of the European Green Party. He told me that a huge portion of Orbán’s rhetoric is focussed on history, and on the injustice of Trianon in particular. As he was in full flow, in English, his aide quickly intervened in Hungarian, telling him to clarify that the treaty was indeed unjust – which he duly did. Even Hungary’s Green Party doesn’t dare suggest support for a century-old treaty that gave some self-determination to Slovaks, Croats and Romanians.

I got a liftshare (along with my Hungarian friend) to Miskolc in the north-east of the country. The man who took us, an off-duty police officer, spent the whole journey talking about the Roma people in the city. The government, he said, had promised to clear them from their homes in “the numbered streets”. But he thought they were only saying it to get votes, and wouldn’t really act. Roma people, he believed, were all criminals. He talked about children growing up with mothers with “three lovers”. He didn’t talk with hatred, but with the banal practicality of a technician, saying that it’s important to understand that they had been raised this way. The ultimate solution would be to take the children away, and force them to be raised in boarding schools.

József Csendes, a local Roma sociologist and activist, said, unprompted, that he was worried the government would take their children away: “We don’t want to suffer the same fate as the native Americans,” he said, though he later downplayed the likelihood of this happening. Roma children in a school common room got me dancing to YouTube videos of what they called “gypsy music” (the term is contested, but they embraced it) and told me how they are forced to get on trams at the front so that their tickets can be checked, while everyone else gets on where they please. A couple of them, whose families are over the border in Slovakia, showed me a video containing evidence of Slovak riot police attacking their village and beating up its Roma residents.

Orbán – described by many of the people I spoke to as a dictator – has ramped up rhetoric against immigrants in recent years. But in a country with almost no immigration, the real meaning is clear. Just as his attacks on George Soros are coded anti-semitism, “migrants” really means “Roma”.

Austrian victimhood

"Kill the Jew" board game.

In Vienna I got a preview of a new museum that aims to tell Austrians a more accurate version of history than the one they have been taught. The country has long liked to tell itself that it was the first victim of the Nazis. But the reality is that it had a fascist ruler, Englebert Dollfuss, before Hitler deposed him, and, as photos displayed in the new museum show, the Fuhrer was greeted by huge “Sieg Heil”-ing crowds in Vienna when he arrived. Austrian women stitched swastika flags, and children played a board game called ‘kill the Jew’.). A huge Trojan horse at the centre of the exhibition is used to argue that the lie that Nazism was entirely imposed on the country allowed Austrian Nazis off the hook – to the extent that second-world-war fascists held government positions in Austria for four decades after the war.

Today, with Austria governed by a coalition between the conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, this battle over the past has become urgent. The Freedom Party was founded by (‘ex’) Nazis in the 1950s, and its members wore blue cornflowers until a month before the elections late last year: in the 1930s, the cornflower was worn by Austrian Nazis so they could recognise each other, though the anti-immigrant party founded by Nazis likes to pretend the connection is just a coincidence.

At the weekly protest against the ruling parties, though, people talked more about the present and the future. An ecologist at the local university described how a clamp-down on NGOs risks lakes and rivers. A young black man talked about the impact on refugees. A teacher talked about her fear of cuts to public spending. A disabled man talked about the assault on the rights of the disabled. A group of trans protesters talked about the attack on their rights. And one of the organisers talked about how the misogyny of the far right, how they are trying to push women back into the home, and how the resistance is feminist.

Italian memories and France’s ‘golden age’

The squatted stables, Turin.

In Turin, I went to the former stables of the Italian royal family, now squatted, where a leading lawyer was talking about the new government’s proposed anti-migrant laws to a lecture theatre full of attentive students. As fire jugglers lit the courtyard outside orange, I spoke to a young artist who had taken a break from the talk because the stories being told were too horrifying. When I asked about the far-right Lega getting into government, she too began by talking about people’s view of history. In Italy, she believes, fascism has been blamed on one man – Mussolini. Rather than try to grapple with the murky undercurrents in their own national mythology, too many people in the country are content with focussing on a long-gone man. The result, she argues, is that many younger people don’t see fascism as a real, living threat.

Later that week, at the studio of a pirate radio station, I spoke to a vineyard worker who said he’s a communist, but his parents and many of his friends are fascists. My first question was, “What do they mean when they say they are fascist?” and, again, his first answer was that it was about an understanding of the past, a view of history and how that shapes your understanding of your culture.

In a week in Italy, more than one person talked about the sudden mushrooming of racism against black people, how people they hadn’t previously thought of as bigots had started using the Italian equivalent of the “N” word. A young barman in a village in the Alps (where everyone I saw was white) described how “older people hate black people” and how, watching the TV coverage of migrants arriving from North Africa, “people became racist”.

In Turin, while the refugee detention centre was covered in anti-racist slogans, this grafito showed a different view.

"Roma = ovens" - grafitti in Turin

In Paris, political organiser Maïder Piola-Urtizberea talked about Marine Le Pen’s obsession with France’s ‘golden age’ – an era that, she says, is never quite defined. And, as in Italy, Austria and Hungary, the second world war has played a major part in the political story of the French far right. Le Pen’s father and predecessor as party leader was a convicted Holocaust denier and, during the 2017 election, she and Emmanuel Macron fought a bitter battle over France’s responsibility for the arrest and deportation to death camps of 13,000 Parisian Jews during the war.

The fight back for history

During that election, Macron went to Algeria and demanded that the French state apologise for what he later called “crimes against humanity” committed when the country was a colony run from Paris: a history which has re-emerged as debates about migration surface once more.

In Turin, there is a museum dedicated to the resistance against fascism. It is a collection of video testimonials that recount the experiences of people during the war: mostly partisans or people who were against the war, but also a man who had been a teenage supporter of Mussolini. It would be hard to leave with the reassuring belief that Mussolini was Italy’s lone fascist.

In Hungary, in the face of the most repressive government in the EU, people have protested against the warping of history. Like Italy, Austria now has a museum dedicated to telling the less savoury stories from the countries’ pasts.

But I wasn’t travelling around Europe to see the sights and gawp at their problems. I was there to study how Britain should respond to the rise of the far right here. And what was perhaps most striking is that, although no British government has imposed fascism at home, imperial revisionism and nationalist nonsense permeate almost all of our official historical institutions: not because they lie, but because of the truths they don’t tell.

This is the case with school text books and TV histories. But it’s worth for a moment just thinking about our curatorial failure. Although Liverpool does host a museum of slavery, where is the collection which tells British people about the genocide British colonisers completed in Tasmania? Where can you go to find out about the Irish famine, the Bengal famine, the plundering of Persia, the castration of the Mau Mau, the looting of India? The first opium war? Or the second? Where can you learn about the brutal conquests in Africa? The torture in Yemen? The violence in Cyprus? The invasion of New Zealand? The treatment by the British of First Nation Canadians?

These are the stories of how Britain got rich, how we became who we are. And yet they are almost entirely undocumented in Britain’s vast array of galleries, museums and public collections. Go to the Imperial War Museum and there’s barely a whisper about any of the imperial wars, just endless artefacts from the second world war, the one moment Britain can lay claim to having been the good guy. Go to the British Museum and you’ll see a parade of plunder, displayed with pride, as though it wasn’t looted by vandals. Go round any of our major cities, and you’ll find it pock-marked with statues of imperial thugs.

Contemporary British history is a story about how this archipelago emerges from the shadow of empire. As with Hungary, and Italy, and Austria, and France, whether we escape into the light will be shaped by how we understand what brought us here. Fascism is a view of history. The fight against fascism is a fight over the past, and it’s time for Britain to start telling the whole truth.

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