Should we be concerned about the rise of fascism?


Translation: Julie Summers

Pontus Järvstad is a doctoral student in history at the University of Iceland. His writing is focused on fascism, and he recently completed an article about antifascism in Iceland from the years after the First World War to the present. Co-authored by associate history professor Ragnheiður Kristjánsdóttir, the text will appear as a chapter in the book Antifascism in Nordic Countries, which will be released around Christmas.

With growing nationalism and the emergence of populist parties around the world, many people are wondering whether fascism is currently on the rise. The Student Paper spoke with Pontus about fascism in Europe and whether this movement poses a threat.

What is fascism? Is fascism an ideology?

“That’s controversial. Fascism is sometimes referred to as an opportunistic movement that incorporates elements from all sorts of ideological traditions, from other movements. But at its core, fascism is based on radical nationalism, and it stirs up ideas about having to ‘revive the country’ through radical change,” says Pontus.

Fascism has traditionally gained a foothold through right-wing parties, while the left has been its primary enemy. “Fascism is often anti-feminist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic. And today, you often also see opposition to multiculturalism and the queer community.”

Focus of fascism shifts from race to culture

After the Holocaust, very few Nazis were open about their political beliefs. After the Second World War, the fascist movement split in two, and a new offshoot emerged. Often called “the New Right,” Pontus points out that there’s still disagreement about whether this movement should be directly tied to fascism. Parties of this sort have been popping up and growing in popularity all over Europe through populist movements, which often contain elements of fascism.

The right-wing populist Swedish Democrats, for instance, were originally founded as a Nazi party, though they have made a concerted effort to clean up their reputation. “The difference with today’s fascism is that instead of talking about race like the old fascism did, the focus is now on culture. There’s a lot of talk about how people from certain cultures can’t adjust to other societies. The New Right also wants to participate in democratic elections through democratic institutions.”

Is there reason to worry?

Pontus says people should be concerned about the rise of fascism. “The danger of fascism and Nazism is clear. These movements can be violent, and they are often vocal opponents of multiculturalism, women’s movements, and working-class movements. You could say these movements often speak out against the liberal values of modern society.”

The way other political parties respond to fascist groups varies widely. In Sweden, the other parties shut out the Swedish Democrats and refuse to work with them. But in Germany, other parties have made changes to their platforms and adopted elements of these movements in an attempt to appease that portion of the electorate that wants to vote for fascist parties. There are examples of other parties working with fascist movements, and that sort of cooperation is likely to increase in the future. The discourse is moving more and more toward the New Right.

“Today, fascist parties are still looked down upon because of the Holocaust, but the fact is that their message is becoming more and more normalized as a result of these movements. ‘Fascist parties’ are gaining ground through populist movements.”

Pontus says one issue that has clearly contributed to the rise of fascism is the refugee crisis. “With the refugee crisis, we’ve seen our societies move further and further away from being humanitarian, and although we’ve provided shelter to many, thousands of others have died in the Mediterranean Sea,” says Pontus.

What about Iceland?

Fascism has always had a harder time gaining a foothold in Iceland than in other places. In the chapter on antifascism in Iceland that Pontus recently wrote, he mentions that there were often conflicts between fascists and antifascist movements in Iceland. Organized fascism emerged between the world wars, from 1933 to 1938. At first there was just one party, the Icelandic Nationalist Movement, which was founded in 1933 and was closely tied to the Independence Party. That party later split in two. A more radical group, the Nationalist Party, was formed in 1934, and part of the remaining members joined the Independence Party. In these years, there was conflict – sometimes violent – between Nazis and other movements, primarily left-wing movements. Icelanders famously refused to accept refugees trying to escape the Nazis.

“One famous example from this time is when pediatrician Katrín Thoroddsen tried to welcome Jewish children fleeing Nazi oppression. The children were refused asylum, and Katrín wrote an article entitled ‘Human kindness forbidden in Iceland.’ It was a big issue in Iceland and relates to the discourse of the time. It’s certainly a side of the issue that ties into how we think about antifascism today, showing compassion for refugees and others who experience persecution,” says Pontus.

Today, there isn’t much in the way of formal fascism in Iceland, but Pontus says there’s still good reason for people to be on their guard. “There’s a small group today that’s active but isn’t very organized. It’s part of the Nordic Resistance Movement and calls itself Norðurvígi. This group has been putting up stickers and posters here and there, trying to recruit more members. Then there’s another group centered around the homepage They don’t want to call themselves fascists or Nazis, but you can read about an ideology tied to ‘identitarianism’ on their website. This ideology often overlaps with fascist movements.

“The Freedom Party and the Icelandic National Front are also extreme nationalist parties, but if we’re look strictly at fascism and Nazism, then we’re mostly talking about Norðurvígi. There is absolutely good reason to fear this group. The branches of the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden and Norway are very violent. In Sweden, for instance, someone from this group planted bombs outside a left-wing book club meeting and outside a house where asylum seekers lived.”

Important to have the conversation

There is a lot of talk about challenges tied to the rush of refugees. People often say, for instance, that European cities are now full of immigrant “ghettos,” or that the influx of immigrants has led to a rise in violence. Pontus says news of this sort is often highly exaggerated, but it’s important for governments to address these issues. He also says that equality is the key to a multicultural society flourishing. “I think a huge problem when it comes to this issue is inequality and class division. If we don’t address inequality and class division, we cannot cultivate a humane society. It’s difficult for people to integrate into a new society if they’re trapped in poverty, or if they’re herded into separate neighborhoods.

“In Sweden, for instance, we see schools that are almost entirely native Swedes on the one hand or immigrants on the other hand. We have to work against that sort of segregation, and at the same time against inequality,” says Pontus, also pointing out that the discussion about refugees is understandable, and it’s important to welcome that discussion rather than label people as racists right off the bat. “Then you might just be pushing people even further away.”