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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A New Old Evil

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Berlin, continuing Russian efforts to expel people of a different skin color from Moscow, and the strong showing of a far-right party in Austrian elections are part of a broad and disturbing development taking place across Europe.

That development consists of three parts: a willingness on the part of people suffering from economic and other difficulties to blame recognizable minorities for their problems, an eagerness by some political leaders in these countries to play to these prejudices, and a reluctance by many around the world to condemn activities that in the past have produced fascism and other forms of authoritarian rule.

Most reportage and commentaries on these events have focused on popular attitudes in particular places and at particular times. Thus, the desecration of the Jewish cemetery on Monday has already been described as the latest example of German anti-Semitism.

The vote over the weekend for an Austrian party whose leaders have praised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his notorious secret police, the SS, has been presented by many news outlets as a resurgence of Austrian nationalism.

And Russian efforts to drive Chechens and other North Caucasians from the Russian capital and other cities have been explained in terms of popular anger about terrorist incidents many Russians believe the Chechens were behind.

On the one hand, such a focus on individual events can help to explain what is going on, particularly because nationalist attitudes and excesses are by their very nature the product of a particular time and place.

But on the other hand, this approach to these new outbursts of nationalism and xenophobia has the effect not only of understating both the scope and danger of such outbursts but also of downplaying the responsibility of political figures in these countries and elsewhere for what is taking place.

A decade after the fall of communism in Europe led many to uncritically assume that the world was entering a new period of democracy and freedom, the events across Europe and especially its eastern half call such optimism into question and suggest that many of the forces which produced authoritarianism in the past or allowed it to emerge remain strong.

In all too many countries, political leaders are all too willing either to pander to the worst in their populations as part of an effort to build political authority or to look the other way as extremist groups grow in strength.

Such leaders often tell themselves that they can use the extremists for this limited purpose and then push them aside, but the history of Europe in the twentieth century suggests that such self-confidence is entirely misplaced.

All too often, leaders who have tried to employ such a strategy have failed, only to be replaced by the very extremists they have not opposed. Indeed, in a number of instances, the officials who have made such calculations intentionally or not have often made attacks on minorities ever more likely.

As many observers have noted, Russian attacks on "persons of Caucasian nationality" as the 1993 decree of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov styles those who should be excluded from his city now not only echoes Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's attacks on "persons of Jewish nationality" but could contribute to a rise of anti-Semitism in Russia as well. That is all the more likely because many of those now attacking the Chechens have been openly anti-Semitic as well.

Such attacks on minorities, the historical record suggests, frequently can become the foundation for broader attacks on democracy and the freedoms it both requires and promotes.

And that possibility by itself has the effect of highlighting the responsibility of political leaders around the world to take a clear and unambiguous stand against such extremist behavior lest it fester and grow into something even larger and more threatening.

Throughout the 20th century, political leaders in one country have justified remaining silent in the face of such extremist behavior in other states either because of their broader policy goals, personal ties to particular leaders or concerns that foreign criticism will only play into the hands of extremists.

But European history during this period underscores just how dangerous such assumptions are and how important was the insight of Pastor Niemoller more than a half century ago.

Reflecting on how fascism grew in his native Germany, Niemoller observed "When they came for the communists, I did not say anything because I wasn't a communist. When they came for the trade unionists, I didn't say anything because I wasn't a trade unionist. When they came for the Jews, I didn't say anything because I wasn't a Jew. And when they came for me, there was no one left to say anything."

And now, just as in the 1920s and 1930s, silence by those who recognize and oppose bigotry and violence against the human person almost certainly will make them at least partially responsible for in the rise of even more bigotry and broader violence in the future.