Contrasting Trends: Europe Between Democracy and Radicalism

World leaders join French President François Hollande during a march remembering the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shootings. Paris, January 11, 2015. (Flickr/EEAS)

In December 2014-January 2015, Germany and France were buffeted by contrasting pressures from Islamic terrorists and anti-immigrant forces, creating major challenges to the democratic forces led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President François Hollande. In Paris, the assassination of the editorial staff of the satirical weekly magazine “Charlie Hebdo” on January 7 followed two days later by the murder of four French Jews at a Kosher supermarket in the Marais section of Paris forced Europeans (not just the French) to confront the reality of Islamic terrorists and mounting anti-Semitism as growing threats to European democracy. The January 11 mass march of solidarity down the Champs Élysées, led by Hollande and Merkel and a large number of European and African leaders in support of human rights and democratic principles, was encouraging. But fissures in the body politic in both countries remain strong.

At the time, I was teaching a course on “Contemporary Diplomacy” to 16 graduate students from seven European countries at the University of Konstanz, a public university of 12,000 students, in southwestern Germany. The student body was the best of the new Europe; my students were democratic, liberal, intelligent, and well informed. About 400 miles to the east, another reality garnered headlines in the city of Dresden, in Saxony. This has been the base of PEGIDA, a highly visible right-wing movement opposed to the immigration into Germany of Muslims from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. PEGIDA is a fringe movement, but it reflects growing fears not only of terrorism and job displacement but of the perceived changing German social and economic demographic. While less than two percent of Saxony’s population is Muslim, PEGIDA drew large crowds and considerable media attention to its loud calls for restricting Islamic immigration, reflecting growing anti-Muslim sentiment in Germany. In her New Year address on December 31, Chancellor Merkel took the lead by condemning PEGIDA, the use of hate speech, and the effort to demonize and malign the Muslim community as having no legitimacy in contemporary Germany. PEGIDA’s support seems to be waning, but anti-immigrant and neo-Nazi sentiments remain a challenge, albeit on the fringes of German society. Similar forces are at work in other European countries.

These events overlapped with the revival of a musical at the Komische Opera in Berlin last presented there on December 23, 1932, one month before Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933. Ball im Savoy, which I saw on a cold winter’s night this January with a large multi-generational German audience in attendance, had premiered in the same house 83 years ago. The musical, a German equivalent of Cole Porter and the Merry Widow, was deliberately provocative, sexy, and satirical. It was immediately closed once the Nazis took over; its Jewish composer Paul Abraham and Jewish librettists fled; all ended tragically—the librettists allegedly committing suicide in Norway, while Abraham was found delirious on a New York street dying in a New York sanitarium shortly thereafter. It was the end, as the program noted, of both the Weimar Republic and the Jazz age.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacres, the memory of anti-Semitism in France over 80 years ago was further brought back by reading Anne Sinclair’s recent memoir of her childhood, My Grandfather’s Gallery, on the flight back to New York. Paul Rosenberg had been a prominent art dealer in Paris in the 1930s, promoting and selling works by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, Fernand Léger, and other post-impressionist artists. The defeat of Prime Minister Léon Blum’s government and the rise of Vichy forced Rosenberg to leave Paris first to southern France in 1938 and then to New York in September 1940, three months after the Germans entered Paris. Much of his collection was confiscated by the Nazis and transferred to Joseph Goebbels’ secret collection; only a few of these works have been recovered. By then, the Vichy government had aligned itself openly with the Nazis and begun the deportation of 75,000 Jews to Germany, almost all ultimately to their death in Auschwitz. With the art works he brought from France, Rosenberg opened a new gallery on Madison Avenue; it became a leading venue for showcasing Cubist and other contemporary art well into the 1950s.

Between Rosenberg’s flight to New York and the 2015 massacres in Paris, the issue of anti-Semitism in France has arisen again. President Hollande has called for France’s Jewish population to remain in France and has provided added protections around Jewish schools, stores, and other public places. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged Jews to come to Israel, claiming it is the only place where Jews can be safe. Is this an existential crisis for French Jewry? As Roger Cohen, a leading columnist for The New York Times, said recently, Jewish immigration is the story of the 20th century—a story not only of new beginnings but of loss and displacement. But it would be a mistake for France to lose its Jewish population. This is what happened in Austria in 1938, much to that country’s detriment. Bernard Avishai, a Dartmouth history professor, responded with “Netanyahu Sells French Jews Short” and recalled France’s fierce republicanism—a hard-won response to all forms of political violence, whether against satirists or minorities. Europe’s challenge today is not to have these events repeat themselves; not to have anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment, forces largely of the right, overwhelm the democratic principles enshrined in the French and German constitutions as well as the UN Charter. With the rise of ISIS in the Middle East stoking fears in Europe and the United States, the defense of democratic principles and values and religious freedom becomes more important than ever.

Just as fighting anti-Semitism is a complex issue for Europe, so is reducing support for ISIS and other jihadist organizations among European Muslims. Two recent New York Times articles have highlighted the challenge: The first described how Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, who carried out the Charlie Hebdo massacres, had become radicalized over a decade—including several years in prison—from petty criminals to hardened jihadists. In “French Town Struggles to Understand Radicals’ Pull” (January 16, 2015), Claude Arnaud, the mayor of Lunel, a small town near Montpellier in the south of France, sought to analyze how six young Muslims from his town had gone on jihad to Syria and were killed there: “We are all trying to understand but feel completely out of our depth.” He expressed fear that another ten young men from there would return to France after “being trained to shoot and to cut throats.” The radicalization of marginalized youth will not be stopped by marches or even by antiterrorist legislation and enforced police security. Responding forcefully to anti-Semitic acts and changing the relationships between young Muslims and the broader community in European cities are in effect two sides of the same issue. It will take much time and effort to bring diverse communities with different histories, narratives, and grievances together.