Nationalism: How the Economic Crisis evoked the ‘mythical’ past of the 1930s

The rise of the far-right, nationalist and racist parties in Europe is the last warning for the European Institutions

Written by – Ivona Poljak 


Source: Flickr Creative Commons, Globalisation as perceived by artist

What seemed like a thing of the past has now found its 21st-century support in Europe and the United States; far-right parties in the UK, France, Sweden, Austria, Holland and Denmark are gathering the support of masses and fighting the establishment of the European Union. While widely reporting on it, the mainstream media focuses on the anti-migration messages, acting confused, posing questions such as: ‘How did we get here? and ‘Did we not learn anything from the past?’, not knowing that these events, if examined closely from the past, could have been predicted as far as in 2008.



The idea that an individual must remain loyal and devoted to his/her country is a modern concept that started to exist with the creation of nation-states. The feeling of belonging to a nation of the same language, religion, race and culture was of major political importance because it united the people of large, centralised states, much like religion did in the past. As nation-states started to appear at the end of the 19th century, they no longer belonged to a monarch and the royal family. The state was now a nation that consisted of people whose interest it was to prioritise it and protect it.


Modern nations are based on ethnic identities that shape people’s everyday life. Politicians, social leaders and elites have shaped national identities in times of deep social and/or economic unrests to gain power, mobilise masses and garner support. Author of the book ‘Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow’, Yuval Noah Harari, says that, from when they were formed, everything that nation states did, from education to social security, was a way of strengthening the nation, uniting them so they can serve their country in the times of need. That’s why nationalism is still the strongest political and social tool, and that is why it always appears in the times of crisis.


Throughout World War 2, collapse of the Soviet Union, the Northern Ireland conflict and Yugoslav Wars in Europe, nationalistic symbols were used to encourage people to fight for their country and their values, and to eliminate the groups that did not have place in their new nation-state (Jews, Chechens, Serbs, Croats, Catholics, Protestants). Historians believe that nationalism became a mass phenomenon in the 19th century as a reaction to oppression by foreign rulers and that the 20th century and post-modern nationalism has roots in economic crises, economic instability and social unrest.




Economic and political conditions of the 21st century are significantly better than they were during the wars in Europe in the 20th century, and for now, it seems like radical ideologies such as fascism have no chance of developing in today’s globalised world. For much of the second half of the 20th century, there was a general notion that cultural differences will become less significant because the focus was redirected to individual autonomy, class and gender.

“It is not anymore thought of as something that could only happen on the margins of Europe (Balkan), it has now become a mainstream.” Siniša Malešević.


Siniša Malešević, professor in the School of Sociology in University College Dublin has long studied the sociology of ethnicity and ethnic conflicts. He says: “Recently people have become surprised by how significant cultural differences are, and how they can be politicised. And I think, in the last few years, the politics have made it a much more visible phenomenon. It is not anymore thought of as something that could only happen on the margins of Europe (Balkan), it has now become a mainstream.”


The statistics of the European unemployment, poverty, housing prices and social exclusion in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis, and the number of refugees and immigrants from poorer countries in Europe show that widespread mistrust of political and corporate elites, insignificant economic growth and anger at the mass immigration caused nationalism to reappear.


Mr. Malešević agreed and said that there are several social factors that can cultivate the environment for nationalism.


“Economic instability certainly brings insecurity and a greater sense of disenchantment in the world that one lives in. The economy becoming more neoliberal has contributed to that deep polarisation between different groups. The recession has generated more insecurity, however, you could also find a large number of middle-class Trump supporters, who are in a good position, who have not been victims of globalisation.”


Recent statistics have shown that unemployment rate in Euro Area fell from 10.3% in February 2016, to 9.5% in February 2017, while in the EU, it fell down from 8.9% to 8%. However, there is a significant difference between the countries in the EU, with some like Greece at 23.1% unemployment rate, and Germany, where the rate is 3.9%.


Unemployment rate in Europe


In the EU, 23.7% of total population is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In the Eurozone , the number is 23.1%. In 2016, housing prices went up by 3.4% in the euro area, and up by 4.3% in the EU.



Risk of poverty and exclusion in % in the EU


Statistics that have not seen a significant improvement have angered eurosceptics from the left and the right-wing parties. The left has always strongly disagreed with policies and practices of the EU. They are disappointed with how the EU has been handling the economic crisis, but they are supportive of the idea of EU integration. On the other hand, right-wing parties criticised EU for its free-movement policies, environmental regulation and taxation.


Dr. Andy Storey, lecturer in School of Politics & International Relations at University College Dublin says there are big differences between nationalist parties that are rising today in Europe (right-wing), and the left-wing parties; not just in their goals, but in their view of Europe and the world.


“Their similarities lie in economic nationalism. Right-wing parties tap into the minds, fears and anger of workers who have been hit by globalisation, or workers who blame immigration for falling wages and unemployment. What differentiates it from its left-wing counterpart is xenophobia, cultural essentialism (notion of essential identities), and the idea that the nation must return to some kind of mythical past, where workers were in an overwhelming majority and there was a full employment. Backwards looking, cultural essentialism is a trait of right-wing nationalism. Left-wing nationalist tend to be more egalitarian, they tend to blame bankers and elites for problems, rather than the immigrants.”


In 2016 1.2 million asylum seekers were registered in the EU, 60% of whom are registered in Germany, 10% in Italy, 6% in France, 4% in Greece, and 3% in Austria and the UK. Same asylum seekers have been the victims of a number of incidents targeting asylum accommodations. It is believed that the arrival of the refugees and terrorist attacks across Europe have fuelled xenophobic sentiments. The political rhetoric that followed in France, UK and across Europe focused highly on how religious and cultural differences between asylum seekers, migrants and the general population could negatively impact social cohesion.


The report on hate crime, by European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) shows “that violence, harassment, threats and xenophobic speech targeting asylum seekers and migrants remain pervasive and grave across the European Union.” The report also states that the difference between extreme right-wing perpetrators and the ones not affiliated with their ideology is not entirely clear and cannot be studied. FRA reports that perpetrators tend to be motivated more by racism, the majority of victims identifying perpetrators as of the middle class, not necessarily being members of extreme right-wing associations.


Nevertheless, Europe is witnessing the growth of emerging right-wing terrorist groups like National Radical Camp in Poland and Soldiers of Odin in Sweden, who stated that they’re patrolling the streets in order to fight against refugees and asylum seekers, and to eventually ‘defeat’ Islam.


Reported Hate Crime in Germany


“With data on hate crime against asylum seekers and migrants scarce, including on perpetrators, FRA’s first survey on discrimination against immigrants and minorities, while published in 2009, remains the most comprehensive source of comparative data on the issue. The survey found that respondents perceived between 1% and 13% of perpetrators of crimes to be members of right-wing/racist gangs and between 32% and 71% as someone from the majority population.”





The right-wing nationalist parties have come into the limelight across Europe after the conditions for them have been set by the economic, migration and refugee crises. Sweden Democrats, the National Front in France, UKIP and Freedom Party in Austria were “unapologetic about its nationalism, about operating in the realms of emotions, identity and fears” (Storey, 2016). These parties gained the political support because of the rising anti-European sentiments in their countries.


The most important reason for their success is perhaps, how voters associated mainstream parties with the economic crisis of 2008. Mainstream media’s obsession with nationalism possibly helped these parties by spreading their messages.


With the headlines such as: ‘Nationalism is back’, and ‘Returning to the European’s oldest tradition’, the media have sensationalised Trump and the right-wing movements in Europe. Extensive reporting on their messages of fear, anger and calling for a renaissance of the mythical past and ‘cleansing’ the nation from immigrants have resonated with the public.


“There’s a simpler story being told by right-wing nationalists, in media’s eyes. Media is attracted to that simpler narrative, it’s easier to deflect blame from elites who are in charge. They blame, not only foreigners but in the case of liberal media portrayal, they blame Trump supporters or Brexit voters, characterizing them as stupid, backwards and nationalists”, Dr. Storey observed.


Mr. Malešević says that the messages from right-wing parties, reported by the mainstream media, have awaken the fears of living in big groups in this globalised world. He says that psychologists have identified that human beings prefer living in small groups, attached only to their friends and family. That is the reason why nationalism is so successful; it speaks the language of family, friendship and talks about motherland or fatherland, brothers and sisters that have to stand united.


The elite theory in sociology explains how political elites can use the media and tailor these messages to gain support for their goals. They know how to speak to the media, and they have the opportunity to shape public opinion and use fear to mobilise various groups. The theory also focuses on targeting people in terms of social status, which is one of the reasons these parties were successful amongst middle classes. They felt that the world they live in is not as it used to be, and they feared that they would lose their social status (Brexit sentiment). Immigrants that were coming from Europe in the past decade have been highly educated and often became more successful than the mainstream population. This eventually led to status anxiety amongst the middle class.




Regardless of the financial crisis in 2008 and its consequences that are still affecting Europe, 69% of the people in the living in the EU still want to remain members (Storey, 2016). Left-wing nationalists in Europe are now trying to ensure that only the far-right parties are the ones who are leaving the European project. They are aware of the fact that they are better of compromising with the EU institutions than confronting them. They acknowledge the mistakes of the past and believe that EU, as anti-democratic as it has become, still represents a relief from dictatorship and authoritarian rule.


“What we’re seeing in the background is a trend of smarter nationalists who recognise that simply going with the cultural essentialism, anti-migration arguments, is not enough. They know that they need to respond to actual needs and demands of workers who have been disenfranchised and impoverished by neoliberal globalisation”, Dr. Storey argues.


When dealing with the right-wing nationalist sentiments, academics recommend that left forces have to engage with this new reality, work on the withdrawal from the Euro and recreate national currencies. But most importantly, they have to engage with the right-wing parties, and the right-wing nationalism, whilst replacing it with the left-wing nationalism that is equally critical of the EU, but critical for the right reasons.


Mr. Malešević is hopeful: “This (EU) is essentially an entity that has brought stability. There were no wars for 60 years, and if you look back in the history, that is very unusual for the European continent. I think that a sense of fear and instability has generated a certain increase in support for the European project. I don’t think there’s a whole-hearted support for it, but I think it’s improving.”


– Read More stories from Ivona Poljak 



One thought on “Nationalism: How the Economic Crisis evoked the ‘mythical’ past of the 1930s

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s