Nazi salutes provide cause for alarm wherever they are witnessed, but there is an added frisson when they are seen on the streets of Germany. Somewhat similarly, the idea of Sweden – a byword for European social democracy – flirting with the far right evokes a sense of despair.
In recent weeks, opinion polls suggested that Sweden Democrats, an organisation with neo-Nazi origins including a co-founder who was a Waffen SS veteran, could win a quarter of the vote and emerge as the largest party in the Swedish parliament, or Riksdag.
Thankfully, that did not happen when Swedes voted last Sunday. The Social Democrats managed to maintain their century-old tradition of top-scoring at the ballot box, but with only 28.4 per cent of the vote, their least impressive tally since 1917. The mainstream conservative Moderates scored 19.8 per cent, not far ahead of the far-right Sweden Democrats’ 17.6 per cent.
The result leaves the broadly left and right alliances, which include a number of smaller parties, with roughly 40 per cent each of seats in the Riksdag, and although both sides have baulked at the idea of collaborating with the Sweden Democrats, the possibility of the latter informally backing a right-wing government may well come to pass. The obvious alternative is a centrist coalition transcending the ideological divide, along German lines. But even though the distance between left and right has diminished in recent decades, that would be a novelty for Sweden.
In several nations in the neighbourhood, meanwhile, conservative forces have been open to collaboration with the far right, and it would be disappointing but not exactly shocking if Sweden were to go the same way. Like many of their counterparts across Europe, the Sweden Democrats have relied on whipping up angst over the mid-decade influx of refugees. In 2015, the country accepted 163,000 asylum-seekers, which was more generous, per head of population, than any other European nation, including Germany.
Many of the refugees were greeted by welcoming crowds at train stations, but the mood has changed since then. The suspicion that criminality has surged with the influx is not borne out by official statistics, but urban myths feed into prejudice, and exaggerated claims about cultural incompatibility tend to sanctify spurious notions of racial superiority.
The Sweden Democrats have sought to spruce up their image under the leadership of Jimmie Akesson, denying neo-Nazi links and decrying racism, but the white supremacism that underpins their ideas often proves hard to disguise. Inevitably, it often takes the shape of a particular bias against all manner of Muslims – notwithstanding the fact that there are perfectly obvious reasons why all too many asylum-seekers originate from war-torn countries where the West has directly intervened.
Sweden began losing its reputation for relative egalitarianism some three decades ago, when both sides of politics opted for neoliberal orthodoxy, so it’s hardly surprising that inequality has seeped in. And it’s all too easy for the likes of the Social Democrats to blame it primarily on the level of immigration – which, mind you, has dwindled dramatically in the past couple of years.
In Germany, too, the rise of the far right – exemplified by the level of support that enabled Alternative for Germany to become the main opposition party in the Bundestag – has been based on fears over immigration. The eruption in Chemnitz late last month, which incorporated the Nazi salutes mentioned at the outset, came after an Iraqi and a Syrian were accused of stabbing to death a German-Cuban during an altercation.
The charge sheet against one of the culprits was reportedly leaked by the police. Not long afterwards, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency challenged chancellor Angela Merkel’s denunciation of neo-Nazis chasing suspected immigrants down the streets of Chemnitz by decrying it as “deliberate misinformation”. His intervention lends credence to the suspicion of surreptitious collaboration between the far right and elements in the police and other security agencies, as well as within Merkel’s Christian Democrats and some of their allies.
The kinder, gentler Europe that Merkel in some respects exemplifies appears to be making way for a monstrous entity. The worst aspects of this continent have for a while been in evidence in what was once the Eastern European bloc, not least in Hungary and Poland, but lately they have been spreading westwards, notably to Italy and France but also to Germany and Sweden.
Chemnitz was once known as Karl Marx Stadt, but although previously totalitarian states have exhibited a greater eagerness to lean towards the far right, the contagion has spread far beyond the former Soviet satellites.
Sweden and Germany are not yet lost causes and may reclaim their better natures, but Europe’s direction cannot be dissociated from the Trump-Putin context.