In the past, political violence in Europe, particularly urban terrorism, was mainly associated with covert nationalist movements (the IRA, ETA) or the ultra-left, such as the Baader-Meinhoff gang, the Italian Red Brigades or the Angry Brigades in Britain. Neo-Fascist parties such as the Front National in France or the Republikaner in Germany routinely tolerated physical violence by their members, and through their rhetoric encouraged attacks on minorities, but their main thrust was electoral.
The most significant exception was Italy, where a neo-Fascist underground movement waged a terror campaign which culminated in the Bologna bombing of 1980, claiming 85 lives. These Italian neo-Fascists shared the strategy of the ultra-left, using terror to provoke civil discord and an authoritarian clampdown. They ultimately failed: it takes a cataclysm to make a society collapse. In Britain - modestly prosperous, boasting a high level of (if by no means perfect) ethnic harmony, with settled political institutions - the bombers can have little hope of such an outcome. So what are they trying to do?
Traditionally the far right in Britain, as elsewhere, has flourished when political instability coincided with economic or social unrest. It always defined itself against the far left and claimed to be defending western values against the threat of Bolshevism. But the economy is doing fine and New Labour can hardly be construed as a threat to liberty or property. Anyway, with the demise of Soviet Communism, Labour old or new cannot be seen as a Trojan horse for bolshevisation. Instead, the far right detects a different kind of threat. As Trevor Phillips, the broadcaster, wrote after the Brick Lane bomb: "They know they have already lost their battle to define Englishness in a way that would exclude all those who are not white."
Like the militias in the United States, the bombers are gripped by a kind of paranoid nihilism. All parliamentary parties are corrupt; the system is corrupt. The country is being racially mongrelised by a conspiracy that embraces all the established elites. Rich international Jews may be behind it all, but there are no "good guys" left out there.
Perhaps Enoch Powell was the last of them. All that remains is to hurt this new, plural, cosmopolitan society; to wipe the smirk off its face as Jews, Muslims, blacks, gays and Asians mingle happily in street markets, pubs and cafes.
This anarcho-Nazism has almost no precedent and few parallels. Its inspiration comes over the internet from the North American militias, if from anywhere. The work by academics who have studied the far right ad nauseam, using ever more sophisticated models and unveiling increasingly involuted ideologies about a pan-european "holistic-national radical Third Way" (to quote one) have completely missed the mark. The men who planted the London bombs are seriously, homicidally pissed off. They feel they have little to lose since the war is almost over. They are the resistance, the stay-behinds. It is this that makes them so dangerous.
This and their friends. Since 1991 Europe has offered several armed playgrounds for far-right fanatics. They have trained, and experienced combat, in Croatia and Serbia. Is it fanciful to believe that one among the bombers has had instruction from redundant urban guerrillas or a security operative laid off since the beginning of the peace process in Ireland or the end of the Cold War?
The signs are there in the nature of this bombing campaign. It is not a sudden knee-jerk reaction by racist thugs. These are calculated and well-executed attacks, planned long in advance. Once this kind of operation was the preserve of nationalists or the ultra-left. Now the experience, the technology and the tactics have shifted to the far right. But it is a new kind of far right: extra-parliamentary, deep underground, well versed in urban terror, angry and desperate.
David Cesarani is Professor of Jewish History at Southampton University and director of the Wiener Library, London, Britain's largest documentation centre on Nazism and the far right.Reuse content