In early 2016, a group of mainly men in military-style ‘political’ uniforms marched through the streets of a town in the UK for the express purpose of intimidating the local populace and instilling fear. They swore at people in the street, confronting one woman as she walked from the local supermarket with her children, and her baby in a pram. She verbally fought back. Much of this was filmed and shown on social media. A judge would later rule that this group was in clear violation of legislation against the wearing of political uniforms, the Public Order Act of 1936 drafted following the march of the Black Shirts through the East End of London by the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley. Their wearing of uniforms was intended to intimidate the community through which they marched, to instil fear.
Cumberland Lodge, alongside the CCJ Council of Christians and Jews, has recently re-published the book Darkness Over Germany by Amy Buller, which outlines the growth of National Socialism in the lead up to WWII. At one point Buller realises there is no stopping the coming war, her concern was that after it was all over, there not be a repeat of the issues thrown up by the Treaty of Versailles that so quickly led to yet another war in Europe almost immediately afterward. Her book outlines a Germany that saw a decline in opportunities for a younger, yet better educated, generation – lack of employment and access to housing that their parents had enjoyed. There was suspicion and fear of an external enemy – communism was viewed as a threat to the status quo of an already weakened nation. With the decline of the church, communism was also viewed as a threat leading to the death of religion. And one group was targeted as supporting the spread of communism in Germany and throughout Europe, the Jews. The current parallels are chilling, as many within the Jewish communities in the UK and Europe have testified.
This growth in National Socialism was not confined to Germany, as exemplified by Mosley and the ‘black shirts’. Groups which could be generally termed ‘far right’ have come and gone in waves ever since. The rise and fall of these groups, alongside those of what could be loosely called ‘radicalised Islamic’ groups, are documented by Bonnie Evans-Hills in the book Engaging Islam from the Christian Perspective, published by Peter Lang in 2015. In September of that same year, the UN Office for the Prevention of Genocide identified two main flashpoints that could lead to violent atrocity in Europe, these were surrounding radicalisation and hate crime, alongside increasing antagonism to refugees and migrants. Even at that point, it was felt that radical Islam was on the wane, and that the bigger threat was the rise of the far right. Recent events have served to prove that point, ringing true across Europe and the United States. With last year’s events in Charlottesville, and groups of predominantly white men marching through the streets with torches and shouting ‘Jews will not replace us!’ and ‘Blood and soil!’, these same themes have been reflected in marches across Europe.
To date this trend has been popularly portrayed in the media, especially through the person of Stephen Laxley, aka Tommy Robinson, as largely white, male and working class. However it could be said these are only the foot soldiers. There is a deeper rooted source for both funding and political backing in the upper middle classes – those who to date have been in a place of privilege in society, and through the influence of multiculturalism and equalities legislation, feel they are losing ground. The leaders of groups such as UKIP and Generation Identity, form two influential generational ends of a growing movement.
As churches, fearful of their own decline in growth, concentrate inward and retreat from engaging with the growing divides in society – opportunity for finding reconciliation also dwindles, even while Jewish and Muslim organisations, those who feel most under threat, seek to reach out. But we are not there. Engaging with this trend to the far right – and what is seen as the opposite ‘antifa’ – takes perseverance, patience, and a steely courage, as well as a deep confidence in the dignity of the whole of humanity, to be able to challenge the prejudices that lead to what has become a dangerous divide. Difficult voices must be heard and acknowledged, and intelligently and judiciously challenged. Sadly, many of these groups are increasingly using the excuse of religion, or ‘Christian heritage’, to treat those whom they consider ‘other’ – or ‘not British’ – with increasing contempt. This is something the church has a responsibility to help nip in the bud in what could be called ‘a Bonhoeffer moment.’ How this discipleship is worked out, will take careful, sacrificial discernment – and Love must be the essential element at its heart.
Dangerous stages that lead to atrocity have already been passed. We know that just before terrible acts of cruelty and slaughter occur, there is a de-humanising of target groups, increase in intimidation within the media and among politicians, hostile environments are created. The ordinary individual finds it difficult to stand up to these trends. The perpetrators of atrocities are ordinary citizens, people who thought they were standing up for their country or their religion or their family and thought they were doing the right thing. They aren’t monsters, in the wrong situation they are each one of us. We know the signs, and need to take heed.