On July 22, 2011, a Norwegian extremist named Anders Behring Breivik shot off an email to more than a thousand people. A self-identified fascist, Breivik attached a 1,500-page screed attacking Islam, cultural Marxism, feminism, and immigration. Titled “2083: A European Declaration of Independence,” the manifesto demanded the forced deportation of all Muslims from Europe. An hour and a half later, Breivik set off in a Volkswagen van to kill 77 people, first by detonating a fertilizer bomb in Oslo, then by gunning down teenagers at a summer camp on the island of Utoya. It was the bloodiest attack on Norwegian soil since World War II.
Breivik belonged to a group called the Norwegian Defense League, one of the many openly fascist movements that have cropped up all across Europe over the past decade, from Scandinavia to Germany, where, this past weekend, the far right won a stunning 13 percent of the vote in the German elections, enough to propel it into parliament for the first time in more than 60 years. In part, the rise of far-right nationalism is a reaction to the European Union, which sparked a backlash from an older generation of people who fear the loss of their identities as white Christians. As refugees streamed into Europe, those diffuse sentiments for a vanishing past have found easily identifiable targets.
Pundits and politicians on the right have placed Islamophobia firmly at the center of the new movements. In Italy, the journalist Oriana Fallaci popularized the phrase “Eurabia” to demonize the continent’s growing population of Muslim immigrants. Even in Germany, which has engaged in an exemplary reckoning with its fascist past, the economist and politician Thilo Sarrazin wrote a runaway best-seller called Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab—Germany Is Destroying Itself—arguing that the upsurge in immigration has created a lower class that is dumber and more dependent on the state. That outlook laid the groundwork for the swift rise of Germany’s far-right populist party, the AfD: Four years ago, it earned less than five percent of the vote in the country’s elections. Last weekend, it won nearly three times that, an astonishing coup that throws the growing power of nationalism and Islamophobia in Europe into sharp relief.
Photographer Espen Rasmussen has spent almost two years documenting the rise of far-right extremists not just in Germany, but all over Europe, from the Golden Dawn in Greece to neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Some, like the National Front in France and Britain First in the United Kingdom, have entered the political mainstream. Many sit in the EU Parliament, using the funds of an organization whose destruction they seek. And all draw from the memories of Europe’s fascist past, in the period between the two World Wars, seeking answers to Europe’s contemporary problems. By putting the Nazi paraphernalia of these groups so vividly on display, Rasmussen’s photographs force us to confront the reality that there are forces that want Europe to fall apart rather than pull together. It is sobering to realize how far and fast such hatred can travel.