Three quarters of a century ago, more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian forces charged the beaches of Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied France from fascism in an act of bravery and sacrifice. The greatness of this Greatest Generation is exemplified not only by the incredible courage they displayed during the war, but by the enduring international architecture the political and military leaders of that era constructed after victory in 1945. This generation recognized that its enormous sacrifice could only be truly honored by ensuring that future ones not suffer a similar fate.
But 75 years later, we are at risk of carelessly tossing away this rich inheritance by unnecessarily criticizing our closest partners; by damaging America’s most important alliances, like NATO, and institutions, like the European Union, that were created to make war materially impossible in Europe; and by remaining silent or even enabling fascist forces as they return to Europe. This behavior dishonor the hundreds of thousands of American and other Allied troops who gave their lives to a cause greater than themselves.
Appeasement is never a single act or event, but an ongoing process of small, daily submissions to growing illiberal forces until there is no freedom left to protect.
New shoots of neo-fascism are springing up across Europe as the major Western powers gather this week to commemorate the D-Day invasion and extoll the defeat of fascism in Europe. Far-right political groups that degrade democratic norms and echo anti-Semitic and ethnic purity tropes of the 1930s are gathering strength and resurrecting the fascist leaders who sought to destroy Europe. These slogans are now permeating a new generation of citizens who do not possess a strong enough grasp of history and memory — or gladly ignore it. More menacingly, European political leaders believe they can control these growing neo-fascist impulses by remaining silent about them or, even worse, bringing neo-fascist forces into government, just as German leaders believed they could manage Hitler’s rise within the Weimar Republic.
The United States and the E.U. have stood by mutely as an early adopter of these tactics, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, builds monuments to his World War II predecessor who sided with Adolf Hitler and the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and declared war against the U.S. after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Orban celebrates Miklos Horthy as an “exceptional statesman,” although he is believed to have sent nearly a million Hungarians to their deaths in combat or in concentration camps.
Worse yet, President Donald Trump recently received Orban at the White House with open arms, noting what a “great honor” it was to host him. European leaders, for their part, have tried to ignore Orban even as his actions have severely damaged Hungarian democracy and the E.U. Silence is a form of acceptance and it serves only to embolden leaders and followers who admire Orban’s tactics.
The spirit of Mussolini has also been revitalized. The charismatic deputy prime minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini, frequently echoes Mussolini’s “black shirt” uniform by cloaking himself in law enforcement garb, and quotes Il Duce himself, “Tanti nemici, tanto onore” (“So many enemies, so much honor”), when referring to migrants. In Milan this April, a day before the national holiday celebrating Italy’s liberation during WWII, a group of far-right soccer fans held a banner declaring “Honor to Benito Mussolini” accompanied by a fascist salute.
Again, there is silence. Very few European leaders have commented on Salvini’s emulation of Mussolini, fearing that drawing attention to it may give Salvini greater popularity and likely fearing that it will inflame similar political factions in their own countries. But they are mistaken: These moments should be viewed as opportunities to educate Europeans about how fear and hatred can be used by charismatic political figures, and the devastating effect that can have on the nation. Education and a positive agenda for the future are the best antidotes to fear.
And in Austria, the former (and likely next) chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, brought the ironically named far-right Freedom Party into his government in 2017. The government collapsed when it was revealed the Freedom Party leader was willing to betray his country to Russia. Yet 19 percent of Austrians continue to support the Freedom Party, while Kurz’s party increased its popularity. This public support underscores that domestically there is no political punishment for working with far-right extremists — if anything, there seems to be a reward.
In sharp contrast, Europe sanctioned a similar Austrian coalition in 2000 but the controversial move elicited strong pushback from Austrians that has paralyzed the E.U. from taking similar steps today. Although it can be difficult and often unpopular, the E.U. must continue to take strong stands on behalf of the values it professes to support.
Many equate the act of appeasing fascism with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s famous Munich agreement with Hitler in September 1938, in which the British leader accepted the German annexation of the Sudetenland in then-Czechoslovakia in exchange for false promises of peace. In reality, appeasement is never a single act or event, but an ongoing process of small, daily submissions to growing illiberal forces until there is no freedom left to protect.
Leaders delude themselves by thinking they can control neo-fascist forces. Over time, these forces will instead control them to devastating effect.
Leaders delude themselves by thinking they can control neo-fascist forces. Over time, these forces will instead control them to devastating effect. If anything, European leaders already are more frequently using the language of extremism when speaking about migration and ethnic identity. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish their voices from extreme parties, further suggesting that hate-filled statements are being normalized while responsible rhetoric is being pushed aside.
As the dark clouds gathered over Europe in the 1930s, another British prime minister, Winston Churchill, understood that a country had to fight these forces, never surrender to them. The 300 American veterans traveling to Normandy to honor the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion also understood that it was necessary to fight the forces of evil; surrender, for them too, was not an option. It is our task today to carry forward their courage and greatness and fight the return of neo-fascism in Europe and elsewhere. This is our inheritance. We must protect it.