By Mose Apelblat, The Brussels Times
Almost 80 years since the end of WWII, far-right organizations are marching every year in European cities glorifying Nazi war criminals and spreading illegal hate speech against Jews and other minorities in the EU.
12 annual marches are described in a new report jointly published by B’nai Brith International, a Jewish advocacy organization founded in 1843, and the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German NGO working to strengthen civil society and countering neo-Nazism and far-right extremism. In fact, there are more marches but the report focused on those annual marches that take place on specific dates in the EU.
“The marches did not disappear after the COVID-19 pandemic when antisemitic conspiracy theories and hate speech on the internet flourished. These annual marches have a history before the pandemic and continue to take place every year in a well-planned and predictable manner despite existing legislation against Holocaust denial and even outright bans.”
The marches vary depending on historical context but show also a number of similarities, explained project leader Simone Rafael from the Amadeo Antonio Foundation. The existence of an organized far-right scene has created a pan-European phenomenon, where far-right extremists and neo-Nazis, some with a criminal background, invite each-other to the marches.
The majority of the marches are dedicated to the glorification of Nazi war criminals and their local collaborators in the countries concerned. History revisionism in the form of denial or distortion of the Holocaust is therefore a core element in the marches, with incitement to antisemitism but also to racism and xenophobia against other minorities and vulnerable groups such as Roma, migrants and LGBTQ people.
Some marches or gatherings attract only a few hundred participants, other events attract thousands in some years. The marches in Poland and Greece occur in a different political context but use similar themes and symbols as the other marches. Marches that are not directly related to Nazi war criminals are hijacked by far-right extremists for intimidating hate speech and deteriorate into violence.
The report includes also a legal analysis. In a foreword to the report, German Ambassador Robert Klinke, special representative for relations with Jewish organizations, Roma affairs and Holocaust remembrance, describes the marches as “symbolic of a particularly dangerous form of hatred”. The marches have adapted to the grey areas of legal frameworks and remain easily unchallenged.
“The short answer is yes,“ replied Johanan Seynave, one of the authors and the jurist responsible for the legal analysis in the report. “The long answer is more complicated because the organisers of the marches manage to find loopholes in the legislation.” National legislation is in force in most countries but it happens that the authorities turn a blind eye and do not enforce bans against the marches.
Those organizing the marches invoke freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, among the most important democratic rights and values in the EU. Seynave reminded that there is a general prohibition against the abuse of these rights in the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (article 17).
Article 17 should be read as a legal translation of the concept of ‘militant democracy’, according to which democratic guarantees should not apply to the enemies of democracy, he writes in the report.
In Spain, a complaint was filed in 2021 against one of the speakers in the ‘Blue Division March’ for incitement to hatred but it was dismissed by the Prosecutor’s Office on the grounds of ‘freedom of expression’, adding that ‘laudable and miserable behaviours took place on both sides of WWII’. The march was banned in 2022 and allowed to go ahead in 2023. Another example is the ‘Day of Honor’ in Hungary which was banned in 2009 but has been allowed to take place.
The Jewish-Hungarian community issued a statement condemning this year’s march on 12 February in Budapest, when thousands of neo-Nazis gathered and a member of the Jewish community was assaulted on the streets of Budapest.
The statement says that the community is not against the ‘remembrance culture’ as such. It protested against neo-Nazis “reconstructing history as an inverted heroic cult with authoritarian symbols, exclusionary and hateful slogans, making heroes out of the 20,000 or so soldiers dispatched senselessly to a certain death” on Hitler’s order.
“It is unacceptable that they use the commemoration as a pretext to glorify those responsible for the discrimination and persecution of our fellow human beings – all of this is conflicting with the Hungarian government’s zero tolerance policy towards antisemitism, and it is incompatible with our democratic culture.”
A major piece of legislation is the 2008 EU framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law. Most EU member states address Holocaust denial through their criminal code but the Decision has not yet been fully transposed by all of them. It remains a top priority for the European Commission, says Katharina von Schnurbein, EU coordinator on combating antisemitism.
One country which has not yet transposed the Framework Decision is Sweden, currently in charge of the EU Presidency. It is allowing marches and other manifestations by the neo-Nazi ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’ (not included in the report), contrary to Finland where the movement has been banned.
What can civil society do to stop the marches?
“Civil society action has definitely an impact,” replied Simone Rafael, the civil society expert, and referred to the counter-marches against the Memorial March for the Bombing of Dresden. Civil society can erect barriers if the route is known in advance or pressure the local authorities to ban the marches in the city centers or reroute them to the outskirts of the cities.
Marches to glorify a Nazi war criminal at a specific memorial place become also less relevant if there is no memorial place or gravesite left as happened with the Rudolf Hess Memorial March after his remains were buried at sea. As the marches attract followers from other countries, entry bans on them are also effective, as the marches are a threat against law and order.
List of marches
- Budapest, Hungary, Day of Honor, in memory of an attempt by German and Hungarian troops from the Arrow Cross to break out of the Soviet siege of Budapest at the end of WWII
- Dresden, Germany, Memorial March for the Bombing of Dresden on 13 February 1945.
- Sofia, Bulgaria, Lukov March, commemorating the death of Bulgarian Nazi collaborator Hristo Lukov
- Madrid, Spain, Blue Division March, in honor of Spanish volunteers who fought alongside Nazi-Germany
- Riga, Latvia, Remembrance Day of the Latvian Legionnaires who fought together with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Red Army.
- Bleiburg, Austria, Memorial service attended by Croatian ultra-nationalists in memory of collaborators who were killed by Yugoslav partisans at the end of WWII (‘Bleiburg massacre’).
- Berlin and other cities, Germany, Rudolf Hess Memorial March
- Steenstrate, Belgium, Iron Wake and Front Night, gathering of far-right Flemish groups
- Predappio, Italy, March on Rome, in memory of Mussolini
- Warsaw, Poland, Independence March, commemorating the restoration of Poland’s independence in 1918
- Helsinki, Finland, ‘Towards Freedom’ and ‘612 for freedom’ march’ in memory of the Finnish SS-battalion which fought with Nazi Germany
- Athens, Greece, Imia March, commemorating a helicopter crash in 1996.
The Brussels Times