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Ultranationalism in Central Europe

Jan Tomes
April 25, 2017

DW talked to artist and filmmaker Tomáš Rafa whose video series "New Nationalism" about the rise of extremist tendencies in Europe is currently on display in New York.

Ukraine EuroMaiden Revolution in Kiev (DW/J. Tomes)
Image: Tomas Rafa

Tomas Rafa's artist's work, which is a captivating mix of video art, journalism, and cinéma vérité, manages to compress eight years of protests, demonstrations, blockades, and war scenes into several hours that tell the story of the resurgence of extreme right-wing in Central Europe.

Just like the exhibition, the interview Rafa gave to DW  tries to answer a seemingly simple question: How did it all happen?

DW: You started your art project in 2009. Why then?

Tomáš Rafa: At that time, a segregation wall was being built in a Romani settlement Angi mlyn in Michalovce, which is a small provincial town in eastern Slovakia. That wall was financed with public funds, so basically all Slovaks paid for it. In order to legalize its construction, the authorities called it a sports wall, a recreational facility. It was evident, however, that the wall was built to divide the minority from the majority. I was still studying art at the university, and I thought it would be interesting to organize a football match there - since it was a sports wall - with the kids from the settlement. We shot a short video, some newspaper published it online, and I found out that this sort of work, this intervention in the public space, made sense to me.

Read: Documenta art director warns against nationalism

Was ultra-nationalism gaining momentum in Slovakia back then?

No, the extremist tendencies were at the periphery of interest. Paradoxically, it was the Slovakian government that started segregating the Romani population, and since the neo-Nazis got de facto tacit permission for their actions, they started intensifying their attacks against them. The state did not interfere immediately to eliminate this kind of behavior and let it grow. The first far-right marches took place in villages, but then the extremists started organizing them in cities and eventually in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. That is how we have lost our public space.

How is it that the extremists have been able to attract so many supporters over the last few years?

I associate the rise of the right-wing extremism in Central Europe - and not just there - to the rise of social networks. Nowadays, it is easy, cheap, and, surprisingly even still legal, to create hoaxes and fake news and share them on the internet. The speed with which fake news spreads today is incredible. It's a very effective way of recruiting new people, and we've seen such practices from politicians, too. I'm surprised it's been so underestimated until recently.

You've traveled across Europe mapping the rise of modern nationalism. Would you say there are specifics to the extremism in Central Europe?

The whole region is more interconnected than any other, in my opinion. There are deep historical problems between nations that date back decades or even centuries: Slovaks don't like Hungarians, Czechs don't like Slovaks, Poles dislike Germans. Funnily enough, when it comes to ultra-nationalism, people are willing to overcome any differences and tensions, and they unite to fight against the common enemy, be it Syrian refugees, Muslims, homosexuals, or Romani.

Read: Europe failed to defend its values in Sarajevo

Also, many countries in the region have not yet mentally recovered from their communist past, so the teachers in elementary and high schools prefer to omit the history of the 20th century entirely. The people lack historical background, they have no reference points to what is happening in the world today, they are not being confronted with the atrocities of the previous decades. Critical thinking is crucial for fighting propaganda, but the education systems of many countries are basically handing young people over to extremists.

Has the far-right extremism changed somehow since 2015 which marked the beginning of the refugee crisis?

Apart from the obvious, many more groups have got involved, and the rhetoric and goals have evolved too. The ultimate aim for most ultra-nationalists right now is to quit the EU and NATO and to weaken their structures. They want to undermine the system of unity and European solidarity. When you ask them why, they usually have no idea. This absurd reasoning works well not only on the street, we also saw how numbers and statistics were manipulated during the pro-Brexit campaign, for example.

Read: Why right-wing populism is a threat to Europe

And there is one more thing: If you look at the news from the 1990s, for instance, the far-right tended to be very aggressive toward the press. I have been capturing images of nationalism for the past seven years, and I never ran into a single problem. Those people know that they need journalists, they need the mass media, their communication channels, and the space.

Which direction do you think ultra-nationalism will take in Central Europe?

I am not a political scientist, but what we see in Poland and Hungary, for example, is that the local political scenes and the far-right extremists co-exist in synergy. The ultra-nationalism is tied to the political establishment, which makes it very hard for their opponents to fight for their case, and I am sure that we will see many far-right propositions come into force. In Slovakia, on the other hand, the People's Party–Our Slovakia led by Marian Kotleba, whose first political party, Slovak Brotherhood, was banned in 2007 by the Slovak interior ministry, already has 14 seats in the Slovak parliament. When the other political parties saw that they stole voters from them, they established an anti-extremist unit, but Kotleba and his party had had a free pass until then. In the Czech Republic, society is also very polarized, but the far-right parties have so far failed to make it into the parliament.

What I see now, however, is that society has been much more active in terms of addressing extremism in recent months. The issue is starting to resonate and people are not idle anymore.

Tomáš Rafa's "New Nationalism" runs in MoMA PS1 in New York until August 30, 2017. More photos and videos can be viewed on Rafa's YouTube channel or website.