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COLUMN LEFT / GEORGE BLACK : Signs of the Beast in Europe : The Continent hears echoes of World War II, while Bush is in an isolationist sandwich.

<i> George Black is a contributing editor to the Nation</i>

Vukovar, Hoyeswerda, Carpentras. Do these three names mean anything more to Americans now than the names of comparable small towns in Europe did to their grandparents in the 1930s?

The search for historical parallels is always a dangerous game, and no one would seriously argue that the world now stands on the brink of another major war. But the broad similarities are, at the very least, worth pondering. Now, as in the 1930s, a European political system is in collapse, right-wing xenophobia is moving into the vacuum and isolationism rears its head in the United States.

With its tin-helmeted soldiers and low-tech weaponry fighting over muddy towns like Vukovar, the war in Yugoslavia looks uncannily like an old movie of World War II, which may be one reason why Americans seem unable to relate to it seriously. It is also a war without good guys, the kind of war we like least. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is an old-style Communist boss from central casting; Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman is a Holocaust revisionist who has rekindled the flame of the fascist Ustashi movement, which murdered 600,000 people in concentration camps.

If the first ingredient in the current mess is a revival of prewar Eastern European racism, the second is the growing display of strength by overt followers of Adolf Hitler. In September, with the enthusiastic support of ordinary villagers, neo-Nazi thugs forced 270 immigrants to flee the small town of Hoyeswerda near the Polish border. Hoyeswerda was jubilantly declared Germany’s first “alien-free” town. Authorities in the nearby city of Cottbus have erected a “collection center” for asylum seekers. Ostensibly, this is to offer them protection, but in a German context the barbed-wire fences and searchlights have other, inescapable associations.

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While the German skinheads may seem crude, with their brown shirts and flags of the Third Reich, more sophisticated European rightists have learned to play the game of democratic politics. France’s National Front, for instance, projects a modern, parliamentary face rather than highlight its connection with the desecration last year of Jewish graves in the town of Carpentras. Its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has taken to embracing “green” issues to win votes. A flourishing band of anti-Semitic environmentalists in the Front--known to their colleagues as the Khmers Verts--give a new twist to slogans like “preservation, identity and purity.”

Granted, Europe’s postwar history is studded with outbreaks of neo-facism. But other factors make the threat more serious than in the past. The main one is that the collapse of communism has coincided with a slowdown in many Western European economies. There are more migrants, and less desire to take them. More than 200,000 undocumented immigrants, and another 200,000 asylum-seekers from Eastern Europe, have made their way to Germany alone this year. The much larger anticipated Soviet exodus has barely begun.

Last week’s summit on European unity cemented the division of the Continent into two halves: 12 rich countries walled off from a vast, wretched hinterland whose peoples--Turks, Yugoslavs, North Africans--are no longer welcome, even to do the dirty jobs that whites won’t.

Like George Bush, European conservatives are always attentive to their right flank. In October, at a meeting in Berlin, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble spoke of immigrants as “a threat to Europe’s stability.” As in the United States, willingness to play the race card has only made the politics of the ultra-right more respectable. According to one recent poll, 34% of Germans “understand the extremist tendencies that the problem of foreigners is causing.”

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As in the 1930s, ordinary Americans are consumed with anxieties closer to home. But the political class, too, appears to be turning inward. Bush, allegedly the foreign-policy President, is mute on the dangers facing Europe: a passive shrug that they are a matter for Europeans, an incomprehensible reluctance to help the former Soviet Union through the winter, even though its own brand of xenophobic extremism, in the form of the next coup, may be just around the corner.

Electorally, Bush finds himself in an isolationist sandwich. To the right, the primitive America-Firstism of Pat Buchanan; to the l-eft (but only just) a gaggle of Democrats who have all but abandoned the field of foreign affairs. Agreed, domestic problems could hardly be more urgent. But that should not mean ignoring the signs of the beast in Europe, which once prompted us to vow--emptily, it now seems--"never again.”


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