If the 1990s was an era when Europe opened, the 2010s is the era when it appears to closing. Many of the previously created structures of internationalism are now being dismantled. / Image: Ville Tietäväinen

The Era of Nausea

Feature. Right-wing populist or nationalist movements can be found in almost every country in Europe and many of them are receiving avalanches of votes. The movements have countless different factors behind them. But what do they have in common, and why is their popularity growing? And could there be an alternative to nationalism?


In December 2016, Europe is going through interesting times.

Britons prepare the exit from the EU after Brexit referendum held in the summer. In Poland, thousands of people are marching on the streets in opposition to the Law and Justice party’s increasingly autocratic policies. In France, the national conservative National Front continues to grow, and its leader, Marine Le Pen, is running for Presidency during the 2017 spring elections; in the United States, Donald Trump already showed how to do it with populism. In the east, Vladimir Putin’s Russia occupies the Crimean Peninsula for the third year in a row.

What is happening to us?

From optimism to isolationism

–  Our time is the dullest and the most worrying time in my lifetime. And my perspective is closer to 30 years as an adult, says a nonfiction writer and a well-known Finnish journalist Heikki Aittokoski.

His nonfiction novel Dance of Death. Footsteps in the Europe of Nationalism was published in the autumn of 2016. The book tackles nationalism in its various forms from the history of Europe to its present day.

Almost 30 years ago, in 1989, when Aittokoski was about to graduate from high school and enter adulthood, the Berlin Wall fell.

– At the time, the atmosphere was considerably more hopeful and optimistic. You could sense a strong promise that the freedom and liberal democracy would win. Optimism dismantled some during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, but still, internationalism was the big trend of the 1990s, he says.


Heikki Aittokoski

  • was born in 1970 in Jyväskylä, Finland;
  • studied political history at the University of Helsinki;
  • works as a nonfiction writer and a journalist at Helsingin Sanomat newspaper.
  • The original title of his novel is in Finnish: Kuoleman tanssi. Askeleita nationalismin Euroopassa.


Back then, the Schengen area and the common currency Euro were being created, and the EU kept expanding. In the year 1990, there were 12 EU countries, but in 2005 there were already 25.

Nevertheless, at the end of the 1990s the atmosphere began to change. Aittokoski was working as a foreign correspondent in Berlin, and was following the Austrian situation with concern. In 1999, the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ, led by Jörg Haider won the general elections with an avalanche of votes, receiving 26.9 % of the total vote, and joined the coalition government. The FPÖ was known, among other things, for its xenophobic and Nazi-friendly views. Thus, many European countries began to boycott of Austria.

– I was thinking that if such a pattern is possible in Austria, a very prosperous and stable European country, it is possible anywhere. Unfortunately, I was not wrong, as it is known by now.

Nationalism is a worldview

Nationalism might be impossible to define, but recognizable enough, when encountered. This is something that Heikki Aittokoski often repeats in his book.

Now, almost twenty years after FPÖ victory in Austria, nationalism has been seen around frequently enough that it would no longer shock anyone.

The right-wing populist groups have received many similar avalanches, and movements supporting nationalism can be found in almost every country in Europe. FN in France, Golden Dawn in Greece, Pegida movement in Germany, Fidesz party in Hungary, Sweden Democrats in Sweden, Danish People’s party in Denmark, the and True Finns in Finland. The list could go on for long.

– It is true that some people think that nationalism has been strengthened, and sometimes I hear it has “returned”. It’s funny, because it never went away, says Research Director of the Network for European Studies of the University of Helsinki, Juhana Aunesluoma.

When asking experts about the causes and consequences of the rise of nationalism, it’s easy to end up near drowned in the difficult questions of definition. Which phenomena can be called nationalism and which not?

Juhana Aunesluoma

  • was born in 1967 in Helsinki, Finland;
  • holds a D.Phil, Modern History, University of Oxford 1998;
  • works as a Research Director of the Network for European Studies of the University of Helsinki.

The European nationalist movements that appear in the news have countless different factors behind them. Aunesluoma says that what unites them all is the waving of national flags. But not all is what it seems, and many times the easiest conclusions are not the best reflected.

– Nationalism is all about counter-reaction to the development. Since interaction between people and cultures will only increase, due to technology, finance, travel, population growth and many other factors, it is easy to whip up cultural fears and serve simple solutions of who’s who, he says.

The lack for a proper definition for nationalism still complicates public debate: the terms are a source of a constant battle. What is constructive immigration policy debate, or legitimate ‘opposition to multiculturalism’? When may we talk about ‘the extreme right’? When should we name something ‘racism ’or ‘fascism’? And who says that nationalism in any way a bad thing?

In his book, Heikki Aittokoski solved the definition problem so that he made a distinction between good and bad nationalism.

– Good nationalism is what we may call patriotism, the kind that one is proud of one’s country, its history, culture and language, without the wish to close one’s eyes or borders from the world, Aittokoski clarifies.

– Bad nationalism is what we usually refer to when we are using the word ‘nationalism’, and then we talk about narrow-minded, chauvinistic, and ugly nationalism, he continues.

But where do we draw the line?

Nationalism is solidarity – and exclusion

About four years ago, in 2012, during the Eurozone crisis, there was a debate in the Finnish media about whether it was legitimate to use of Finnish taxpayers’ money to support Greece. The setting suggested that sending money to Greece would be somehow morally problematic.

Juhana Aunesluoma still remembers, how it annoyed him.

– In Finland, we accept eagerly the fact that tax money is used for transfers within the Finnish society. But in the debate, it was clear that solidarity does not extend beyond the borders of Finland. Subsequently we may ask, what is it that separates those people from us? Oh yes, they speak Greek and we speak Finnish. Oh yes, they are Greek citizens, and we are Finnish, he says.

When we ask the right questions about solidarity it takes us quickly to the heart of the issue.

– National identities are constructed exactly because they make people commit to their communities. And, ultimately, to give their lives in a conflict on behalf of the community, which is quite a high degree of solidarity, he continues.

Juhana Aunesluoma and Heikki Aittokoski both agree that the similarities between European right-wing populist movements are bigger than the differences. The most important common denominator is that they all support an old-fashioned, nationalist ways of defining one’s identity and community. That is, for example, that language, skin colour or shared national history are seen as the most important; and all other possible identities or sources of solidarity – such as class, level of education and gender, not to mention humanity – get trampled underfoot.

Aittokoski thinks that the main reason behind the popularity of them is something that he calls the “cocktail of uncertainties”. The ingredients include at least globalization, the dismantling of the traditional industries, accelerating technological development –  and of course – the economic recession.

The recession started from the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and was followed by a chronic economic crisis. It has affected many European countries drastically, but no other compares with fate of Greece which was practically forced to its knees.

When people have it tough economically, they may not eager to show solidarity and support others. And exactly this was asked of them, in Finland and elsewhere.

–  In Greece, the common currency has been totally counterproductive, as it has separated not connected peoples, Aittokoski says.

The populist leaders see this confusion caused by the uncertainties as a chance, and use it to their own benefit.

– They are stabbing to this feeling of uncertainty and say that ‘I have a simple solution: Our land and our nation, let’s stop this fooling around with internationalism, we can make it on our own’, Aittokoski says.

Clash of cultural identities

In 2015 in Europe, the ‘refugee crisis’, a mass movement of people seeking either refuge or better life conditions towards Europe, started. During 2015, 1.2 million people applied for asylum in EU countries. A vast majority of them fled the wars and extremist rules of Middle East – Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – which is why a majority of them were Muslims.

The growing Muslim population in Europe have raised a lot of cultural fears and speculations about clashes of civilisations. To make matters worse, violent Islamic extremist groups have conducted acts of terrorism, inter alia, in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Istanbul. If an international solidarity based on pure humanity ever existed in Europe outside the orations, it has been put to a severe stress test.

Heikki Aittokoski thinks that three characteristics may be named for bad nationalism. The first of them is racism; and the refugee crisis fuelled it.

– The old ideologies, starting from disgusting racial doctrines were dug out of mothballs. Germany is a good example. I was at the Pegida movement’s demonstration in Dresden. Dear lord, what stuff I had to listen out there. National Socialist stuff to the core, such as ‘they come here to tarnish the legacy of our blood ‘, said by a highly-educated person, in this case a doctor, he remembers.

Nevertheless, Aittokoski stresses that immigration adds uncertainty, no matter what we think about it. The common concern is that it will change our own culture so drastically that we will no longer recognize it.

– This is also a concern for many people who are not racists. And it should be taken seriously, he says.

And actually, it might be better to speak about ‘cultural’ rather than just ‘nationalist’ identities, suggests Juhana Aunesluoma. Although he suggests that we should be careful with historical analogies, one similarity he sees to the 1930s. As then, also today the cultural fears are used as a means to the pursuit of power.

– Back then race was important. Now people are more often asked, do they believe in Western values, he says.

Close the borders!

Other than racism, another way to recognize bad nationalism is that international co-operation is met with an a priori rejection, says Heikki Aittokoski.

Examples of this may be found easily. The EU is a generally repeated scapegoat in the right-wing populist rhetoric. This has a certain historical irony, since in the aftermath of World War II, European integration was created expressly against the egoism and ugly nationalism the world had had enough with. In the current political debate this is not remembered – and perhaps not even known.

– It is quite clear that the moderate politicians have failed in communication about the EU. Brussels is an easy target, because it is far away and there are well-paid ​​politicians and official who are doing things, ‘without we ever wanting them there’ Aittokoski says.

Juhana Aunesluoma says that the international bodies might even been seen as projects of political opposition, because they support cooperation between cultures.

– Instead, it is important that people with different appearance and different mother tongs live in separate communities. The relationships with others are organized somehow, as long as they remain on their side, he says.

Now, if the 1990s was an era when Europe opened, the 2010s is the era when it appears to closing. During very short a period many EU nations have taken major leaps towards dismantling the previously created structures of internationalism.

Border controls have been erected to the EU’s internal borders. Hungary was the first, but perhaps not the last, to build a fence. For a period, Germany stood there proudly open and welcoming, but now even Germans have changed their strategy due to internal political pressure.

In part, the issue is about practical problem-solving and security, Juhana Aunesluoma reminds. Nevertheless, border controls also bear a significant symbolism.

– In the long run, the political structures of the world fuel a world-view, in which Europe is divided into nation-states, rather than EU member states. This will affect people’s perceptions, just the same way as the dismantling of border controls and the creation of the Euro zone strengthened European identity, he says.

This is why, According to Aunesluoma, instead of querying, what is good and what is bad nationalism, we should consider how identity politics affect us positively and negatively.

– Of course, all communities need some kind of glue. But what drawbacks are there? Mainly that it excludes others, he clarifies.

Looking at Europe, it seems that other EU countries may belong to the inner circle of solidarity from time to time, but in the Muslim refugees Middle East often do not.

Where is Europe heading?

– Identity politics have one problem: while your identity is built upon, say, language, descent or skin colour, then they are easily seen as permanent. It is harder to make compromises, when people believe that there are some fundamental things that make people different, says Juhana Aunesluoma.

In other words, nationalism makes politics more prone to conflict, because it makes people more prone to see others as threats or dangers.

– At worst, there is a threat that nationalism becomes unmanageable. We know well from the European history that nationalism is a good servant but a bad master. Things get out of control easily, as it was seen in Yugoslavia 25 years ago, and the consequences can be unpredictable, says Heikki Aittokoski.

Thus, the third characteristic of a bad nationalism is the nationalist bluster.

– The first comes to mind Russia, where bad nationalism is nothing short of state ideology with repugnant consequences, as we see, inter alia, in East Ukraine and Syria. To a significant extent, the fact that Russia is bombarding Aleppo, is to shore up its ego as a superpower, and therefore nationalism, he says.

He adds however, that he does not believe in a threat of a total war in Europe. More of a realistic image is that nationalist forces will continue to grow to the extent that can change the course of policy to their liking. This might lead to something he calls ‘the era of nausea’.

The intellectual atmosphere would be more narrow-minded; the EU could even break down, which would make it more difficult to travel and work abroad. As Brexit shows: with sufficient political will, the international system can be terminated. Development is not necessarily linear, it may take U-turns.

– If you have not experienced anything but the freedom of movement, it may be difficult to grasp what the world was like before. Every goddamn thing required a permission, Aittokoski says.

Turning the clock

Why are the downsides so difficult to see out there at the ecstatic election events of the right-wing nationalist parties?

First, at all times, in every corner of the globe, what people primarily seek is security, says Heikki Aittokoski.

– It feels safe, to maintain our Finnishness and that we do not need to let anyone in. It is an easy solution to a difficult question. But I think it is not very intellectual one.

And what do we know: the future is not necessarily linear glide towards a less international nationalist world either. One of the main differences to the era of Second World War is that counter forces of ugly nationalism are much stronger than then.

– In contrast to the 1920–1930s, almost all European countries have experienced decades of democracy. I want to believe that most people have common sense. And that’s why, in the end, common sense will prevail, says Aittokoski.

To support his line of thinking, there is an interesting generation gap in the attitudes towards nationalism. Although people tend to become more conservative with age, the younger generation has undeniably grown in a more international world than their parents. It was shown in their voting in Brexit referendum, and in Trump election.

The biggest question then is: what do the young people believe in? Could there be true alternatives to nationalism that would create similarly strong solidarity? What would be the glue in a world where people would see each other mainly as humans instead of citizens of a state?

This has been tried to solve by, among others, the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

– Is it compulsory that we all speak the same language and look roughly the same, that there can be solidarity? Could it be a sort of supra-national identity based on values ​​or constitutions? Juhana Aunesluoma asks.

– When Habermas speaks of this, he talks about the “post-nationalism in Europe ‘. It is a utopia, and it is not realistic anytime soon, he adds.

At the moment, it certainly doesn’t look like it.

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