Rise of the Far-Right within European Militaries
By KCS Editorial Board
In recent years, economic recession and an influx of migrants across Europe have triggered a rise in support for far-right parties and a decline in the popularity of their mainstream rivals. The loss of confidence in authorities and their governing mechanisms has led voters to turn towards movements which present an alternative discourse that stimulates nostalgic and conservative nationalist feelings. While evident on the political front, the level of infiltration of far-right supporters in the military establishment in Europe is brewing beneath the surface, which will have significant consequences in the years to come.
The implications of this worrying trend is significant for the over two million Kurds living in the European diaspora, especially since they have been deliberate targets of fascist, anti-immigrant, and right wing terrorism. The December 2022 Paris shooting where three Kurds were killed and several others wounded, along with the February 2020 massacre of nine Kurds (six injured) in Hanau, Germany indicates the precarious status of the Kurds in the diaspora. The increasingly influential and vocal right-wing militaries and their leaders across Europe, can only increase the lack of safety and fear for the Kurds, and other similarly oppressed minorities.
The murderer in the Hanau massacre, 43-year old Tobias Rathjen had detailed his extreme anti-immigrant and right-wing views in a 24 page manifesto. Likewise, the shooter in the Paris massacre, 69-year old William M. confessed to his anti-Kurdish sentiments as well as his extreme racism. The fact that this latest shooting occurred almost ten years to the day of the MİT triple assassination of Kurdish women Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Doğan, and Leyla Şaylemez in 2013, served to remind the Kurds of the increasingly dangerous conditions they face in Europe. The oppressive governments and conditions that the Kurds had attempted to escape from back ‘home’ in occupied Kurdistan, has now tragically followed many of them to Europe.
The dangers of increasingly right-wing armies and their leaderships is that they impose disproportionate levels of influence over the political leadership as well as top-down effects of influencing and empowering conservative, culturally intolerant, and radical elements within society. Moreover, according to researchers, militaries not only strongly influence major political decisions in governments, but they also often enjoy impunity from legal repercussions when exerting control over political dissidents or outright harassing opposition and minority groups.
Rise of the Right
A brief overview of the major nations in Europe, especially France, Britain, Spain, and Germany as well as Hungary and Cyprus, display how the increasingly far-right behavior of their respective armies serves to highlight this surging trend. The growing influence exerted by military powers in a heavily militarized and geopolitically powerful region should not be easily dismissed. Historically, officers and military leaders have consistently interfered in political matters and determined the direction of decision making processes. While traditionally this process involved coups and even direct rule, increasingly there are more subtle, string-pulling in the background that cause considerable repercussions in the political sphere.
In France, in 2021, two open letters signed by 25 retired generals and more than a thousand active soldiers, including a group from the younger generation, sparked much controversy. The unprecedented letters, which were published in a far-right magazine in 2021, warned of an impending “civil war” that will result in thousands of deaths, and criticized President Emmanuel Macron for making “concessions” to Islamists. Moreover, the servicemen and women expressed their willingness to intervene to protect the French nation’s “civilizational values.”
The increasing influence of the far-right’s Marine Le Pen in acquiring an astonishing 13.3 million votes to attain a historical number of seats by winning 41.5 % of the votes – a significant increase since the 2017 elections – empowered these elements in the French army. Le pen, took over the leadership of the conservative National Rally (RN) party from her father (an ex-paratrooper), who ruled the party for almost 40 years. Le Pen’s party is widely seen as racist, xenophobic, anti-semitic, and anti-Muslim, which actually increased her party’s popularity.
The lead signatory in the first letter, which commemorated the 60th anniversary of a failed coup d’état, was Christian Piquemal, a former Foreign Legion commander who was arrested in 2016 for participating in an anti-migrant demonstration; while simultaneously most of the remaining generals are close to populist right circles. Thus, it was not a surprise that Marine Le Pen, invited the soldiers to “join” her “in the coming battle.” The statement was preceded by an article titled ‘I Call for Insurrection’ by former right-wing minister Philippe de Villiers whose brother, Pierre, served on the Chief of the Defense Staff, and was once seen as a potential Presidential candidate in France. Mind you, a country that has the largest Muslim population ratio in the EU, with around 9% of its inhabitants defined as Muslims. Macron’s Defense Minister, Florence Parly, at the time widely dismissed the letter as a “crude political scheme.”
In France’s southern neighbor, the dark shadow of General Francisco Franco, Spain’s infamous fascist dictator between 1939-1975, is looming over the country again. Three former Spanish generals succeeded in becoming MPs in the 2019 general elections after being enlisted in the far-right party Vox’s list of candidates. Two of them were among 600 ex-members of the armed forces who signed a manifesto in 2018 expressing their support of General Franco, after the Socialist government announced a plan to remove his remains from a state mausoleum, which was later backed by the Supreme Court. The increasingly close relation between the political and military establishments is highly significant in a country still divided by General Franco’s legacy of how right-wing politics can easily mingle with militarism.
Perhaps this also explains why in late November 2020 former members of the armed forces sent two letters, one signed by 73 retired senior officers and the other by 39 retired air force officers, to King Felipe VI, as head of the armed forces, pledging their allegiance to the “homeland” and expressing concerns about the “social-communist” government that they accused of threatening “national cohesion”. In December 2020, soldiers from the Parachute Brigade (BRIPAC) singing and dancing to a Neo-nazi rock band called Estirpe Imperial and giving the Nazi raised arm salute. The song praised the Spanish Blue Division of volunteers sent by Franco to support Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Another manifesto, signed by 471 former members of the Spanish military, was published on December 6, 2020 to coincide with the 42nd anniversary of Constitution Day, when Spaniards cast their votes to approve their constitution in a national referendum after decades of Franco’s totalitarian rule. The letter described the government led by socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez as “a serious risk to the unity of Spain and its constitutional order.” The manifesto came just days after revealing that retired air force officers had discussed, on a WhatsApp private group, the possibility of a coup, while praising General Franco and expressing willingness “to execute 26 million” people if this benefits Spain.
The picture does not seem very different in Germany, which received over a million migrants in 2015. More than 843 suspected cases of right-wing extremism in the military were examined in 2020 – a significant increase from 550 in 2019. Among them were soldiers connected to neo-Nazi organizations who stole explosives and thousands of bullets from army depots, one of whom wrote a manifesto titled “How to take power in Germany.” In June 2021, a TV program showed civilian and military members of the right-wing extremist group Nordkreuz (Northern Cross) practicing on shooting and blowing up bridges. Two years ago, the rising far-right “Alternative for Germany” party revealed that around 6% of its members were career soldiers. In 2022, a member of the German Army’s elite force (KSK), was arrested amongst a group of far-right individuals planning to overthrow the government. Increasing evidence has emerged linking the KSK widely to a number of far-right activities and groups in the country.
Meanwhile, in May 2021, a Belgian soldier fled his military barracks carrying guns and grenade launchers before setting lethal booby traps in his car. The soldier, who was suspected of planning attacks on prominent figures, was later identified as a member of the right-wing populist party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Importance). A retired general, who asked not to be named, revealed to The Kurdish Center for Studies that high-ranking officers estimate that up to 25% of Belgian servicemen and women are far-right sympathizers.
In Britain, several attempts by members of the neo-Nazi “National Action” group to join the army were foiled. Since 2017, scores of soldiers were jailed or under scrutiny for membership in the group and recruiting new members within the British army. Another soldier, who was due to work on a nuclear submarine, was convicted of membership of the far-right “Identitarian Movement.” In 2019, 11 investigations targeted soldiers on suspicion of their association with far-right organizations. A year before, leaked video footage showed Tommy Robinson, founder of the far-right group “English Defence League” (EDL), standing smiling with a group of trainee soldiers.
Elsewhere, in Central Europe, Hungary’s right-wing populist government of Viktor Orbán came out with an unheard-of solution for tens of thousands who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of its strategy to militarize Hungarian society and promote privileges for the military and security apparatus, Orbán’s government decided to establish a 3,000 volunteer military reserve unit consisting of unemployed citizens. In 2021, the Defense Ministry’s budget was increased by 30%, despite the economic impact of coronavirus that left many government sectors and ministries on a tight budget. And at a time when the creation of military schools is stepped up, the Hungarian government founded the so-called “School Guards” aiming, as it claims, to counter violence in nearly 500 schools. The “Guards” were given permission to use tear gas, nightsticks, and handcuffs if necessary to maintain order in schools.
Even on the small Mediterranean island of Cyprus, certain incidents indicate that the populist right influence has spread in a country which has the highest per capita number of asylum seekers in the EU and suffers from economic stagnation. In the 2021 legislative election, the ultra-nationalist National Popular Front “ELAM” party doubled its two seats in parliament. The party seems to have had supporters within the army ranks for years. In 2011, an officer in the National Guard, and member of ELAM, was implicated in a politically-motivated attack against students during university elections. The following year, an officer was found training ELAM members on shooting mortars in a National Guard’s firing range. In 2019, an officer in the National Guard was arrested for killing seven foreign workers in the span of two years for allegedly xenophobic reasons.
Concerning Implications for Kurds
Apparently, the unity of military establishments in many European countries seems to be standing on unsteady ground amid a struggle over identity and values in their societies. On the one hand, armies’ leaders launched a reform process and are probing and threatening to sack those who are involved in far-right activities. On the other, far-right parties are creating networks within the military aimed at benefiting from soldiers’ combating skills while getting access to training and armory. In turn, soldiers feel marginalized and harbor ambitions for a higher degree of social and political recognition. It is no secret that military culture and far-right ideology intertwine in appreciating notions such as power, respect, patriotism, elitism and discipline. This may all but open the door to defections and even bloody clashes within military units, which could eventually spell the perfect recipe for a civil war in the streets.
For many minorities such as the Kurds across Europe, these trends are being observed with increasing concern. Especially because the Kurdish people have experienced the brutality of fascism and deep state death squads back in their occupied homeland, so they know where xenophobia and militarized ultra-nationalism can lead. In particular, many Kurds from Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) already have to deal with neo-fascist criminal organizations like the Turkish Grey Wolves (Bozkurtlar) while in Europe, so now facing the danger of homegrown extremism from within the European democracies they sought shelter amongst can be particularly traumatizing, and make a person feel that they have nowhere to turn for safety.
The government’s lack of effective and adequate responses following the massacres of 2013 and 2022 in Paris, as well as the criminalization of the Kurdish freedom movement in Germany, suggests to many Kurds (and other refugees) that these governments will likely not enact policies or measures designed to protect minorities from increasing levels of far-right violence in the future. Many of the Kurds in the European diaspora now ask themselves – rightfully so – if there is anywhere in the world they can be be free to safely exist?