Film director Spike Lee’s most recent film about a black cop joining the Ku Klux Klan is a caustic reminder of America’s “original sin” of slavery—and our raw, homegrown racism. The KKK is truly an American original, but it has not remained within U.S borders. No wall of ideas has corralled this toxic concept from jumping the Atlantic and infecting Europe, where the KKK has found a new home.
KKK promoters do not regularly crow about their network or membership numbers. The European Klan plays a coy game, often masking its illegal affiliations and private intentions while publicly sugar-coating its rancid message. But their goals are clear. As German investigative journalist Frederick Obermaier told Deutsche Welle, “The German groups admire the American Klan, and they hope to be as big as the KKK in the U.S.” Blood and soil is their refrain.
European public officials and national laws regularly stop the organization and assembly of KKK adherents. A high-profile case concerned former Grand Wizard David Duke, who started the neo-fascist, paleo-racist European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO). Duke, whose character starred in Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” was expelled from Italy a few years back, with a Venice court finding him guilty of trying to establish “an organization aiming to exterminate the black and Jewish races in Europe.”
Duke is not the only American banned from rallying European white supremacists. “Alt-right” spokesman Richard Spencer is prohibited entry in 26 European Union countries. KKK branches rise and fall in countries like England and Germany, but the racist ideology, spirit, and practices endure—a German parliamentary inquiry found four active Ku Klux Klan groups.
While Duke and Spencer may provide red meat for racist fire and fury, others are feeding Europe an anti-immigrant-rooted “anti-globalist” ideology. Steve Bannon calls it the Movement. Bannon may have become persona non grata in the Oval Office, but his ideas are welcomed in Europe’s far-right populist circles. His arguments for the defense of Christianity and preservation of European culture has found fertile ground. Earlier this year, he spoke at a French National Front party congress, telling the crowd: “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Wear it as a badge of honor.”
Racism itself is no stranger to European shores, of course. Fear and hatred of recent immigrants drives today’s politics in Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Austria, Italy, and all around the continent. Reactionary far-right parties are rising to stoke the sentiments of a fearful populace in countries that are seeing a rapid rise in newcomers from Africa and the Middle East. This week’s mass anti-immigrant demonstrations in the streets of Germany’s Chemnitz are the most recent manifestation of organized popular ire.
A steady and barely controllable stream of asylum seekers from nearby war-torn regions and economically devastated nations are a daily reminder of imperfect immigration and unmanageable refugee policies. With no easy solutions, Europe’s political populists are callously using the immigrants’ arrival, race and religion to craft a credible narrative of invading hordes who are diluting European cultures, languages, and tradition.
Two of those populists, Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, met in Milan earlier this week to plot a course for shutting down borders, deporting immigrants and drumming up wide anti-EU political sentiment.
Not all European countries are standing idly by when a coalescing rightist leadership faction plots an electoral overthrow of European laws and border norms to impose new nationalist identity politics. Both French President Emmanuel Macron and Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallström are aiming to defeat the Hungarian-Italian duo, with Wallström threat-tweeting, “Bring it on.”
Wallström’s tough talk may also be masking the real fear in Sweden that its Sept. 9 election will reward far-right Sweden Democrats party with a first-place finish. Sweden Democrats have disavowed their white-supremacist roots but continue to ride high on the anti-immigrant populist wave.
I personally experienced some of Sweden’s early anti-immigrant attitudes in the 1980s, when I was a University of Stockholm graduate student. Initially, I was naïve to the societal prejudice aimed at Southern Europeans, primarily Greeks, Turks, and Yugoslavs who made up a large cohort of workers in Sweden. In Sweden, our skin tone and hair color became our identifying characteristic; we were called Svartskalle—black-skulled people—and not in a good way.
I eventually made a black t-shirt with Svartskalle emblazoned on its front and, despite my confrontational approach, was able to have healthy conversations about race and ethnicity with most Swedes. I never feared violence. But in today’s heated political climate, it is not clear that those same rational conversations can exist. Can they take place in the United States in the run-up to our November elections?
In a week when America honors Senator John McCain’s life, he reminds us in his final statement that America is “a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” America’s obligation must be to remind other nations that these ideals—not hate, exclusion, and racism—are universal. Unfortunately, the KKK happens to be one of our more violent and virulent exports.