European Elections: Back to the 1930s as America Yawns

05/27/2014 11:26 am ET | Updated Jul 27, 2014

European voters are very unhappy and their remedy is worrisome. Across the continent, hard right, anti-immigrant, and European Union parties surged ahead of mainstream left and right in the elections for the European Parliament. In England for the first time in 104 years, neither the Labor nor Conservative Parties won; in France the National Front came in first; in Greece and Hungary the neo-Nazi parties, Golden Dawn and Jobbik, made big strides. The same in Denmark. And we've seen resurgent neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-minority movements in Ukraine and Russia.

This cannot be shrugged off. The conventional explanations of economic discontent, failed elites on the left and right and cultural frustration may illuminate what people dislike, but they tell little about why voters embraced alternative that are shockingly parallel to the European politics of the 1930s.

For three years I've been visiting Europe and witnessing resurgent Nazi movements. The American wing of World Without Nazism has been trying to get American leaders to pay attention to this, peaking in a one-day conference last June in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Take a look at the white paper detailing the activities of Nazi movements in 30 European nations. It's damning stuff.

For most Americans, it seems remote. Our consciousness of Nazism has been diminished by the passage of time, by cultural outrages like Hogan's Heroes, which make Nazi's seem like affable bumblers, and by our own much less severe outbursts of anti-immigrant and anti-minority activity.

These movements will continue to grow. There's no single strategy; each European nation will face these challenges in its own way. But these are genuine mass movements and only political and moral leadership will be able to limit them. They are, in their own way, a legitimate comment on widespread social and economic failures. Just as they can't be excused, they can't be dismissed or insulted. Ideas and moral courage are the way to confront them, and that's in short supply.

The sole figure in Europe with that moral courage is Pope Francis. That's a tribute to his personal abilities. It's a discouraging comment on the level of civil leadership elsewhere. New economic and social ideas may come from Thomas Piketty or the sharing economy or from political parties now viewed as fringe.

It would be a good start if congressional leaders convened one of their many investigative committees to ascertain how deep and wide are resurgent Nazi movements, and if President Obama started talking about these things with the historical perspective that he obviously commands on other issues.

Individuals can begin by assessing for themselves the extent of the problem. Read the White Book. And if nothing else, worry.