BETWEEN INTERNAL ENEMIES AND EXTERNAL THREATS How conspiracy theories have shaped Europe - an introduction

Andreas Ônnerfors and André Krouwel

Europe: a continent shaped by conspiracy theories?

From the French revolution to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories have helped shape our understanding of Europe as a geopolitical entity as much as a socio-cultural space. Conspiracy theories are powerful narratives influencing people’s perception of the world as structured by secret plots and malign manipulation. These beliefs are frequently mobilised in times of crisis when large and complex world events beg for simplified black-and-white explanations and the easy identification of culprits. While we were finishing editorial work on this book, the planet became gripped by a universal pandemic, the novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19), that within weeks brought international travel to a standstill, halted the world economy, and placed billions of people under lockdown and quarantine with unpredictable social and economic consequences for the future. Almost immediately, conspiracy theories were constructed about the origin and intentional or unintentional dissemination of the virus, political countermeasures, epidemiological indicators (e.g., incidence, prevalence and mortality), potential treatment (i.e., medication) and prevention (i.e., vaccines), contributing to panic, disinformation, and political conflict. One of the earliest theories was that the virus was created artificially in Asia (China) and imported to Europe as a sort of bioweapon to facilitate economic domination. It was also claimed that Turkey had orchestrated a new wave of Syrian refugees on its border with Greece to contaminate the rest of Europe with the novel coronavirus via the ominous ‘Balkan route’ or that the virus was spread more intensively in countries with a high proportion of migrants (Onnerfors, 2020, and Langer in this volume). In addition, 5G mobile masts were attacked across the continent, as some people believed that this new standard of mobile information technology either spreads COVID-19 or degrades the human immune system (van Prooijen, 2020). For some, the virus was released from a lab on purpose to secure the Chinese takeover of the world economy, for others it was the USA that had intentionally brought it to China. As usual, George Soros and ‘globalist elites’ were blamed as well. Perhaps the most bizarre, but widely disseminated, idea is that the pandemic would serve as an excuse for forced vaccination with a mind-control chip, turning the world population into passive ‘sheeple’ in the hands of sinister puppet masters, headed by Bill Gates (EUvsDisinformation, 2020). Some of these conspiracies have been amplified by world leaders (Trump, Bolsonaro and Maduro, most notably), but also in Europe by extreme-right politicians such as Orban (Hungary), Fico (Slovakia), Fedriga (the Italian Lega Nord party) and the former Greek minister of defence Kammenos (the Independent Greek party). Peddling conspiracy theories can have serious consequences for people’s health and safety, eroding trust in science and political institutions (Plenta, 2020: 1-19; van Prooijen and Douglas, 2018: 897-908; van Prooijen, Krouwel and Etienne, forthcoming).

What can conspiracy theories tell us about the fabric of political space? This volume investigates the impact of conspiracy theories on the understanding of Europe both as a coherent geopolitical entity and as an imagined political and cultural space exposed to evil machinations from within and outside. Exploring contested topics such as discourses on migration, EU enlargement and accession talks, demography and polarisation in politics and media narratives, we aim to demonstrate how conspiracy theories have developed explanatory power related to the essence of Europe in general and the European Union in particular.

The volume’s chapters treat various notions of conspiracy, their themes and typical representations, broadly categorised as threats from the outside and threats from within Europe, such as the fear of‘Islamisation’, the threat of‘invasion’ and of the ‘replacement’ of European citizens, the virulent construction of enemy images and internal and external scapegoating, such as the resurgence of anti-Semitism and, more generally, nostalgic narratives of the decline, decadence and apocalyptic and suicidal self-destruction of Europe. The empirical centrepieces of these chapters are the qualitative case studies from different European countries and regions, which explore how these themes are framed in the ‘traditional’ and social media and in politics, and how they are reinforced in a dynamic interaction between online and offline activism, even leading to terrorism such as in Hanau and Halle in Germany in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Chapters with a more quantitative approach highlight recent empirical findings concerning the correlation between Euroscepticism and conspiracy beliefs.

Our overarching aim is to contribute substantially to a reconceptualised political and cultural psychology of European and global affairs in which conspiracy narratives play an increasing role in combination with phenomena such as the global rise of populism, ‘fake news’ and online disinformation campaigns. Conspiracy theories reflect complex cognitive meaning-making processes of conceptualising and identifying with Europe. To date, no other publication operating at the same conceptual level has explored how a continent in its entirety has become the object of conspiracy theorising. Moreover, as we argue in this volume, one can claim that ‘Europe’ has been constructed through a wide range of meaning-making mythologies in which narratives of conspiracy play a foundational role, not least as reactive responses to sentiments of nostalgia and loss or other existential fears. In this volume, these responses will be mapped and analysed comparatively by a team of contributors from across Europe, uniting a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds.

Imagining conspiracies is intrinsically linked to imagining Europe as a continent, and to European culture as such. In the absence of clear definitions of what constitutes Europe’s territorial borders as much as its limits of cultural identity, throughout history it has been easier to define what Europe is not than what it is, with self-images frequently being derived from the outside (Fomas, 2012: 16). Moreover, ‘Europe has no fixed essence or existence. It is always in a process of becoming: a Europe-in-process, always contested and always in a crisis’ (Fomas, 2017a: 5). In such a political-psychological sorting operation, attention has been directed towards internal as much as external enemies, and threats channelled through apocalyptic fear. Who is the ‘other’ against which Europe needs to define and defend itself? Who is threatening its presumed unity and coherence? Who has the prerogative to interpret its meaning? The answers to these questions are by no means self-evident and have been contested over time.

Over the last decade, these questions have become increasingly topical since they have informed the political mobilisation of populist parties (Mudde, 2017b), a third wave of neo-nationalism (Bergmann, 2020), European radical right movements (CARR, 2020) and global white supremacist ideologies both on the streets and on the Internet. These questions have fuelled societal polarisation in the aftermath of the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’, weakened trust in the EU as a legitimate supranational actor, become key elements of Kremlin disinformation (and Manichaean disintegration) campaigns and inspired lethal terrorism such as in Norway in 2011 or Germany in 2019 and 2020.' Furthermore, the terrorist attacks in Christchurch and Halle in 2019 and in Hanau in 2020 (together with their manifestos) vividly demonstrate that imaginings of Europe have a global reach when coupled with larger narratives of the West as in terminal decline. Furthermore, these imaginings are fuelled by stronger sentiments of nostalgia and by the perceived loss of status and significance (Bauman, 2017). Arguably, Islamist terrorism in Europe is also driven by the perception of Western decadence and directed against its corrupted lifestyle.

United yet divided: the ongoing search for Europe

Over the centuries, Europe has lacked a proper geographic and, moreover, a consistent cultural definition. As Fornas (2012: 1) has pointed out, ‘Europe is not alone in being a sociocultural construction with strong imaginary elements, and more of a project than an existing empirical fact’. The continent is exposed to considerable tensions between cultural, political and economic space as well as tensions related to political organisation across space (for models, see Johansson, Rónnquist and Tagil, 2001: 15; Jonsson, Tagil and Tórnqvist, 2000: 20). The foundational myths and the symbolic, yet dualist, representation of Europe as a geopolitical entity are saturated with powerful imaginings (Passerini, 2003). Even the name of the continent places an unsolved mystery at the centre of its origins, pointing in two directions and towards two trajectories of interpretation. Greek mythology has it that the Phoenician princess Evpcbitr¡ (Europa) was abducted to Crete by Zeus in the guise of a white bull (Fornas, 2012: 8-10, 14, 18; 2014: 74—87). Europa’s brother Cadmus was sent to search for her and bring her home, but his quest was unsuccessful. Instead, Cadmus established some of the accomplishments of the great eastern prehistoric civilisations in Greece, such as the alphabet, agriculture and urbanisation (Savin, 2005: 13-25). Searching for what is lost seems to be a powerful figure of thought inscribed in the search for the soul of the continent and part of its political psyche. As Sigmund Freud noted in his 1920 essay Jenseits des Lustprinzips’ (‘Beyond the pleasure principle’), the children’s game of throwing something away (‘fort’) and its subsequent recovery or return (‘da’) provides a tool for handling the loss of a desired object or person.

To our minds, some of the primary components of contemporary conspiracy theories in and about Europe are fuelled by such political sentiments of loss, nostalgia and melancholia and the desire to re-establish and restore a golden age of presumed unity and harmony (Gilroy, 2004; Bauman, 2017). The Europa myth revolves around the four themes of ‘dislocation, desire, elevation and hybrid-ity’ and ‘no clear direction to the European project’ (Fornas, 2012: 37-42). Moreover, as Fornas has argued, the narrative on Europe is organised around three main and polysemic tropes which together form a dominant formula for European identity. This narrative follows three distinct phases: that of the past golden age, a recent or current experience of internal division or suffering, and a golden future of reconciliation and unity (Fornas, forthcoming). In our conclusions, we will suggest which position conspiracy theories occupy in this narrative scheme. This semantic openness leaves significant leeway for projections and interpretations that also echo in conspiracy theories about the continent.

Moreover, Europe’s political history offers powerful narratives placing the continent in a constant tension between globalising and regionalising forces, integration and fragmentation (Jonsson, Tagil and Tórnqvist, 2000: 29-79; Johansson, Rónnquist and Tagil, 2001: 11-42). A presumably defining moment for the creation of Western civilisation, frequently exploited in contemporary narratives of conspiracy, are the wars between Greece and the Persian Empire, notably the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC (and its film adaptations of 1962, 2006 and 2014). Whereas these conflicts represent an iconic demarcation against the foreign and barbarian ‘other’, the rise of the Roman Empire is seen as exemplifying internal civilising integration, creating homogenising unity across space. Finally, Europe became divided and fragmented after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 CE (a historical event frequently cited as analogous to contemporary decline) in a dual process of succumbing to external pressure and forces of internal dissolution. During the ‘Dark Ages’ of the Migration Period from the third to sixth centuries, Roman civilisation as previously known disappeared almost entirely. In the year 800, Charlemagne (742-814) attempted to revive past unity in the form of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, a loose federation of territorial states organised across central Europe and in existence until 1806 (Johansson, 2001: 43-54; Fomas, 2012: 11). Whereas its establishment did not prevent other independent entities from being formed (e.g., the kingdoms of England, Scotland and France), the existence of a European emperor (of the House of Habsburg) contributed to a division of power with the papacy in Rome, a contested twin relationship determining major courses of events and intellectual developments until the seventeenth century, if not longer.

Other defining moments of common European cultural self-identification arguably developed in fierce opposition to Islam (a perceived external enemy) and Jewry (a perceived internal enemy). The ages of the Crusades to the Holy Land (1095-1291) and of the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) were ideologically legitimised by nothing less than what we would today call hate speech against the ‘Muslim infidels’, as evident in the writings of, among others, Bernard of Clairvaux (c. 1090-1153). Moreover, anti-Islam sentiments were accompanied by pogroms against the Jews living in Europe, who were said to frustrate the combat against Islam, the enemy of Christianity - propelled by a pandemic of universal proportions, the bubonic plague (Carr, 2017). In today’s conspiracy theories we also can trace a combined trope of‘conspirational racialisation’ of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, and we need to realise that this trope has a long history in the European political psyche (Zia-Ebrahimi, 2018; see Langer in this volume). What we can witness is a discursive convergence of two assumed conspiracies, that of alleged Jewish world domination and that of a grand Muslim takeover into a re-fashioned theory of white genocide in which Jewish and Muslim agency are interchangeable or portrayed as two plots aiming at the ultimate destruction of the West.

Imagery and imaginings of the Crusades and other historical events are recurrently evoked in contemporary conspiracy theories, for example, in the terrorist manifestos of the Oslo (2011) and Christchurch (2019) attackers and their médiatisations. Whereas the Crusades eventually failed, they were also the first colonial endeavour to establish European rule outside Europe’s geographical core.

Other instances of an existential ‘clash of civilisations’ frequently referred to are the battle of Poitiers in 732, the defeat of Constantinople in 1453 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The subsequent relationship with the Ottoman Empire, and later the Republic of Turkey, as a part of Europe, or not, has been heavily contested. The same applies to the modern state of Israel and its politics, the ambivalent perception of which constitutes a dividing line in conspiratorial imagination (Ônnerfors, 2017). The contemporary radical right falls largely into two camps in which Israel is rejected on anti-Semitic grounds or embraced as a joint ally against Islam (sometimes charged with Christian Zionist positions).

The presumed unity of mediaeval Europe was challenged from within through the twin processes of religious reformation and cultural renaissance, coupled with the introduction of a more sophisticated economy in the age of exploration and colonial expansion. Not only were the religious tensions between Protestants and Catholics (or between different Protestant sects) heavily charged with eschatological overtones, but attention was again directed against Judaism for doctrinal reasons and against Jews in general for the purpose of cultural scapegoating. The Antichrist and his machinations were omnipresent, representing a powerful figure of thought that could be mobilised to legitimise lethal violence against internal enemies and finally dividing Europe into two separate and opposed ideological zones defined by different interpretations of Christianity. It is in this context that the roots of anti-Jesuit conspiracy theories must be located, providing a powerful matrix for imagining conspiracies of secret organised agency up to this day.

From the deadly dualism of early modern religious warfare, a new negotiated order of Europe finally emerged, that of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. When political scientists talk about the ‘Westphalian system’, they are referring to a geopolitical order of the continent as agreed by sovereign nation-states through legally binding treaties. Revised to accommodate new political conditions at the Vienna Congress in 1815 and the ‘Concert ofEurope’ throughout the nineteenth century, this system was in place until roughly 1918, when several European realms (i.e., Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) collapsed and left behind a power vacuum, the long-term implications of which remain unsettled more than a century later (Johansson, 2001: 54-68).

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), conspiracy theories related to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire or the formation of the state of Israel (and its politics) are in high currency and have been disseminated in Europe through migration (Giirpinar and Nefes, 2020: 610-623; Gray, 2020: 624-637). For Turkey, the Treaties of Sèvres in 1920 and of Lausanne in 1923, which attempted to settle the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, still today are charged with considerable conspiratorial connotations. The same applies to the Armenian genocide (1914-1923) and its legacy which occupies a prominent place in contemporary Turkish conspiracy theories. Many of these ideas sustain deep-seated psychological processes of victimisation in which geopolitical events persistently are interpreted as the outcome of sinister plots, informed by anti-Semitic tropes.

As early as 1900, Europe imagined itself to be exposed to the ‘yellow peril’, a conspiratorial threat of extinction originating from Asia, triggering civilisa-tional anxieties repeated in our own time (for instance during the COVID-19 pandemic). As we will see in this volume in a chapter written by Buchmayr, in Germany, the Treaty of Versailles (1918) is today again being contested in the twisted conspiratorial worldview of the German Reichsbiirgerbewegung (‘Reich citizens’ movement’), questioning the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany as a legal entity. Another powerful trope of conspiracy related to the European interwar period is the ‘Kalergi Plan’ (see Krouwel and van Prooijen in this volume). The Count of Coudenhove-Kalergi (1894-1972) was a pioneer of European supranationalism and became the founding president of the Paneuropean Union in 1923 (Johansson, 2001: 68-72). Selections of Kalergi’s writings on the issue of European integration have been assembled into a conspiracy theory stipulating that the geopolitical unification of the continent goes hand in hand with the intentional destruction of national states, racial mixing, cultural homogenisation and ‘white genocide’. The ‘Kalergi conspiracy’ is a powerful narrative that nurtures contemporary anti-EU sentiments and is omnipresent on the Internet.

Richard Wagner has the giant Fasolt tell Odin, the supreme god, in the 1869 opera The Rhinegold, ‘What thou art, art thou only by treaties’ (Wagner, 1909: 24). This doctrine, in a sense a continuation of tendencies arising in 1648 and 1815, became the new foundation of the post-1945 European order (Jonsson, Tagil and Tornqvist, 2000: 115-138; Johansson, 2001: 72-77). A new story about European unity and dignity was established, resulting from Europe’s Phoenixlike resurrection after the Second World War (Fornas, 2012: 21, 26). The various European treaties eventually establishing the ever-closer supranational European Union since 1993 have been subjected to severe criticism due to accusations of democratic deficit, lack of transparency and techno/bureaucracy (‘Eurocracy’). Euroscepticism and conspiracy beliefs have developed a measurable correlation, which a number of contributions to this volume highlight (see also De Vries, 2018). Populist imagination claims that Europe can instead be constructed through unspecified and unchecked manifestations of united national will. In this sense, a considerable ‘Euroambivalence’ is displayed, in which on the one hand the current political order is rejected, but on the other hand, strong imageries about a unified European civilisation prevail (see Onnerfors in this volume).

So far, little has been said of the position of Russia and Orthodox Christianity in the context of the European self-imagination (Karlsson, 2001: 399-432). Founded with the aspiration of becoming the ‘Third Rome’ (after Rome and Constantinople), over the course of the centuries the Muscovite Empire developed a complex relationship with the western part of the continent, incorporating the arbitrary European and ‘notoriously vague’ and ‘fuzzy’ border with Asia, the Ural Mountains (Fornas, 2012: 12; 2017a: 10). Situated on this fine dividing line between ‘the West’ and ‘the East’, Russia envisaged itself to be ‘another Europe’ in its own cultural right, while at the same time developing a strong yet ambivalent sense of belonging to the West, not least to the cultural enlightenment (Furuhagen, 1995). The double-headed eagle on the Russian coat of arms symbolises this duality (Bodin, 2013: 125-150).

These two opposing and conflicting intellectual currents of‘zapadnichestvo’ (западничество, embracing the West) and ‘slavjanofilstvo’ (славянофильство, favouring Slavic culture) that developed during the nineteenth century have determined Russian (and later Soviet) identity formation and life realities to this day (Karlsson, 2001: 409-410). Russia was part of the ‘Concert of Europe’ until the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917-1918. The ensuing political revolution in its different phases again reflected different stances towards political philosophy: in the first, more liberal phase, it was more likely that Russia would have become a Western-style democracy, whereas the final outcome, Stalinist totalitarianism, instead recalled the ‘Asian values’ of forced collectivism. The Second World War, followed by a toxic ideological standoff between the liberal, capitalist and corrupt ‘West’ and the totalitarian and socialist ‘East’ during the Cold War, solidified a seclusion that would last until 1991. When Russia opened itself to Western-style capitalism (according to Fukuyama’s 1992 essay, marking the ‘end of history’), the rawest and greediest variety of capitalism arguably developed in the former Soviet Union, leading to societal chaos and informal economic organisation/power on a systemic level (only to be ‘rescued’ by the leadership of Putin and its particular ideology of Putinism). It is no wonder that scepticism regarding the potential advantages of (neo)liberalism has emerged in Russia in recent decades. Today we witness strong support for the concept of ‘illiberal democracy’ across large parts of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, a neo-authoritarian vision of the national unity and supposedly natural consent between the people and their leader going beyond any ideas of the democratic division of power or the rule of law (Laruelle, 2020). Rampant anti-Semitism has been interwoven in these narratives.

Such positions are underpinned by a civilisational ideology with fateful implications, that of‘Eurasianism’ developed by intellectuals such as Aleksandr Dugin (b. 1962). Eurasianism posits that Russia (and by extension Slavic/Orthodox) culture is placed in a unique geopolitical situation, being neither European nor Asian and thus forming a civilisation of its own (Bassin, 2008; see Molder in this volume). In this position, it is constitutive for self-identification to stress almost Manichaean foundational differences from Europe (Onnerfors, 2019, Horbyk 2017: 93-132). The ‘decadence’ and corruption of the West is placed in opposition to the uncorrupted ‘strength’ of the East. A particularly salient concept in this context is that of‘Gayropa’ (worth a separate study), i.e., a Europe weakened by its tolerant attitudes towards sexual diversity (Horbyk, 2017: 120, 124). These discourses have been particularly significant in connection with the Eurovision Song Contest, which in the Eastern half of Europe is clearly associated with the promotion of gay rights and LGBTQI+ issues (Fomas, 2017b: 179-236).

Eurasianism appears to reiterate the Cold War dualism in which two ideological systems were placed in irreconcilable opposition to each other. This pattern of thought is extremely useful in giving meaning to contemporary conspiracy beliefs. It nurtures persistent disinformation campaigns, not only via Kremlin-directed social media, but is also well received in huge parts of Eastern and South-eastern Europe (identifying with alternative narratives of insurmountable incompatibility and existential division) as well as within predominantly rightwing but also some left-wing populist movements and worldviews. In several contributions to this volume (for instance Bojovic and Molder), we see how these ideas are mobilised in various conspiracy theories across different parts of the continent.

As this short historical expose aims to demonstrate, certain key meaningmaking mythologies of Europe are shaped by dualist assumptions about the ideological essence of the continent. In this identity-creating sorting operation, narratives both about Europe’s own consistency over time and about its demarcation relative to a significant ‘other’ are in play. As Novalis, for instance, imagined in his 1799 oration ‘Europa’, the continent - on the brink of complete collapse

- could reconstruct its former unity and glory by returning to the presumed golden age of the Christian Middle Ages (Önnerfors, 2007: 18-37). In light of various existential crises, other intellectuals such as Oswald Spengler writing on the ‘decline of the West’ (Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 1918), Paul Valery in his ‘crisis of the mind’ (La Crise de’l esprit, 1919), and Edmund Husserl in ‘the crisis of the European sciences’ (Die Krisis der Europäischen Wissenschaften, 1935) also reflected on the unifying essence of Europe in a tension between decline and the future restoration of a golden age (Fornäs, 2012: 25).

The division of the Roman Empire in 285 CE allowed the emergence of powerful conceptions of Eastern and Western cultural hemispheres ofEuropean civilisation, a polarisation in absolute and mutually exclusive categories essentially in place to this day (Johansson, 2001: 77-84; Johansson, Rönnquist and Tägil, 2001: 33; Fornäs, 2017a: 9). Fornäs (2012: 16) - in quoting Brague

- describes how Europe is defined as an ‘“eccentric” culture, constituted by a series of divisions’. The Cold War dichotomy can be interpreted as a continuation of this trend, which has nurtured divergent understandings of the continent as a geopolitical entity echoing into contemporary discourse. While Western Rome was overrun by ‘uncontrolled migration flows’, Eastern Rome (i.e., Constantinople) was finally overthrown by a civilisational and religious ‘other’ against which Europe has attempted to define itself ever since. However, processes of internal diversification were and are still in place in the Western European sphere, such as the split within Christianity arising through the Reformation as well as power struggles between territorial states and supra-ter-ritorial entities (between kings and emperors in the past, and between national states and the EU in our days, as exemplified by Brexit). All these fundamental divisions, some of them religiously or even eschatologically charged, fuel the imagining of sinister plots because the combination of crises, conflicts and dualist views constitutes a toxic hotbed of conspiracist meaning-making. As Beriet (2009: 12) has pointed out, ‘dualism is a meta-frame through which people see the world divided into the forces of good and evil’ - one of the key ingredients of conspiracy beliefs.

 
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