ZAGREB, Croatia — The Croatian president thanks Argentina for taking in notorious pro-Nazi war criminals after World War II. In Bulgaria, a top politician calls the country's Roma minority "ferocious humanoids." And Hungary's prime minister declares the "color" of Europeans should not mix with that of Africans or Arabs.
Ever since WWII, such views were taboo in Europe, confined to the far-right fringes. Today they are openly expressed by mainstream political leaders in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, part of a populist surge in the face of globalization and mass migration.
"There is something broader going on in the region which has produced a patriotic, nativist, conservative discourse through which far-right ideas managed to become mainstream," said Tom Junes, a historian with the Human and Social Studies Foundation in Sofia, Bulgaria.
In many places, the shift to the right has included the rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators, often fighters or groups celebrated as anti-communists or defenders of national liberation. In Hungary and Poland, governments are also eroding the independence of courts and the media, prompting human rights groups to warn that democracy is threatened in parts of a region that threw off Moscow-backed dictatorships in 1989.
Some analysts say Russia is covertly helping extremist groups in order to destabilize Western liberal democracies. While that claim is difficult to prove with concrete evidence, it's clear that the growth of radical groups has pushed moderate conservative European parties to the right to hold onto votes.
That's the case in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party — the front-runner in the country's April 8 parliamentary election — have drawn voters with an increasingly strident anti-migrant campaign.
Casting himself as the savior of a white Christian Europe being overrun by Muslims and Africans, Orban has insisted that Hungarians don't want their "own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed by others."
Orban, who is friendly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, was also the first European leader to endorse Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential race. In 2015 he erected a razor-wire fence at Hungary's borders to stop migrants from crossing, and has since been warning in apocalyptic terms that the West faces racial and civilizational "suicide" if the migration continues.
Orban has also been obsessed with demonizing financier and philanthropist George Soros, falsely portraying the Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor as an advocate of uncontrolled immigration into Europe. In what critics denounce as a state-sponsored conspiracy theory with anti-Semitic overtones, the Hungarian government spent $48.5 million on anti-Soros ads in 2017, according to the investigative news site atlatszo.hu.
In a recent speech, Orban denounced Soros in language that echoed anti-Semitic clichés of the 20th century. He said Hungary's foes "do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs."
In Poland, xenophobic language is also on the rise. When nationalists held a large Independence Day march in November and some carried banners calling for a "White Europe" and "Clean Blood," the interior minister called it a "beautiful sight."
Poland's government has also been embroiled in a bitter dispute with Israel and Jewish organizations over a national law that would criminalize blaming Poland for Germany's Holocaust crimes. Critics say that could allow a whitewash of history.
With tensions running high, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki listed "Jewish perpetrators" as among those who were responsible for the Holocaust. He also visited the Munich grave of an underground Polish resistance group that had collaborated with the Nazis.
In the same vein, an official tapped to create a major new history museum in Warsaw has condemned the postwar tribunals in Nuremberg, Germany — where top Nazis were judged — as "the greatest judicial farce in the history of Europe." Arkadiusz Karbowiak said the Nuremberg trials were only "possible because of the serious role of Jews" in their organization, and called them "the place where the official religion of the Holocaust was created."
Across the region, Roma, Muslims, Jews and other minorities have expressed anxiety about the future. But nationalists insist they are not promoting hate. They argue they're defending their national sovereignty and their Christian way of life against globalization and the large-scale influx of migrants who don't assimilate.
The Balkans, bloodied by ethnic warfare in the 1990s, are also seeing a rise of nationalism, particularly in Serbia and Croatia. Political analysts there believe that Russian propaganda is spurring old ethnic resentments.
Croatia has steadily drifted to the right since joining the EU in 2013. Some officials there have denied the Holocaust or reappraised Croatia's ultranationalist, pro-Nazi Ustasha regime, which killed tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma and anti-fascist Croats in wartime prison camps.
On a recent visit to Argentina, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic thanked the country for providing post-war refuge to Croats who had belonged to the Ustasha regime.
The world's top Nazi hunter, Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal center, called her statement "a horrific insult to victims." Grabar-Kitarovic later said she had not meant to glorify a totalitarian regime.
Meanwhile in Bulgaria, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, the government includes a far-right alliance, the United Patriots, whose members have given Nazi salutes and slurred minorities. Deputy Prime Minister Valeri Simeonov has called the country's Roma minority "ferocious humanoids" whose women "have the instincts of street dogs."
Junes, the researcher, says even though hate crimes are on the rise in Bulgaria, the problem has raised little concern in the West because the country keeps its public debt in check and is not challenging the fundamental Western consensus, unlike Poland and Hungary.
"Bulgaria isn't rocking the boat," Junes said. "They play along with Europe."3 comments on this story
While populist and far-right groups are also growing in parts of Western Europe, countries like Poland and Hungary are proving more vulnerable to the same challenges, said Peter Kreko, director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank.
"In younger, weaker, more fragile democracies," Kreko said, "right-wing populism is more dangerous because it can weaken and even demolish the democratic institutions."
Gera reported from Warsaw; Pablo Gorondi contributed from Budapest.