A Would-be Assassin Stirs Europe’s Violent Ghosts

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the former Russian president and regular forecaster of a third World War, had no hesitation in comparing the would-be assassin of Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia to the young man who ignited World War I. Europe, he suggested, was once more on the brink.

The individual who shot Mr. Fico, a nationalist leader who favors friendly relations with Russia, was “a certain topsy-turvy version of Gavrilo Princip,” Mr. Medvedev said on the social network X. Princip was the 19-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, started what Churchill called “the hardest, the cruelest” of all wars.

It was on many levels a wild association to make. The Europe of empires that unraveled between 1914 and 1918 is long gone, as is the Europe that replaced it and produced Auschwitz. In their place the painstakingly constructed European Union of 27 members, including Slovakia, has been put in place with the overriding goal of making war impossible on a long-ravaged continent.

Yet, with elections to the European Parliament just three weeks way, ominous indications of brewing violence go well beyond the shooting of Mr. Fico, whose condition remains serious.

A 27-month-old war is raging in Ukraine, outside the E.U. but right on its doorstep. It is increasingly, as in World War I, a conflict involving soldiers reduced to “fodder locked in the same murderous morass, sharing the same attrition of bullet and barrage, disease and deprivation, torment and terror,” as Tim Butcher put it in his book “The Trigger,” an account of Princip’s life.

In significant respects, Russia is waging its war in Ukraine against Europe’s liberal democracies. The question the attempt on Mr. Fico’s life raises is how far Europeans are willing to go to wage war against themselves as extreme political polarization stalks their societies.

The motive behind the shooting remains unclear, but it took place in the context of a poisonous political environment that the assassination attempt will only make more poisonous, in Slovakia at least, but potentially beyond.

Europe is increasingly divided, and dangerously so. As in Slovakia, that divide pits nationalists opposed to immigration against liberals who see in the far right a threat to the rule of law, a free press and democracy itself. In this political world, there are no longer opponents, there are only enemies. All means are good to attack them, up to and, recent events indicate, including violence.

With so much political tinder about, a single spark may be explosive. The assassination attempt on Mr. Fico “demonstrates what such polarization can lead to, and this is something European societies, and the United States too, need to reflect on,” said Jacques Rupnik, a French political scientist focused on Central Europe.

The war outside Europe, and the political battles within it, fuel each other. Russian advances on the battlefield, an apparent Ukrainian assault on Russian-occupied Crimea, and a possible NATO deployment of trainers to Ukraine are reminders that escalation is always possible. The shooting of Mr. Fico also demonstrated that.

Mr. Fico opposes the power of the European Union, military aid to Ukraine, mass immigration and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. He is hated by liberals for these and other reasons. He is unpopular in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, but popular outside it. In this, his political fortunes conform with the fracture in societies including France, Germany and the Netherlands, where the core fight is now national vs. global.

It pits the forgotten living “nowhere” in industrial wastelands and rural areas who see immigrants as threats to their livelihoods against the prosperous connected global citizens living in the “somewhere” of the knowledge economy.

The Ukraine war sharpens these fissures because nationalists across Europe are aligned with President Vladimir V. Putin’s reactionary moral ideology. They join with him, and with Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, in portraying Western liberal urban elites as agents bent on the destruction of church, nation, family and traditional notions of marriage and gender.

Mr. Medvedev called the would-be assassin in Slovakia, who has not been identified beyond being a 71-year-old pensioner, as representative of “the Europe of detestable degenerates with no knowledge of their own history” against which Mr. Fico fought.

His shooting seems to reflect the shrinking middle ground in Europe’s political clashes. “You might be psychologically, verbally or physically assaulted because of what you do or say,” said Karolina Wigura, a Polish historian of ideas. “In our societies, it has become unbearable to accept that somebody else sees or defines something in a completely different way.”

On Thursday, Donald Tusk, the liberal Polish prime minister who returned to power late last year after defeating the governing nationalist Law and Justice party, posted on X a threat from the previous day: “Today, Slovaks gave us an example of what to do with Donald Tusk if he dismisses the CPK.”

This was a reference to a major airport project favored by Law and Justice, but questioned by the new government.

When Mr. Tusk took office in December, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of Law and Justice and Poland’s de facto leader since 2015, called him a “German agent.” Such charges, effectively of treason, have become commonplace across Europe. The air is full of “Jewish agents” and “Russian agents.” In the current campaign for the European Parliament election, Mr. Tusk and Mr. Kaczynski have been exchanging accusations of being “Russian spies.”

The Slovakian interior minister, Matus Sutaj Estok, warned this week that “we are on the doorstep of a civil war.”

Political violence has not been limited to Slovakia. In Germany this month, four people assaulted Matthias Ecke, a prominent Social Democratic politician who was hanging campaign posters in Dresden, leaving him with a broken cheekbone and eye socket that required emergency surgery. Mr. Ecke is running for re-election to the European Parliament.

Rapid technology-driven change, the proliferation of social media where any accusation goes, and the unraveling of any agreed notion of truth have all contributed to the succumbing of civility to brutality.

“There is a pervasive feeling of loss,” Ms. Wigura said. “The different becomes a threat.”

But the main factor in the slide toward violent confrontation has probably been the rapid rise in immigration — some 5.1 million immigrants entered the European Union in 2022, more than double the number the previous year — which has sharply divided opinion across the continent.

“The European Union is seen as unable to protect its own borders,” Mr. Rupnik said. “That has led to nations saying, OK, we have to do it ourselves.”

It has also led, in Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands and Slovakia itself, to the rapid rise of xenophobic far-right parties offering jingoistic hymns to national glory. They often have roots in fascism, albeit without its militarism or personality cults, at least up to now. The barriers that once kept these parties — like the Alternative for Germany or the National Rally in France — from power have eroded or crumbled.

These parties are expected to perform strongly in the June 9 elections to the European Parliament, which is a relatively powerless institution but one still important for being the only directly elected body with representatives from all European Union countries. In France, polls show Marine Le Pen’s far right National Rally getting about double the vote of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Renaissance party.

The climate was combustible before the assassination attempt on Mr. Fico; it is more so now. The realm of the possible has grown broader. Postwar Europe has a peace culture, already shaken by the war in Ukraine. It is unused to its leaders being targeted in this way. Almost four decades have passed since Olof Palme, Sweden’s Social Democrat prime minister, was assassinated in Stockholm in 1986.

“I don’t know about World War III,” Ms. Wigura said, “but it does not look good. There are fewer and fewer spaces where you can speak your mind. The situation is much more dangerous than it used to be.”

The placid normalcy of postwar Europe seemed unshakable, history’s painful lessons had been learned. But as Russia’s revanchist war in Ukraine has demonstrated, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was not bloodless after all. Europe’s malevolent ghosts, it seems, have stirred.

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