Back to the 1930s na­tion­al­ism? His­to­ri­ans bat­tle com­par­i­son

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

In the 1935 novel “It Can’t Hap­pen Here”, an ig­no­rant Amer­i­can dem­a­gogue called Buzz Win­drip be­comes pres­i­dent, promis­ing to make a de­pressed and fear­ful coun­try proud, rich and safe again. Eight decades later, the satir­i­cal piece of fic­tion by Sin­clair Lewis has gained a new lease of life, be­com­ing a best­seller on­line fol­low­ing Don­ald Trump’s stun­ning vic­tory in the US elec­tion.

Ob­serv­ing Win­drip at a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign event, a jour­nal­ist de­scribes him as “almost il­lit­er­ate, a pub­lic liar eas­ily de­tected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost id­i­otic”. Writ­ten as vir­u­lent na­tion­al­ism spread dis­as­trously in Europe, and to a lesser ex­tent in Amer­ica, the book’s re­vival re­flects a surge of in­ter­est in one of the 20th cen­tury’s dark­est decades. The par­al­lels be­tween the cur­rent time and what one writer de­scribes as the “Mor­bid Age” of the 1930s has led to a fierce de­bate be­tween his­to­ri­ans about how far the com­par­i­son can be taken.

“We are fac­ing a cat­a­clysmic mo­ment,” renowned Bri­tish writer and broad­caster Si­mon Schama warned fol­low­ing Trump’s elec­tion, re­call­ing that Hitler came to power via the bal­lot box in the 1930s. Antony Beevor, an­other best-sell­ing heavy­weight on Euro­pean his­tory, re­buked him. “It is too easy for alarmists to fall for the temp­ta­tion of lazy his­tor­i­cal par­al­lels,” he wrote. So, as the re­turn of ul­tra-na­tion­al­ism, xeno­pho­bia and antielitism spur Trump, anti-EU vot­ers in Bri­tain and a host of far-right par­ties in Europe, does his­tory of­fer com­fort or cause for con­cern?

First, the bad news

Some his­to­ri­ans point to sev­eral strik­ing par­al­lels. The Great De­pres­sion of the 1930s, sparked by the Wall Street crash of 1929, has echoes of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis caused by the sub-prime crash of 2008. Seething with anger at the fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal elite, strug­gling or unem­ployed work­ers in the 1930s grew bitter and de­spon­dent and openly ques­tioned the fu­ture for their chil­dren.

Many blamed for­eign­ers or Jews, be­came at­tached to an ide­al­ized past, and wor­ried about the spread of their en­e­mies, abroad and at home. In the 1930s, the threat was Com­mu­nism, now it is rad­i­cal Is­lam. The ex­pan­sion of transat­lantic ship­ping, air mail, ra­dio, in­dus­trial mass pro­duc­tion and Hol­ly­wood cinema gave a sense of time ac­cel­er­at­ing and the world clos­ing in. French his­to­rian Pascal Blan­chard, who has writ­ten a book on the pe­riod, calls the 30s “the start of glob­al­iza­tion” that gen­er­ated many of the same cul­tural and eco­nomic anx­i­eties vis­i­ble today. Govern­ments re­acted by try­ing to pro­tect their economies with tar­iffs and barriers, spark­ing an in­ter­na­tional trade war.

On the other side of the world, a na­tion­al­is­tic Asian power with ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions added to con­cerns. It was Ja­pan, which in­vaded the present-day Asian hege­mon China in 1931. In Aus­tria, where the far-right came within 31,000 votes of win­ning a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in May this year and could still win in next month’s re-run, a far-right chan­cel­lor came to power in 1932 and de­stroyed the coun­try’s democ­racy. As fas­cism spread, the decade was de­fined by Ger­many look­ing to avenge its hu­mil­i­a­tion af­ter World War I. Could Vladimir Putin’s Rus­sia, pained by the de­cline of the Soviet Union, be the mod­ern equiv­a­lent?

Not so fast...

Ian Ker­shaw, a world au­thor­ity on the rise of Hitler, ad­mit­ted to AFP that dur­ing his re­search for a new book on Europe from 1914-1949 some sim­i­lar­i­ties “make the hair stand up on the back on your neck”. “But I don’t think we are re­turn­ing to the dark ages of the 1930s be­cause there are big dif­fer­ences as well as su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties,” Ker­shaw in­sisted. Chief among the dif­fer­ences is the role of Ger­many, now a bea­con for lib­eral democ­racy, com­mit­ted to peace and a lynch­pin of the sta­bi­liz­ing force that is the Euro­pean Union, Ker­shaw says. The Europe of today, “ad­mit­tedly flaky in parts when you look at Hun­gary and Poland”, bears no com­par­i­son with the au­thor­i­tar­ian states of 80 years ago. — AFP

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