In Europe, his­tory’s wounds have not healed

In Cat­alo­nia and the for­mer East Ger­many, the shadow of 20th-cen­tury trau­mas still falls on EU ci­ti­zens, and blights the fu­ture of the con­ti­nent

The Guardian Weekly - - Comment&debate - Natalie Nougayrède

His­tory is back in Europe. The Cata­lan ref­er­en­dum and the Ger­man elec­tion il­lus­trate this spec­tac­u­larly. The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Ger­many and Cat­alo­nia’s ap­par­ent march to­wards in­de­pen­dence may look like they hap­pened on sep­a­rate plan­ets, but they both have to do with pent-up frus­tra­tions. Ci­ti­zens who feel that they have been in­sulted have gone to the bal­lot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both sit­u­a­tions there is a vivid his­tor­i­cal back­drop, with mem­o­ries of Europe’s 20th-cen­tury night­mares play­ing an im­por­tant role: in Cat­alo­nia, the fight against fas­cism and Franco; in the east of Ger­many, the ex­pe­ri­ences of Nazism and Soviet com­mu­nism.

In Leipzig and the nearby small town of Grimma, I was told about how ci­ti­zens felt their self-es­teem had been tram­pled on. Ger­man re­uni­fi­ca­tion has not led to a shared sense of com­mu­nity. Rather, it’s com­pared to coloni­sa­tion: “western­ers” took over ev­ery­thing – re­gional ad­min­is­tra­tions, courts, ed­u­ca­tion and the econ­omy. Ev­ery­thing about life in the Com­mu­nist state – the way peo­ple dressed, what they ate, what they learned in school, how they dec­o­rated their homes, what they watched on TV – be­came an ob­ject of scorn. It’s not that life isn’t bet­ter now. There is free­dom. And liv­ing stan­dards have im­proved im­mensely. But many east­ern Ger­mans feel their iden­tity has some­how been negated, as if they were be­ing asked to for­get about it.

Speak­ing with Cata­lan friends in re­cent days, I heard sim­i­lar qualms: “We were wait­ing for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed noth­ing was chang­ing” … “Our cul­tural dif­fer­ence isn’t be­ing ac­knowl­edged as it should be”. Th­ese were com­mon sen­ti­ments, even from peo­ple not al­to­gether en­thu­si­as­tic about break­ing away from Spain.

Iden­tity isn’t just about power, rights and in­sti­tu­tions. For­mer East Ger­mans aren’t ask­ing for se­ces­sion, nor a spe­cial sta­tus. Cat­alo­nia is deeply di­vided on the ques­tion of in­de­pen­dence. Nor can iden­tity be boiled down to purely eco­nomic fac­tors – wages, in­come, jobs, so­cial class. It’s true that re­gions cov­er­ing the for­mer East Ger­many have higher un­em­ploy­ment (7.1%) than west­ern ones (5.1%), but the malaise re­flected in the east Ger­man far-right vote went be­yond ma­te­rial cir­cum­stances. Cat­alo­nia’s econ­omy has thrived in re­cent decades – that hasn’t pre­vented protests.

A gen­er­a­tion has passed since Ger­man re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 1990; and Spain joined the Euro­pean club in 1986. It’s hard to ex­ag­ger­ate the ben­e­fits. Any­one who vis­its Leipzig, with its beau­ti­fully re­stored fa­cades and the mod­ern ar­chi­tec­ture of its uni­ver­sity, will strug­gle to spot traces of the poverty that once char­ac­terised east­ern Europe.

Cat­alo­nia’s trans­for­ma­tion has also been stun­ning. I have spent many sum­mers in the Pyre­nees, cross­ing into Spain from France. And over the years I have seen roads im­proved, ho­tels built and pros­per­ity spread – a re­gion shed­ding the drab­ness left by the Franco years. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics cel­e­brated that suc­cess.

Yet th­ese ac­com­plish­ments don’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into peo­ple’s minds. The Euro­pean project is built on the idea that eco­nomic ties and so­cial im­prove­ment bring peo­ple to­gether and help them over­come the trau­mas of his­tory. In re­cent years, much has been said about how na­tion­al­ism, pop­ulism and anti-es­tab­lish­ment sen­ti­ment are a re­sponse to glob­al­i­sa­tion and in­equal­ity. Less has been said about a more specif­i­cally Euro­pean in­gre­di­ent: the shadow cast by 20th-cen­tury trau­mas born of war and to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, and the dif­fi­culty – which still per­sists – of deal­ing with that legacy.

It is this his­tory that sets con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s pop­ulist con­vul­sions apart from the forces that have driven Brexit and Trump. Bri­tain and the United States never ex­pe­ri­enced life un­der fas­cism or be­hind a ver­sion of the iron cur­tain. Across Europe, pop­ulism and ex­trem­ism, whether of left or right, plunges its roots into 20th-cen­tury po­lit­i­cal bat­tles and ref­er­ences. Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism, I think, is dif­fer­ent from Scot­tish na­tion­al­ism in this way also: it can quickly reignite mem­o­ries of op­pres­sion still vivid within fam­i­lies – sto­ries of life and death in one’s own coun­try.

When crowds in Barcelona start singing old songs of re­sis­tance against the Franco regime, his­tory is back. It is also back when 22.5% of vot­ers in the for­mer East Ger­many cast their bal­lots for a party – Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land – whose plat­form re­jects ev­ery­thing Ger­many’s west­ern-built democ­racy has stood for.

Last month’s Ger­man elec­tion was a clear demon­stra­tion that the Wall has sur­vived in peo­ple’s minds. Ger­many and Spain to­day find them­selves con­fronted by ghosts of the past – not just to do with prob­lems re­lated to so­cial co­he­sion and in­te­gra­tion, or how to pre­serve a con­sti­tu­tional or­der. Yes, politi­cians ex­ploit po­lar­i­sa­tion. But it is strik­ing to see how, over a gen­er­a­tion af­ter democ­racy was an­chored in coun­tries that had ex­pe­ri­enced the worst of the 20th cen­tury, so many ci­ti­zens feel that so much has still been left un­ad­dressed.

Isa­iah Berlin once wrote that na­tion­al­ism feeds on a sense of wounded pride. As Europe tries to sort it­self out and pre­pare for the fu­ture, it would do well to pay closer at­ten­tion to those wounds left by his­tory. We thought that they had healed – but they re­ally haven’t.

It is his­tory that sets con­ti­nen­tal Europe’s pop­ulist con­vul­sions apart from the forces that have driven Brexit and Trump

An­drzej Krauze

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