UPDATE 16/11/2016: And so, in president-elect Donald Trump, yet another charismatic leader has appeared promising a return to greatness. In office, there are signs that Trump may seek to moderate his policies and heal some of the wounds caused by the mean-spirited, nasty, knife-fight of an election. However, the appointment of Steve Bannon – a man associated with the so-called “alt-right” movement – as his chief strategist has caused controversy. Will the old campaign rhetoric return, leading to a more thin-skinned, paranoid, bullying form of politics? Does the triumph of Trump in 2016 herald further surprises in 2017 (Prime Minister Wilders? President Le Pen?)
We are, to use the old cliché, standing at a crossroads. Brexit and President Trump were both democratic choices, but the campaigns leading to those choices have undeniably caused a great deal of division and acrimony. Now that these choices have been made, can the healing begin? Will the various sides come together and try to work productively? Will the winners listen to the concerns of the losers (and the losers accept the legitimacy of the winners)? Or will the divisions in society grow deeper and more bitter? Was the rhetoric on the campaign trail just a taste of things to come?
ORIGINAL 10/28/2015: ‘Godwin’s law’ states that as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazi Germany approaches 1. There are, however, some important corollaries to this “law” of the internet, and not all comparisons with totalitarianism trivialise the past. And while it is important not to see parallels with the rise of fascism everywhere, it is also equally important to understand the past, and not to see Nazi Germany as a singularly unique and wholly unrepeatable phenomenon. After all, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
We had a comment sent in from Jovan, concerned that there were “parallels today with the 1930s, in how economic failure and widening inequality led to extremist fringes rising to the mainstream.” Certainly, the centre-ground in European politics is a lonely place to be today. Is it too much to say that Europe is at risk of returning to the political extremism of the 1930s?
It’s easy to get carried away. There are enormous differences between the situation in Europe today and the period between the end of the First World War and the rise of totalitarianism. For one thing, the memory of European war is no longer raw in people’s minds, and modern states (despite cuts and austerity) have social safety nets to prevent people falling into the abject poverty of the 1930s. And, with some notable exceptions (such as Golden Dawn in Greece) political parties in Europe today do not have paramilitary wings. In the Weimar Republic, even Centrist parties had armed groups affiliated with them, and violent street battles were not uncommon in Berlin.
To get a response to Jovan’s comment, we caught up with Michael Diedring, Secretary General of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE). As the debate over refugees and asylum seekers grows more heated (even leading to political violence in Germany), does he see parallels between the situation today and in the 1930s?
We also had a comment from Eion, who thinks the threat from extremist parties is overstated. Even if extremist parties increase their vote, Eion argues they will be “quarantined” by the mainstream. Does Michael Diedring agree?
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Franziska Brantner, a German Green MP and one of the 40 Under 40 European Young Leaders. What would she say to Jovan about today’s parallels with the early 20th Century?
Finally, what did she make of Eoin’s comment that today’s constitutional systems are better equipped to quarantine Far-Right and Far-Left parties?
Is Europe returning to the political extremism of the 1930s? Is economic failure and widening inequality leading to the collapse of mainstream politics? Or are the differences between today and 80 years ago greater than the similarities? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!