Saturday, 9 May is Europe Day. Seventy years ago, the French foreign minister, Robert Schuman, proposed the creation of a high authority regulating coal and steel, the very industries needed to wage war. In response, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was established as the first real step along the path of European integration. The ECSC would later grow and evolve into today’s European Union, the largest peace project in history.
The day before, 8 May, is Victory in Europe Day. Seventy-five years have passed since the end of World War II. The anniversary comes as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warns that the “Great Lockdown” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will trigger the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. At the same time, the Executive Director of the World Food Programme is warning that, in the developing world, there is a real risk of “multiple famines of biblical proportions” potentially resulting in 300,000 deaths per day.
Could the world be sliding into the sort of chaos witnessed in the 1930s? There are enormous differences between the situation today and the period between the end of the First World War and the rise of totalitarianism. For one thing, the memory of world war is no longer raw in most people’s minds, and modern states (at least, in the developed world) have social safety nets to prevent people falling into the abject poverty of the 1930s.
Political violence is also less common today (in Europe) than it was in the 1930s. By and large, political parties in Europe today do not tend to 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.
Could the chaos of the 1930s happen again? Will the COVID-19 pandemic create economic misery on the scale of the Great Depression? Will it widen existing inequalities and lead to growing political extremism? Or are the differences between now and then 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!