The rise of the far-right: back to the Thirties?
In June, the former UK prime minister, Tony Blair, warned that today’s rising tide of populism was comparable to ‘a return to the 1930s’. This historical allusion is now becoming commonplace in discussing contemporary trends. News articles and commentary compare new political upheavals in the West to Weimar Germany with alarming regularity. The electoral gains of parties such as Germany’s AfD and the Sweden Democrats are described as akin to the rise of the Nazis. The popularity of former EDL leader Tommy Robinson is seen as worryingly close to the emergence of Hitler.
In the United States, President Trump’s election caused a deluge of opinion pieces comparing it to the rise of Hitler-style totalitarianism. In response to the controversy over Trump’s separation of families arriving illegally from Mexico, the former director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, tweeted a photo of Auschwitz with the words: ‘Other governments have separated mothers and children.’ These comparisons are so widespread that Hannah Arendt’s classic work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, rose to the top of best-seller lists in the US and beyond.
Are these historic comparisons valid or useful? The references to Weimar Germany often suggest a lack of understanding of the past and a confusion about the specificity of the present. While European far-right parties are gaining ground, do they really constitute mass movements with coherent political ideologies? The word ‘communist’ has returned to media debate, but hardly anyone is advocating revolution. Whatever economic challenges we face after the 2008 crash, does they really compare to the hyperinflation of the 1920s or the destruction of incomes associated with the Great Depression in the 1930s?
Yet this narrative is widely endorsed. Sir Mark Rowley used his leaving speech as head of counterterrorism to explain that what concerned him was right-wing, neo-Nazi, white supremacists with ‘a violent and wicked ideology’. If we’re not careful, he noted, if we ‘sleepwalk’, these groups and ideas could infiltrate the mainstream. In fact, what has entered the mainstream is spotting signs of extremism everywhere. When prominent left-wing voices promiscuously broaden the scope of terms such as ‘far right’ and ‘alt-right’ to demonise ideological opponents, from Brexit voters to Boris Johnson, are we in danger of letting historical nightmares distort our political priorities?
Many activists are so persuaded that neo-Nazism has gone mainstream that anti-fascism is being deployed as an excuse for illiberalism. A recent, rather hyperbolic tweet by Guardian journalist Owen Jones went viral: ‘In the coming months, the far right will continue to rise to their strongest position since fascism inflicted a genocidal war on Europe. The debate will be between those who believe they should be platformed, debated, listened to, and those of us who think they must be crushed.’ Unsurprisingly in this context, recent invitations to Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon to speak at festivals organised by the New Yorker and The Economist caused furore, leading to disinvitations and boycotts.
Are we sleepwalking into a 1930s-style scenario, with fascism just around the corner? Is there a danger that in turning to the past to make sense of the present, we turn history into a narcissistic morality tale? Do we have any hope of a clear understanding of that historic period if it is only used as a prism for contemporary fears? What is the real threat from the far-right today?