Saturday, July 14, 2012

Richard Evans: Is Europe on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s?

When Europe's leading scholar on Nazi Germany draws parallels between the current situation in Europe and the circumstances that gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis we should be deeply concerned.

There are few more distinguished historians of the Third Reich than Richard Evans whose 3 volume history of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich represents the most comprehenive history of the regime by a single scholar. His books include The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), The Third Reich in Power (2005) and The Third Reich at War (2008).

In this article in the New Statesman  Evans has produced an important analysis of the resurgence of far right politics across Europe. Evans asks whether Europe is on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930's.

Evans argues that a combination of factors including rising unemployment, economic crises and severe austerity measures is feeding the growth of extereme right wing parties and groups in a manner that is eerily reminscent of the circumstances that gave rise to Hitler and the Nazi's in the 1930's.

Evans is careful about drawing facile historical parallels between contemporary events in Europe and the rise of Hitler, however he points to the rise of radical far-right parties, candidates and movements in Greece, Hungary, Italy, France and England.

Evans contends that the extreme right is mobilising around hostility to immigration, assertion of Christian values, Islamphobia, anger at economic collapse and unemployment and aggressive assertion of national identity.

The danger as Evans sees it is not so much the electoral success of right wing parties and candidates but that their rise is pushing mainstream parties in that direction. He concludes:

The biggest threat to democratic values is not so much the rise of the neo-fascist right in itself, dangerous though that is, as the influence it is exerting on pushing mainstream parties in the same direction.

Fuelling all these disturbing developments has been a programme of exaggerated and unnecessary austerity, imposed on one European country after another, whether within the eurozone or – as with the UK – outside it. There seems little realisation that cutting government expenditure reduces demand and sends the economy into a tailspin, reducing tax revenues and prompting further government cuts.

That, roughly, is what happened in Germany in 1930-33. What is happening now is something related but different, a new threat for a new era. It’s not that unemployment leads directly to the rise of fascism. The social crisis that led to the present policies of austerity reaches far wider. Businesses go bankrupt, banks crash, civil servants are sacked, pay is cut, benefits are slashed, public services are shattered. It is not just the young, or the unemployed, who are affected. The whole of society is affected by it. No wonder political extremism is on the rise. Robbing people of hope for their future leads them to search for scapegoats, whether within their own countries or outside. And the hatred that this breeds can all too easily threaten to undermine the foundations of a tolerant and democratic political culture.

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