Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it. So wrote Edmund Burke. And even if they do know history there is no guarantee that they won’t be caught out by Mark Twain’s dictum that history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme. For example, although Hitler was clearly familiar with Bonaparte’s doomed invasion of Russia and the need to avoid the perils of trying to fight General Winter, the changed circumstances that lead to the launch of Operation Barbarossa some six weeks later than planned resulted in his invasion ending in the same way. Similarly, after the experience of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century, and that of the British several times during the nineteenth century, nobody should have expected anything other than the rather chaotic outcome of the most recent Afghan adventure. And so, in many ways, the state of Europe today seems to rhyme rather well with the 1930s, even down to the weakened armed forces in the face of a more dangerous world.
The political turmoil of the 1930s as folk lost faith in traditional political institutions followed immediately Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression with mass unemployment. Today, as then, the Eurozone is in recession following the banking crisis of 2007. There is record unemployment – 19.4 million are out of work – and there is a growing frustration with the political oligarchy which seems increasingly to be both out of touch and helpless while at the same time insisting that the solution is more of the same (please see More). Indeed, this attitude is typified by President Hollande’s declaration during last week’s visit to Japan (when he could remember that he was actually in Japan and not China, of course) that the crisis in Europe is over while the number of jobless in France is the highest it has been in fifteen years. Governments across Europe are having to cut their budgets (no bad thing, in fact, if done properly) while the EU apparatchiks demand an increased budget for the EU. Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain have all faced bank bail outs with consequences of varying severity for the populations of those countries while some Cyprus depositors have simply had their money confiscated from their bank accounts – theft disguised as tax – with a collective shoulder shrugging from the German authorities pushing the lie that because these depositors were largely wealthy Russians and tax avoiders to boot, it doesn’t really matter. Nonsense, of course: it is no wonder folk have been taking to the streets across the Continent. Not quite an Arab or even Turkish Spring, perhaps, but disquieting none the less.
And although Poland has not, hitherto, been as badly affected as elsewhere in Europe, the green shoots of frustration are breaking though. Last weekend delegates from Poland’s nationalist movement Ruch Naraodowy issued a call to defend the national identity. Their declaration cited Christian values, the traditional union between a man and a woman and the Polish currency as values to be defended with the objective of seeing the Polish nation once more a proud and strong community. Robert Winnicki who is the head of the collection of the many small, nationalist, ultra-Roman Catholic groups that make up the movement said that the time of the current elites is up. “We do not believe in the system you built in our country because we are Poles and not Europeans or citizens of the world. For him, Poland is and must remain a Slavic and Christian country. Ironically, Poland is the most homogenous and Catholic nation in Europe so the movement preys on a fear of the perceived future rather than the actual present.
In the United Kingdom the crop of frustration is a little riper. There is the disenchantment with the political class – the existence of which class is itself something new to British public life – coupled with a rising anger that the government is incapable or unwilling to focus on those issues which worry folk in general in favour of concentrating on appeasing the single issue pressure groups which represent at best the most minor of minority views. Taken with the continuing harsh economic climate, the realization that many of the largest corporations operating the UK are able legitimately to avoid paying much, if any, tax while the average family is progressively worse off, the perception that public services are buckling under the strain of uncontrolled immigration, an ever rising foreign aid budget and falling defence budget, it is no wonder that the mood is changing. At its mildest this frustration has been expressed through the ever increasing electoral support for UKIP but, as ever, there are those for whom a more extreme response will do. Against this background it is hardly surprising that the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich should have been seized on by groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party as demonstrating all that is wrong failing to tackle Muslim extremists and immigration. Most folk see these two groups as a rather unappealing collection of the unpleasant but, whoever is responsible, there have been a number of arson attacks on buildings linked to Islam including a community centre and a school which has understandably raised tension and fear amongst Muslims notwithstanding the condemnation of such attacks from all sides.
These two examples are, by the standards of the 1930s, very mild perhaps but there is no room for complacency in the face of parties of extreme views are growing across the Continent. If mainstream political parties do not engage with the population as a whole on those issues that concern and even frighten them, then they prepare fertile ground for the crop of extremists that will give the impression of listening and whose siren voices will promise the quick fix solution of identifying a scapegoat towards which to channel popular discontent. Proper engagement requires more than a condescending dismissal that the fears are groundless or that the political class knows best. And, as I have argued here on many occasions, proper engagement begins with real democratic accountability which allows for a rational discussion both of the issues and the practical solutions to address them.
In Poland, at least, the programme of new sports stadia and motorways has not been accompanied by the creation of a people’s motor car and the outbreak of smart uniforms that was such a pre-cursor of trouble in the 1930s so perhaps, despite the rhyme, the things to come will not be so bad this time.