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History repeating?

Robert Capa’s famous photograph of international volunteers for the Republic, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939
Robert Capa’s famous photograph of international volunteers for the Republic, during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939

This short piece on the European elections of May 2014 was written for The Spain Report.

In my recent book, Unlikely Warriors, I described the devastation wreaked by a global financial crash, and the rise of fascism and right-wing movements across Europe. Sadly, it is an all too familiar picture. However, I was not discussing the events taking place today, but eighty years ago, during the turbulent years preceding the Second World War.

The drawing of easy historical parallels is tempting and, to be frank, is often the only time when the mainstream media is interested in the views of historians. As I have mentioned previously, the most recent example is the war in Syria, which continues to be analysed through the prism of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. However, the situation in Syria is very different from Spain, and the jihadists fighting against President Bashar Hafez alAssadare poles apart from the anti-fascist volunteers in the International Brigades. Likewise, despite some alarmist comments which have appeared on social media sites, the rise of the right in Europe in the twenty-first century is very different to that of the 1930s, however much both of them owe to a ruinous financial crash.

This is not to say that parallels cannot be made. For example, just as many volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War complained that mainstream politics appeared to offer little for working people, it is clear that many people across Europe currently feel themselves to have been politically and economically marginalised. Only two fifths of the electorate turned out to vote during the recent European elections and a large number of them probably used their vote mainly to vent their anger with the established parties. This apathy, of course, has benefited political movements of the far right, such as Greece’s Golden Dawn, Austria’s Freedom Party and the National Democratic Party in Germany.

How much should we be concerned about the rise of far-right movements within the European Union?
How much should we be concerned about the rise of far-right movements within the European Union?

In Spain, however, the collapse of the previously dominant parties – the conservative Partido Popular and the socialist PSOE – seems to have created space on the left. The strong showing of Podemos– an anti-austerity party founded only months ago – demonstrates that there can be alternatives to both the established parties and the anti-EU nationalists. They will probably now forge an alliance with similar parties, such as the Greek radical-left party Syriza, whose successful campaign was also based on opposition to the austerity programme.

The collapse of the centre and the consequent gains for parties of the right and left may superficially resemble the situation in the ‘hungry thirties’, but it hardly needs saying that, over the last eighty years, the social and political landscape of contemporary Europe has altered fundamentally. The existence of a political and economic union incorporating much of Europe is evidence enough. Not that the process has always been  smooth; the EU has always faced challenges, of which the frightening possibility of war in Ukraine is but the latest. However, the leaders of far-right European movements, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Ilias Kasidiaris in Greece – let alone the discredited Nick Griffin of the British National Party – simply do not present the same threat to European democracy that Hitler and Mussolini once did.

The fascist leaders of the 1930s dragged Europe into a world war in which over 60 million people died
The fascist leaders of the 1930s dragged Europe into a world war in which over 60 million people died

No matter the scapegoating and poisonous anti-immigrant rhetoric that is currently being bandied about, the mainstream parties tend to spurn overt racism – in public at least. When the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, recently declared himself unwilling to live next door to a Romanian family, he was quick to recant. We should not be complacent, and racism must be countered robustly wherever it crops up, but we should also maintain a sense of perspective. This is not history repeating, even if the success of some of the right-wing parties in Europe may appear to be both a tragedy and a farce.