As daunting events come thick and fast amid increasing public racism and xenophobia, the similarities with the buildup to the second world war are real, but we can take hope from a few key differences
Things are happening with machine-gun rapidity: Brexit, the Turkish coup, Islamist massacres in France, the surrounding of Aleppo, the nomination of Donald Trump. From the USA to France to post-Brexit Britain, the high levels of public racism and xenophobia, reflected now in the outpourings of politicians with double-digit poll ratings, have got people asking: is it a rerun of the 1930s?
On the face of it, the similarities are real. Britain’s vote to leave the EU parallels its panicked decision to quit the gold standard in September 1931 – the first major country to quit the global economic system. Labour’s incipient split mirrors the one that left the party out of power for 14 years. And of course the economic background – a depression and a banking crisis – has echoes in the present situation.
But a proper study of the 1930s reveals our situation today to be better and more salvageable in many ways, although in one respect worse.
Following the Wall Street crash of 1929, the economic downturn took hold in 1931, with the failure of banks on both sides of the Atlantic, the imposition of austerity measures on already-weak economies, the resort to tariffs, currency blocks and economic nationalism. The fact that elites advocated mass unemployment, as a downward pressure on wages, created the firewood; overtly militarised and genocidal fascist groups lit the spark. It took just two years from Hitler’s first electoral breakthrough in 1930 for the Nazi party to score 37% in an election.
Then you get the million-strong far-right demonstration in Paris in 1934; the rising of the Asturian miners in Spain, put down by the army; German rearmament beginning in 1935. The Spanish civil war starts in 1936 – while, in the same year, workers in both France and the US stage mass occupations of factories, and Stalin begins the great purge.