ANDREW ADONIS: Yes, we are back in the 1930s

PUBLISHED: 09:25 25 October 2018 | UPDATED: 13:51 26 October 2018

Prime minister Theresa May. Photo: PA / Henry Nicholls

Prime minister Theresa May. Photo: PA / Henry Nicholls

PA Wire/PA Images

Andrew Adonis explains how Europe has gone back in time.

Those who say it’s far-fetched to say we are back in the 1930s know little of the 1930s – or they are the very people trying to take us back there. A.J.P. Taylor, a great historian of the causes of the 
First and Second World Wars, quipped that “history doesn’t repeat itself, historians repeat each other”. He is obviously right that no two politicians or situations are exactly alike. But history does repeat itself. It is a catalogue of wars, strife and dictators – as well as heroism, enterprise and dignity – because these are the repertoire of human existence.

In Europe, we are dealing not only with largely the same nations and genes as in the 1930s, separated by only two generations, but with direct and conscious imitation. Consider Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orban, the self-avowed ‘strongmen’ of Italy and Hungary.

Salvini doesn’t just look like Mussolini and engage in stunts and strutting straight out of central casting. He has taken to tweeting actual Mussolini slogans on the dictator’s birthday. This year’s festivities brought tanti nemici, tanto onore (“so many enemies, so much honour”), a variation on Mussolini’s infamous molti nemici, molto onore (“many enemies, much honour”).

On cue, Mussolini’s granddaughter Alessandra this week praised Salvini and said she may join him in his quest to rid Italy of “undesirable” migrants and liberal cosmopolitans – the standard fascist response to years of economic stagnation and rising desperation not only among Italy’s poor but much of its middle class too.

As for Orban, the Hungarian school curriculum is once again racist and anti-Semitic. Rich Jews are once again the enemy. Statues to Admiral Horthy, the strongman ally of Hitler’s, are being erected. Orban calls Horthy an “exceptional statesman”. The most exceptional thing about him is his role in deporting 500,000 Jews to Auschwitz in 1944.

Orban is also another 1930s type – think Oswald Mosley – who moved overnight from left to far right to ride a populist wave. Horthy, self-declared ‘Regent of Hungary’, is not just his echo but his constant inspiration.

Today’s appeasers of the far right similarly recreate the weak and demoralised liberals and conservatives of the 1930s, from Germany’s Catholic ‘centre’ party which voted with Hitler in 1933 to Neville Chamberlain treating so disastrously with the German dictator thereafter.

Theresa May is eerily Chamberlainite in her stubbornness, her deep ignorance of the extreme political currents swirling around her, and her appeasement of an English far right – Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the puppet Boris Johnson – straight out of the doctrinaire strand of conservatism which Neville’s father Joseph Chamberlain appeased in his imperial anti-Irish alliance with Lord Salisbury before the First World War. Oh, and Joseph Chamberlain’s biographer is Nick Timothy.

One cannot read too much about the 1930s to inoculate against its evils, so I recommend Paddy Ashdown’s excellent new book Nein, Standing Up To Hitler 1935-1944.

Ashdown writes movingly about the repeated attempts of German patriots to warn the Allies about Hitler and to frustrate or assassinate him. It is a roll call of heroism – von Stauffenberg, Bonhoeffer, Oster, Gersdorff and many more. Each of their plots has been written about separately; Ashdown brings them together in a compelling narrative of a decade of resistance to evil at the heart of ‘European civilisation’.

What makes Ashdown’s book especially poignant is the tragedy, which he also tells, of the German resistance being undermined by the appeasement governments of Britain and France.

Equally poignant is that Ashdown, in the greatest period of his own career, as international ‘regent’ for Bosnia and Herzegovina, took on the task of overcoming the worst civil war of recent European history.

He confronted Slobodan Milosevic, another 1930s strongman – to whom a statue may soon be erected in Belgrade, if today’s Serbian ‘young leftists’ get their way in glorifying the worst of the past.

The opening page of Ashdown’s book is W H Auden’s poem September 1, 1939. It could as readily be today’s date:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

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