This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.
As an applied linguist, multilingualism, multiculturalism, immigration and acculturation are central aspects of my research. This is by nature always political. My mission as an applied linguist is to defend diversity and promote tolerance – through my teaching and in my research. There are things I can observe here in the UK through my “Belgian eyes” that might not seem as immediately obvious for fellow Brits.
Reading Sebastian Haffner’s moving autobiography on his childhood and young adulthood in Germany between 1914 and 1933, I was struck by some striking similarities with the present day. In fact, “striking” is not the right word – “chilling” is more accurate.
Adolf Hitler was perceived by most Germans as a clown in the 1920s, and dismissed with a wave of the hand.
Hitler’s favourite public places in that period were beer halls where he gave impassioned speeches against Jews and Marxists: perfect scapegoats. He presented himself as a “good German” who wanted the best for his country, pretended to value peace, but insisted on more national assertiveness.
Hitler loved to brandish the weakness of German democracy and of his political opponents, who were being forced to accommodate each other, while his own message was clear and uncompromising.
While the National Socialists (NSDAP) did poorly in the elections in 1928 (gaining less than 3% of the vote), they grew steadily, gaining 18% of all votes in 1930. More importantly, their political agenda strongly influenced the programme of the main democratic parties.
Leaders of democratic parties did not stand up to Hitler, did not organize mass demonstrations against the NSDAP but tried to placate Hitler by offering him prominent positions in the government, which he rejected. He came second in the presidential elections in 1932, with 35% of the vote. Hindenburg appointed him chancellor in 1933. After the Reichstag fire, Hitler forced Hindenburg to suspend basic rights and allow detention without trial. At new elections in March 1933, the NSDAP obtained 44% of the vote. The boycott of the Jews started in April 1933. No mass protests happened in reaction to this measure.
Germany withdrew from the League of Nations in October 1933. When Hindenburg died in 1934, Hitler became head of state and head of government and the ‘Hitler myth’ grew.
Now, what was it that David Cameron called UKIP supporters again: “A bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? It does not seem to have done the UKIP any harm. What is Nigel Farage’s favourite posture? Holding a pint of beer in an English pub with a disarming smile, and claiming to represent true Britishness. His message? Simplistic but unambiguous: no more compromising, more assertiveness, exit the European Union, and stop immigration into the UK. What is the reaction of the Conservatives and Labour? Hardening their stances on immigration and drifting towards more and more Europhobia. Add to that Conservative plans to withdraw from the European Convention of Human Rights (on the spurious argument that prisoners can’t be allowed to vote) and claiming that a vote for UKIP would benefit the other major party.
Now, just imagine a scenario where UKIP evolves as the NSDAP did in Germany in the 1930s. As they became more powerful, they could become more radical in their agenda – or simply disclose what might still be under wraps. Being outside the EU and outside the reach of the European court in Strasbourg, they could start forcing the other parties in government to implement a more radical anti-immigration policy, and declare a state of emergency (see Sampson’s Dominion for an idea of what this would look like in the streets of London). Having stopped the foreign influx, and gained the political upper hand, they would have to turn on the immigrants inside the UK, using the full force of the law, starting “gently” and turning on the screw: limit and cut their benefits, their salaries, their role in British society. At what point, I wonder, would the British realize that their cherished democracy was being transformed into a fascist state? Because this is the main point of Haffner: why did nobody stand up to the NSDAP? How could they force a whole nation to become complicit in a world war and a genocide?
You might think at this point, “this can’t happen to us, we’re a civilized people”, and this is the 21st century after all. Haffner points out that this was exactly what the Germans had been thinking of themselves in the 1920s, watching the rise of fascism with “calm, superior indifference”. And what happened to the majority who had not voted for the NSDAP in the 1933 elections? Once the Nazis had grabbed the power, it became nigh impossible to voice dissent without risking one’s life.
We cannot let history repeat itself. Urgent mobilization is needed against the gangrene that UKIP ideology represents. As Haffner says: “Decisions that influence the course of history arise out of individual experiences of thousands or millions of individuals”. We need to urge politicians from mainstream parties not be infected by UKIP’s isolationist and anti-immigration agenda. They need to stand up for our human rights, our European union, our democracy. It’s time for the battle stations – or at least the ballot box – to keep UKIP out of power. Nationalism leads to war, and we want peace!
Other posts by Professor Dewaele:
- “Most obscene article of a peer-reviewed scientific article” – an amusing award for a serious academic paper
- Multilingualism in psychotherapy
- Pardon my foreign accent!
- Why “younger” is not always “better” in foreign language learning
Other blogs about linguistics:
- Exploring Intercultural Communication: Language in Action, by Professor Zhù Hua
- What the **** is linguistics?, by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros