If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

TProfessor Jean-Marc Dewaelehis post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communications.

Sebastian Haffner book cover

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!

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15 thoughts on “If history repeats itself, it’s time for the battle stations

  1. Interesting, informative, alarming, plausible and a fine call to arms, but one observation: ask anyone in England if they vote UKIP, harbour racist or extreme nationalistic views or even if they read the Daily Mail, and chances are the answer will be no. The national culture of privacy is extremely strong– probably invincible, in fact, which makes extremism very difficult to fight, or even to find. Maddeningly, because we all know it’s there. In the thirties the Germans held huge rallies and paraded their racism, bigotry and intolerance in the street. That will never happen in England. If Farage and his masked fascists come to power, it will be by stealth. Try to fight them, and they will simply hide even further behind their masks and complain of unfair play. It is the English Way, and one can only pray that common sense (and the first-past-the-post electoral system) will save us from our very own rosy-cheeked, beer-swilling, home-grown Hitler.

  2. Excellent point. So you think this ideology spreads like an invisible, odorless and poisonous gas? So who or what will represent the metaphorical canary in the mine?

  3. Living outside of the UK, I hadn’t heard of the UKIP, so thank you Dr. Dewaele for an informative and persuasive article. It helped me understand more about what keeps Britain distinct and separate from rest of the EU, and to see the parallels between Britain and the U.S.

  4. Very interesting and alarming link between NSDAP and UKIP. I always enjoy reading your work . I look forward to reading your next informative articles. Thank you very much.

    • Thank you for these comments!
      I fear that people have short memories and seem to think that the democracy we have is immune to nationalist manipulation, and don’t realize it could be hollowed out before anyone realizes the consequences, by which time it would be too late to protest safely.

  5. I am glad that I am not the only one, who has seen the parallel. After the next election when UKIP have their first MPs then we will see a more aggressive campaign. The language of UKIP has changed over the last year, to a more ambiguous rhetoric so as to appeal to a wide range of people who are dissatisfied with the current economic and political situation. My fear is that the current politicians are not only short sighted but far too young, they have only known a modern UK and don’t realise how easily the veneer or tolerance can slip if too many people feel isolated and are not benefiting from their current decisions.

  6. I Find Professor Dewaele’s parallels between Ukip and the pre-war NDSAP in Germany quite persuasive; though I think it possible to be opposed to Britain’s EU membership and yet not be a Fascist sympathiser. I, myself, have always been a pro-European; but the conversion of large parts of the Labour Left to the European cause is quite recent; and both Tony Benn and Michael Foot were resolutely opposed to Britain’s EU (EEC) membership. However, in support of Dr Dewaele’s analogy between the rise of Ukip and the growth of the German Nazi movement, I would recall the writing of a postwar German lady political journalist named Gudrun Tempel. In an article syndicated in the Observer, some time in the nineteen-fifties, Fraulein Tempel (who I believe may still be alive) argued that a prevailing public mood in pre-war Germany was one of facile contempt for conscientious professional politicians, such as the quite successful, if lacklustre, economics minister and one-time Reichskanzler, Gustav Stresemann, and of an unthinking, mindless preference for such bloke-ishly convivial types as Hitler and Goering. For Stresemann read Cameron and Clegg; for Hitler and Goering see Farage..

  7. Very plausible parallels – although I wish UKIP and Farage were a more isolated example of Far Right success in recent years. I wonder whether Moseley’s failure in the 1930s (despite the febrile support of the Daily Mail) was partly due to a perceived lack of “blokeyness”, a hysterical lack of humour and therefore Britishness: Farage definitely has that covered. (Churchill too.) Another disturbing parallel is the anti-Semitism of the Nazis (and much of Europe at the time) beside the Islamophobia of Europe today: this is definitely something we should not overlook. The closed shop of the political class (part of the wider current phenomenon of the slowing of social mobility to a crawl, in my opinion) has also depleted its “gene-pool” (to draw on a dodgy eugenics metaphor) and weakened it against Farage’s cunning, anti-Establishment strategy. They are also hindered by the institutionalised bickering between parties, locked into their political (with a small p) manoeuvrings. The media too see Farage as an easy story, a source of both amusing soundbites and news interest, and I do think it is true that he is allowed to set the agenda of the conversation and to slide away from any direct confrontation. I’d put this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z4Rq7avG234) forward as an example of how to tackle his arguments with a forensic, almost-barrister-like approach.

    To address the idea of the invisible support that UKIP enjoy, my social media timelines seem full of examples of people happy to register their support for Farage’s ideas about immigration, social security and Islam’s “global agenda”. Marches seem too easy to ignore these days (see any of the anti-Iraq demonstrations or the various vaguely left wing marches that the BBC seem to have overlooked in the last year or two), so perhaps the lack of UKIP marches is a sign of their success, as opposed to the likes of the EDL or BNP. After all, the Conservative and Labour parties do not march either – I think a march is a sign of issue-politics (the proper term escapes me) and would be a step away from legitimacy as a political party for UKIP.

    Apologies for the long ramble: as you can see, the post has stimulated a lot of thought.

  8. I agree with you, Mark, that there are parallels between the apparently casual nationalism of Farage and the more sinister eugenic nationalism of Hitler, but Hitler had one advantage that Farage does not have: the military power to project his beliefs over the rest of Europe. Farage may come to power at the next election as a coalition partner; and there is the possibility that he will buck the trend of British coalition partners and increase his support during the coalition; but even if, at some future date, he becomes PM, he will be more of a Franco figure than a Hitler. Franco was very bad for Spain (as Farage would be for Britain), but the rest of Europe successfully ignored him for decades.

    UKIP is weird and probably dangerously insular; but Britain in the 2010s is not Germany in the 1930s. As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

  9. Well put. I worry not just about UKIP but the spontaneous support for the same anti-immigrant ideology within the mainstream elite, and a section of the previously liberal intelligentia, which now finds fault with mass immigration, multiculturalism, lack of assimilation of immigrants, and their “objective” analysis of facts like “white flight”.

    • I disagree with “left”, I disagree with “nonsense”: this is not a party political opinion piece. And some intellectual exercise would do you good! “Simply” voting for a party that is becoming more and more europhobic and xenophobic means you don’t take your civic responsibilities seriously.

  10. Returning to an earlier question – I think we in South Thanet are the canary in the mine. If those outside this constituency do not wake up and realise they must mobilise alongside those of us here who are campaigning against UKIP, then we will find Farage in our Parliament come May. People here are certainly attracted to his very shrewd, blokey manner and so-called common sense remarks. There’s no point in ranting on at him or even about him, however, until the mainstream parties get a grip on themselves and present this tired and disillusioned community with a positive, supportive, optimistic and pragmatic programme to lift the spirits and avoid this appeal to our lowest common denominator.

    • I totally agree. No point in ranting about Farage, it’s the ideology that needs to combatted with a positive political program that shows that tolerance and diversity are infinitely better than mistrust, isolationism and short-sighted nationalism. We don’t want a return to 1914!

  11. I left the UK in 1943, and lived in Denmark for 40 years. Scandinavia sees itself as more socially just, more enlightened than elsewhere, but we have had for 30 years a UKIP-style party that was hugely influential on the right-wing government of Anders Fog Rasmussen, who was rewarded for his blind faith in George Bush II by being made Secretary General of NATO, and taking Denmark to war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya etc. The Danish People’s Party was preceded by a similar xenophobic one led by a clown, who suggested cutting all defence expenditure and leaving a phone message at the Ministry of Defence ‘We surrender’. He also ended up in jail for tax fraud. His successors are much more subtle and have been instrumental in creating a poisonous climate for immigrants, refugees et al, and in pushing rightwing and centrist parties to the right generally.
    There are nationalist parties in Norway, Sweden, and Finland with comparable agendas. In the recent Swedish elections the neo-fascist party that had been in parliament for four years, but shunned by all other parties, more than doubled the number of people voting for them, to 15%. Mostly because of disillusionment with the mainstream parties. Sounds familiar?
    Some of the earlier blogs seem to have forgotten that there was a fascist party in the UK in the 1930s that was active with demonstrations for years (Mosely and brownshirts), and there were conservatives who were sympathetic to Hitler, whose ideas were also popular in Denmark and Sweden.
    The EU question is also incredibly important. The number of people bothering to vote in elections for the European Parliament has gone down each time there has been an election in the past 30 years right across Europe. My impression is that apathy and ignorance about the significance of the EU nationally and supranationally is deeply irresponsible, simply because so much is decided now at the European level. British politicians are part of the problem, not the solution, on this issue, which is clearly a worrying reality.
    So Jean-Marc is right in stressing the really alarming historical parallels. Converting our concern and dismay into action is incredibly important.

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