With the US election of president Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum in the UK it has hardly escaped anyone attention that we’re living in interesting times. Very interesting indeed. The rise of authoritarian strongmen in countries like Russia and Turkey, the emergence of new great powers on the global scene, and the decline of others, and the precarious economic and political conditions around the world – all of these things further add to the excitement.
“history does seem to generate stubborn patterns that show up again and again when certain conditions are present.”
But haven’t we seen this before, some might ask? In recent years many have compared our times with earlier epochs. Are we approaching a new 1914? Or is it perhaps more accurate to make comparisons with the 1930s? After all, the stable and predictable world order that followed the Second World War seems to be nearing its end. Another chaotic period to decide the future order of the planet appears to be what we can expect to live in for the foreseeable future. That does sound like an echo of the turbulent first half of the 20th century.
The growing protectionism in some countries, the emergence of a new, but still uncertain, global world order and the rampant social unrest and political instability – all of this does show similarities with the volatile situation of the early 20th century; a time that followed a rather stable period of established power balances between the great empires of the time, increased international trade and a hitherto unseen level of globalization and interdependency (only to be surpassed in the latter third of the 20th century). So the question arises, are we now approaching the inevitable setback? Will history repeat itself?
Of course, history never literally repeats itself; every epoch and event is the result of unique conditions in time that once over will never occur again. We should therefore be careful not to make anachronistic errors. Drawing parallels between different eras has often led to grave mistakes when interpreting the allegories too literally.
However, history does seem to generate stubborn patterns that show up again and again when certain conditions are present. So could we learn something important from studying these patterns? Could we, after all, as commonly claimed, learn something from history?
“if a contemporary Hitler showed up today, would we be able to recognize him as such?”
Yup, let’s just put him up here, I know you’re already thinking about him. Hitler. Now, from all the events of history the rise of Nazism and the subsequent world war and genocides is perhaps the single most addressed event regarding lessons thought to be learned. And for good reasons too.
It is a shame, really, that people have used the Nazi allegory so often that few politicians, movements and what not haven’t been awarded the Nazi-label at one time or another. Just a dab of conservatism and you’re Hitler, the slightest injustice and we have a new Holocaust. Any lessons taught from this unfortunate turn in history thus gets reduced to cheap rhetoric tricks and name-calling. It has now reached a level, well, already noticed as early as 1951 by Leo Strauss, that whenever someone pulls the “Hitler-card”, the discussion is officially in the gutter—collapsed into the argumentation fallacy of guilt by association, or reductio ad Hitlerum as humorously coined by Strauss. We have learned nothing, and if insightful comparisons could be made, the constant wolf-cries over the years have made any such discussions incapable of making a lasting impact. Nazi allegories are rarely taken seriously these days.
This urges another question: if a contemporary Hitler showed up today, would we be able to recognize him as such? I mean, the world is full Nazis, marching and waving flags as they do, but this is hardly where you’d find the next Hitler. Movements with identical programs to the fascists of the 1930s, of which some are outright identifying as true national-socialists, are not where one would find the contemporary equivalents to the movements of the 1930s. By merely copying the Nazis they ironically disqualify themselves from being the fascism of the present, postmodern era. They simply don’t do what these movements did back in the days; they fail where their predecessors succeeded and remain peripheral shadows with none of the transformative power that defined fascism in its heydays.
The self-proclaimed Führers of today are nothing but minuscule copy-cats out of tune with the times they are living in. They might as well have proclaimed to be Caesar or Napoleon. And as such they are as anachronistic as the ones who repeatedly call their opponents Nazis.
Hitler was a man of his time and an expertly endowed exploiter of the unique conditions of the period, so anyone deserving of comparison with this figure of history should likewise be capable of that. Flag waving and marches in snappy uniforms was a prominent and powerful feature of his time, not of ours. And the ideology that brought him to power was especially designed for those times; applying the exact same line of thought to ours is doomed to fail politically, which it repeatedly has. Nazism seemed new, shiny and – in a sense – progressive in the 1930s. The seductions and dead-ends of our present era are likely to have a corresponding glow.
In order to make useful comparisons with the catastrophic mistakes of the past we need to interpret them in the context of the present. Surface phenomena don’t suffice. We need to look at the underlying mechanisms and adequately interpret them in light of a sound analysis of our current times. So what could be the best point of departure for such an analysis?
“What would a postmodern transitional crisis look like?”
The reason that our time bears so much resemblance with the turbulent years of the first half of the 20th century is that we are in the midst of a major transition. The period between the two world wars was characterized by the final transition from an agrarian to a fully industrialized and mechanized economy. The time of the First World War was a period where technological progress reached a critical breaking point; leaving many people unemployed, confused and without purpose. The economic crisis of the 1930s was directly associated with the demise of the agricultural economy and the many unemployed of the era were freshly recruited from the countryside to serve in an industrial economy in which they lacked many of the critical skills to navigate successfully. We seem to be in the middle of such a transition once again. Now, however, we are leaving the modern industrial society behind in favor of a global information society, a more postmodern society, which inevitably is going to generate proud winners and sore losers to wreak havoc upon the social fabric of society.
So, given that the world is very different from what it was in the 1930s, what would a transitional crisis as that of the early 20th century look like? We are living in a time that is increasingly becoming more postmodern, where signs and symbols take primacy over physical reality, where the production of information has shoved the production of industrial goods to the margins of the economy and a global world where many different cultures, identities and interpretations of reality are interacting in a myriad of ways accompanied by new competing ideologies fighting to determine the shape of the 21st century and the coming new world order. So what would learning a few lessons from history, without being too anachronistic about it, teach us about the place we can expect to be going in the near future? What would a postmodern transitional crisis look like? And what would be the solutions? It’s a good question right? But no matter what, it’s likely to be one hell of a ride.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, and the upcoming books ‘Nordic Ideology’ and ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of World History’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.