French President Emmanuel Macron has a new go-to rhetorical trope: alarm over the return of the horrors of the 1930s. Last summer, he decried the reappearance of populist governments “rising like a leprosy, throughout Europe,” as well as a “resurgent nationalism” and the emergence of governments that support the closing of frontiers and don’t respect “even the right to asylum.”
Macron’s targets are the newly formed government of Italy, along with Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic, all resistant to the flow of migrants into Europe. He returned again to the analogy earlier this month, telling an interviewer he was “struck” by the present’s similarities to the 1930s and calling again for resistance to the “nationalist leprosy.” He went on this tear yet again while hosting the Armistice Day centenary commemorations, where he contrasted the “generous” France of “universal values” with the shallow nationalism of nations that look out only for their own interests, a remark widely interpreted as a rebuke to President Trump.
To punctuate his point, he added a reference to Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, published in 1927, which decried burgeoning nationalist sentiments among Europe’s intellectuals as a whole and certain French conservatives in particular. It closed with a paean to Franco-German cooperation, the European Union, and the United Nations.
Macron is surely correct that the 1930s were generally a terrible decade. That’s true even if what he said is not all that different from the commonplace left-wing view that all conservatives who think about anything more than reducing taxes can be safely decried as fascists and Nazis and deserve no platform in our political system. But the analogy to the 1930s deserves unpacking. Whatever lessons might be learned from history, they’re not nearly so straightforward as Macron seems to believe.
First of all, there was not one but two active murderous totalitarian movements popular in the ’30s: fascism and communism. Communism came first. The Soviet government had probably killed 10 million innocent people before Hitler came to power. By the 1930s, huge slices of the intelligentsia in Britain, France, and, yes, the United States were head over heels in love with Stalinism. These thinkers produced reams of tributes to the bloodthirsty Soviet system, and were far more dominant in Western intellectual life than the targets of Benda’s ire in the 1920s. Second, because Bolshevism came first, it acted as an accelerant, perhaps even a major cause, of fascism. One definition of fascism—from my thesis supervisor Bob Paxton, probably the greatest American expert on the subject—is “hard measures by a frightened middle class.”
What they were frightened of, of course, was Bolshevism. And rightly so, even if pursuing violent and anti-democratic means in defense of property and order had a cost in suffering just as horrific as those they had feared.
Additionally, among the large numbers of people who were neither fascists nor communists, nor fellow travelers to either, there were significant currents of opinion hardly conducive to maintaining democratic peace. In early 1933, the Oxford Union held one of its most famous and historically significant debates: aye or nay on the motion “that this House will in no circumstance fight for its King and Country.” The motion carried by a nearly two-to-one margin, a result noted and commented upon all over the world.
Some of the arguments made in favor of “aye” were standard communist fare, i.e., “It is no mere coincidence that the only country fighting for the cause of peace, Soviet Russia, is the country that has rid itself of the warmongering clique.” But it’s likely that the vast majority of the students who supported the motion, the bright and favored sons of Britain’s establishment, were motivated by pure disgust at the horrendous toll, paid for no terribly good reason, in the trenches of the Western Front. In any case, the sentiment was widespread enough in Britain’s ruling circles to buttress the arguments for appeasement made a few years later. It certainly contributed to Hitler’s view that Britain and France were soft, unwilling to resist him.
So if one of the evils of the ’30s was the extreme nationalism and fascism that Macron decried, another was communism. And the combined energy of both led to a spirit of appeasement on the part of those attached to neither far left or right but unable also to summon much energy to defend an imperfect bourgeois order. It’s this spirit that’s most analogous to the regnant attitudes in contemporary Europe.
For as world leaders and press descended upon Paris to commemorate the end of World War I, one could see that desire for appeasement take a new form. Last week, a middle-aged Pakistani Christian woman, a farm worker named Asia Bibi, was freed after eight years on death row for the charge of “blasphemy.” Her conviction was overturned by Pakistan’s supreme court, a decision that immediately provoked mass demonstrations by fundamentalist Muslims demanding her death. Her attorney fled the country for his safety. Her family requested asylum in Britain, a request that was reportedly denied because the British government feared it would provoke “unrest” among Muslims.
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, those wordy celebrants of Europe’s asylum generosity, have uttered not a word in support of Bibi, even as both (particularly Merkel) have facilitated entry into Europe of millions of young Muslim men as “refugees.” In contrast to them, Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini has said that Italy would welcome Bibi and her family—who at this writing are still unable to leave Pakistan.
It’s a telling moment—the government indirectly accused by Macron of harkening back the dark days of the 1930s is ready to open its arms to a genuine political refugee, while the governments of Theresa May, Macron, and Merkel opt for social peace–a “paix bien Munichoise” as a writer for the French journal Causeur aptly describes the establishment’s accommodating stance towards fundamentalist Islam on European soil.
The Bibi case brings to mind the fascinating story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Dutch woman of Somali origin who became a member of parliament and then, after 9/11, a critic of Islam. Because of threats of murder from Dutch Islamists, she was first forced to live under police protection and eventually had her citizenship withdrawn by the Dutch government. She moved to America, becoming, as Salman Rushdie put it, “maybe the first refugee from Western Europe since the Holocaust.”
But in Macron’s view, and the view of others from the West’s Davos-style establishment, the threat to Europe’s core values can come only from “nationalists” like Hungary’s Victor Orbán, Italy’s Salvini, and the likes of Donald Trump. In his famous poem written at the outbreak of World War II, W.H. Auden famously called the 1930s “a low dishonest decade.” The attitudes that made it so are very much alive in Europe’s ruling classes today.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative and the author of Ex-Neocon: Dispatches From the Post-9/11 Ideological Wars.