I’ll admit: I felt deeply depressed after reading yesterday’s Guardian Long Read which portrayed how right-wing populist parties are advancing in all parts of Europe by appealing to the widespread and growing resentment of political and financial elites, co-opting the policies and rhetoric of the left, and polishing their public image by publicly breaking with the symbols of the fascist past.
Coming as the latest Hillary Clinton email revelations seem to have handed Donald Trump a last-minute advantage in the American presidential election, and after the spectacle of the clearance of the Calais refugee camp and the British government’s reluctance to do more than the bare minimum to protect vulnerable young residents of the camp, the current mood reminds me of Alexander Blok writing in 1908 of his sense an impending catastrophe: ‘In us all is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’
The moment seems perilous indeed. Further warnings of dangers that might easily force their way from the past into the present were contained in a piece written by the Labour MP Richard Burden following his recent visit to Srebrenica, and in news of the death of one of the last survivors of the Nazi death camps who became one of the most active UK-based witnesses to the Holocaust.
Writing in 1908, Alexander Blok wrote of ‘a constant and wanton feeling of catastrophe’ which he perceived ‘lay upon the hearts of the people’. ‘In us all,’ he continued, ‘is a feeling of sickness, of alarm, of disaster, of disruption.’ In my darker moments, after the nauseous Brexit campaign that stoked race hatred and hostility toward immigrants, and with Trump able to ride a similar wave of resentment in America, I feel gripped by the same feeling of impending catastrophe.
In The ruthlessly effective rebranding of Europe’s new far right, Sasha Polakow-Suransky offered Guardian readers a taster of his book on the rise of anti-immigration politics, due to be published in 2017. His essay sets out the facts of the advance of Europe’s new far right across the continent (a few examples: Marine Le Pen’s Front National – in government in town halls across France; the Danish People’s Party – propping up Denmark’s minority government which earlier this year passed a law which stipulated that refugees carrying valuables worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,200) would have them confiscated; Alternative für Deutschland – now represented in 10 of Germany’s 16 regional parliaments; or Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) – which is running a close second place in polls ahead of the 2017 election). And that’s to say nothing about the impact of UKIP on the Brexit vote.
Elements of Polakow-Suransky’s argument about why this is happening are already familiar: first, that these new parties have cleaned up their presentation, eschewing expressions of outright racism or reference to the tarnished symbols of the old far-right; second, that they are increasingly drawing working class support away from social democratic parties by channeling the anger felt in ‘left-behind’ communities towards immigrants and asylum-seeker, bankers and elite politicians, and anyone who – in Michael Gove’s infamous expression – might know more than they do.
(Nobel laureate Bob Dylan nailed this in one of his best lyrics, ‘Only a Pawn in Their Game’; different time and place, same psychology:
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
“You got more than blacks, don’t complain
You’re better than them, you been born with white skin” they explain
And the Negro’s name
Is used it is plain
For the politician’s gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool
He’s taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
‘Bout the shape that he’s in
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.
From the powerty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks
And the hoof beats pound in his brain
And he’s taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide ‘neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.)
It’s also been clear for quite some time that Europe’s social democratic party leaders of the last three decades have a lot to answer for by swallowing the whole kit and caboodle of neo-liberalism: the privatisation, deregulation and all the rest that has devastated working class communities across the continent. Well, as Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s article makes clear, they’re reaping the rewards now.
And I don’t mean that the parties of the left should have rushed to embrace the fear and loathing of immigrants and Muslims that festers among those voters (they’re doing that anyway – Polakow-Suransky quotes the observation of one Dutch supporter of Gert Wilder that his PVV has shifted the whole political discussion to the right: ‘The Labour party is saying almost exactly the same thing Wilders said five years ago. You can have a lot of influence in politics by steering the debate.’).
No, what sustains this resentment of outsiders is a deeper anger at the ruthless exploitation that has characterised business practices in recent decades, culminating in the rapacious wiles of firms like Uber and Deliveroo, that have deepened inequalities and swept away old protections. Truly, as Marx wrote, ‘All that is solid melts into air.’
Polished the new-right parties may be, but rub away the veneer and you find something not dissimilar to the message of fascism in the 1930s. Alongside the rhetoric about European values being swamped by Islam and migration they talk about resisting the bankers and international business, protecting workers from foreign competition, and rebuilding the welfare state. That blending of socialistic rhetoric with racist nationalism was what characterised fascism and Nazism in the thirties.
In the New Statesman this week, Labour MP Richard Burden reminded us that you don’t have to go back as far as the thirties to learn where xenophobia can lead. In The warnings Bosnian gravestones carry for us in 2016, he writes of his recent visit to Bosnia organised by the organisation, Remember Srebrenica.
Srebrenica was the site of the greatest atrocity on European soil since the Second World War. During the Balkans conflict of 1992-1995, the Bosnian town was declared a UN Safe Area under the protection of UN soldiers. But, in July 1995, General Ratko Mladić and his Serbian paramilitary units overran and captured the town, despite its designation as an area ‘free from any armed attack or any other hostile act’. In the days following Srebrenica’s fall, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically massacred and buried in mass graves. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported and a large number of women were raped.
Burden concludes his article with these words:
The thing that dominates my thoughts is that the genocide in Bosnia hit people like me. A man I met, who unexpectedly found himself becoming a soldier in 1992, told me how, before the war, he wore a t-shirt, jeans and an earring. On a good day, he would to listen to the Ramones. On a bad day, it would be the Sex Pistols. I am a bit older than him, but this was still my generation. And it happened In Europe.
What is more, the murders and the ethnic cleansing were not committed by strangers. So often, they were committed by neighbours. These were normal people who had been whipped up to dehumanise those who they were told were “different”. They were told that their way of life was under threat. They internalised it. They believed it. And, down the line, they no longer needed persuading it was “them or us”.
Most of the time, xenophobia does not lead to the horrors that have scarred Srebrenica forever. But it can do. That a lesson for all of us must never forget. So next time you hear someone talking about people living either down the road or across the sea being “them” not “us”, don’t shrug and walk away. Speak up and speak out instead.
But then some comfort may be taken from the life of Mayer Hersh, Holocaust survivor who was one of the longest-serving inmates of Auschwitz and who has died aged 90 after devoting much of his life to public speaking, bearing witness accounts of the horrors of the Nazi death camps to audiences across the UK.
In his moving Guardian obituary, Stephen Moss wrote that the fact that Hersh had lived to tell his story at all was little short of miraculous. He was a Polish Jew, born in the town of Sieradz, near Łódź, in central Poland. His father, Isaac, who was a tailor, mother, Riwka (nee Szczukowska), and four of his siblings were murdered in the Holocaust, as were his entire extended family in Poland, numbering close to a hundred. Only Mayer and his elder brother, Jakob, survived, taken from Sieradz in 1940 to be slave labourers. For the next five years, Mayer would be imprisoned in nine concentration camps by the Nazis.
The brothers were separated and Mayer, who was 13 at the outbreak of the second world war, was taken from camp to camp. In May 1943 he found himself in Auschwitz. A few months later, he met Jakob in the camp and advised him to ask for a transfer to the coalmines in Silesia – advice that probably saved Jakob’s life, since, though the job was desperately hard, it took him out of the camp.
Mayer did not leave Auschwitz until November 1944, when he was taken to Stutthof, near the Baltic Sea, then to Stuttgart, and then to a camp called Gotha, where he worked in an underground bunker loading ammunition on to trucks. The day before the allies arrived, the workers began a forced march to Buchenwald, the last part of it through the mountains. “Anyone who stopped got a single bullet through the head,” said Hersh. “They didn’t waste a bullet. For the first time, I had lost all hope. I was in total despair, but the man next to me, a complete stranger, said: ‘You can’t give up now, the war is virtually finished.’ That made me carry on.”
Even after liberation, Mayer Hersh might not have survived: weighing only four stone, he was flown in an RAF bomber directly to Carlisle where with careful treatment and no small amount of personal determination he recovered his health.
Mayer had grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household and also spoke Polish and German. A gifted linguist, he picked up English quickly, settled in Manchester, already home to a large Jewish community, trained as a tailor and built a successful business.
He was soon active on behalf of Jewish causes, though like almost all Holocaust survivors, in the 1950s and 60s he spoke little about his experiences in the concentration camps. But from the 1970s on, Hersh became an increasingly significant voice in Holocaust education in the UK, touring schools – sometimes up to three a week – and giving talks on his experiences. In 2013, he was awarded an MBE for his work.
Racism, xenophobia, nationalism; the foreigner, the refugee, the asylum-seeker, those of a different faith: let the grass grow. We’ve done it before, but it can’t happen again.
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work―
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
– ‘Grass’ by Carl Sandburg