Reading About the 1930s, Thinking About 2014

Political sentiment across the Continent has converged at a grumpy and small-minded nadir. There is anger about high unemployment. There is pessimism about the future. There is irritation at immigration. There is alienation from the European Union.

Roger Cohen, the International New York Times

It is against precisely this backdrop that the citizens of EU member nations this weekend are voting for representatives to send to the European Parliament.

On the one hand, the election has stirred little interest. Pundits expect the turnout to “dip sharply below the 43 percent of registered voters in the last one in 2009,” The International New York Times wrote in its lead editorial Friday.   On the other hand, it writes, “populist and fringe parties” — in France, the far-right FN, or Front National (National Front) — appear to be leading in the polls among those who will vote.  A poll reported on French national television IMG_2120Thursday suggested the party of Marine Le Pen could capture a quarter of the vote in this country in which the anti-immigration, anti-EU, and, in the past, racist party typically trailed well behind the two more mainstream alternatives until this year’s municipal elections.

But these are not normal times in France or in Europe.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high, still in double digits in France. Anti-semitic and racist incidents surface, and are reported, with somewhat alarming regularity around Europe.  And anti-immigrant sentiments run high across the continent.

On Sunday, these factors likely will translate to a sizable minority of representatives elected to the European Parliament who don’t believe in its goals at all.  As The Times editorial notes, “a recent public opinion survey conducted for the European Commission found that trust in the European Union had plummeted from 57 percent in 2007 to 31 percent.”

The result of the European Parliamentary elections, noted a Times news article, could “provide Europe’s extremists an outsized platform to influence the politics of their home nations and beyond.” It also could lead to increased calls for protectionism and a slowing of progress toward treaties between the United States and the European Union.

I can understand the disenchantment of the French and the citizens of other European countries after the better part of a decade now in which meaningful employment for young adults has declined sharply. But the ugly underpinnings of this election — the anti-everything-not-like-us and the growing admiration in certain quarters for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and his bullying — seem alarming.

I happen right now to be reading a wonderful literary history, Villa Air-Bel, by Rosemary Sullivan. It tells the story of a house in Marseille in which an American journalist, Varian Fry, and his team helped hundreds of European intellectuals, artists and Jews escape from Vichy, France, at the start of World War II.  And it sets the context of what brought the characters there to begin with. Some of these same threads — the anti-immigration sentiment, the anti-intellectualism, the anti-semitism and racism, the growing admiration of a strong man, in that case Adolph Hitler, sound eerily like the drift of today’s Europe.

Mind you, I’m no historian and the world is an immensely different place. Europe has a common currency and no borders.  Giant economies have emerged in China and to a lesser extent India and Brazil. The world is much more complex. And that’s just a start.  Yet other aspects of contemporary times resonate — the search for strong, charismatic, simplistic leaders; nagging economic doubts; global IMG_2114isolationism following weariness with too many wars; a splintering the electorate with more looking toward the fringes; a grand malaise in the middle.

It all reminds me of our visit to Camp des Milles this spring. It served as a French internment camp that at one time or another housed as prisoners many of the same European artists and intellectuals who had escaped Hitler and whom Fry eventually helped sneak out of Marseille.

When civilizations fray, they can fray quickly if the overall state of politics is a shrug and a whatever.

As Paul Krugman writes in Saturday’s Times:

“Some of the biggest winners in Europe’s election will probably be people taking Vladimir Putin’s side in the Ukraine crisis. The truth is that the European project — peace guaranteed by democracy and prosperity — is in deep trouble; the Continent still has peace, but it’s falling short on prosperity and, in a subtler way, democracy.”

I believe we live in a time when it’s very important for decent, mainstream folks across the globe to pay very close attention.  History can — and does — repeat itself.

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