As a high school teacher, I would occasionally ask a class, “Apart from the Holocaust, what was so bad about the Nazis?” This was usually a stumper. Understandably, the enormity of the Holocaust had dominated their studies of the period, but disappointingly few students could say anything else informed about the Nazi rule of Germany. Well, unless some unforeseen movement among the people of Europe arises in the next couple of years, that continent is well on the road to demonstrating Nazi rule without a Holocaust. And we in the U.S. should watch events in Europe closely.
An article by Peter Schwarz, titled “The End of Liberal Europe” and published in January on the World Socialist Web Site, catalogs the developments in economics, politics and militarism among European nations and sees in those developments “the illusory character of the idea that Europe could be united harmoniously and peacefully on a capitalist basis.” What Schwarz might have added is that the nations of Europe mirror in fundamental ways the forces and reactions that are so rapidly shaping the American future as well.
Economically, Europe is undergoing much the same intensifying stratification as the United States, with a large underclass—largely immigrant—sinking deeper into poverty. Germany in particular has benefited from this low-wage class, and Schwarz sees the tension among classes growing as a result of a “huge social gulf.” Indeed, this division is felt among nations in Europe as Germany has imposed crushing “austerity” on other European Union members, austerity that is then imposed from the top down within the countries. One need only look at the unrest in Greece to see the fraying social structure that threatens nations throughout Europe.
Meanwhile, Europe’s ruling class, particularly in Germany, seeks to position itself globally for imperialist gains. One result of this is the rapid escalation of militarism in Germany, France and the Netherlands and the enthusiastic involvement of these countries’ governments in the war in Syria. This involvement is finally more competitive than cooperative, and increasingly sober pronouncements are coming from the corridors of power to the effect that the EU itself is in jeopardy. The conservative German paper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote, “Never before was the end of the EU as realistic as it is today.”
Such military risk-taking is also, as it is with the United States, driven by economic instability and is accompanied by a political lurch to the right as domestic populations come to be seen as a threat to the power of the ruling class. As happened in the 1920’s and 30’s, economic and social tensions are being intentionally channeled into right-wing movements exploiting racism and nationalism. This can be seen in the German media’s call for a “strong state” and its determined hyping of the New Year’s Eve incidents of assaults by immigrant men on German women. In France, the Paris terrorist attacks were seized upon by Francois Hollande and his administration to institute a “state of emergency” that has been used to stifle all dissent and to crush labor protests.
In the U.S. we need look no further than Washington’s unparalleled surveillance state, its military budget that dwarfs that of all other nations, its military presence around the globe and belligerent attempts at encircling Russia and China to see all of Europe’s tensions and reactionary responses in our own country. With the increasing instability of the stock markets, it seems that economic disaster may not be far off, and as in Europe the ruling class in America is preparing for battle. The tensions between the ruling class and the working class are beginning to surface. Last fall, autoworkers around the country raised serious opposition to the United Auto Workers’ sell-out contracts. The public school teachers’ struggles in Detroit and Chicago, and the fury born of the Flint water crisis all point up the contradictory interests of the wealthy elite and the vast majority of the population.
As in Europe, the ruling class in the U.S. is attempting to channel its domestic tensions into right-wing politics, as the xenophobic tone of the Republican presidential candidates attests. On the pseudo-left, the Bernie Sanders campaign shows every sign of serving as a lightning rod meant to attract the energy of dissent and then ground it into the big-business Democratic party (recall that Sanders has vowed he will endorse Hillary Clinton should she win the Democratic nomination).
Postwar Europe is beginning to look like prewar Europe, and the United States too seems poised for a global conflagration. This time, though, it may be impossible for the rulers to hide from the people that they are the real enemy.
Photo credit: europa.eu