There’s good news and bad news in parallels from the 1930s, warns Professor Margaret MacMillan, outgoing Warden at St Antony’s College.
By Olivia Gordon
It is common today to draw parallels between modern politics and those of the 1930s. Historian Margaret MacMillan, professor and outgoing Warden at St Antony’s, sees obvious similarities between modern Islamophobia and the anti-semitism of that era. ‘You get political leaders like Trump making it acceptable to demonise and damn a whole group of people. He talks about Mexicans as rapists and criminals, and Muslims as terrorists.’ On Donald Trump’s US entry policies, she comments, ‘I find it very disturbing.’
But is it going too far to compare Trump to charismatic 20th century tyrants like Hitler or Mussolini? In some ways it is, MacMillan says. ‘He’s not a Hitler — he doesn’t head a fascist party — and the Republican Party is more and more divided by the day. But I think he’s like Mussolini in wanting public attention and portraying himself as the great strong man, making grand gestures and searching for enemies. He’s a lot like some of the Latin American dictators like Chavez or Castro or Perón — claiming to speak for the people; loving the crowds… Making promises — “I will give you money and jobs” — then blaming “our enemies” when they aren’t delivered.’
Yet the Canadian-born historian is always cautious about the idea that history repeats itself. It’s ‘too glib’, MacMillan says. When the Financial Times asked her in the autumn to compare our own time and the early 20th century, she wrote reassuringly about the differences.
The Thirties Depression is not the same as the economic crisis that began in 2007, she argues. ‘Governments intervened in the recent crisis. We don’t have the level of economic contraction and unemployment we had in the 1930s.’ As she points out, in Britain today we have a social safety net, in the form of benefits and the NHS, which prevents a lot of the misery of the Thirties, when people were sometimes reduced to living in tents. ‘We certainly have problems today but not on that scale,’ she says. ‘Democracy is also better rooted in countries like Germany than it was in the 1930s — the Weimar republic was only ten years old when the Great Depression hit.’
Nor are today’s right-wing politics broadly comparable to fascism and Nazism, MacMillan insists. Some of the anti-immigrant, highly nationalistic ideas of the Thirties are ‘in the air’ now, with the debate over the Brexit referendum last year making it ‘okay to say things about immigrants’. But she sees organisations like UKIP as ‘marginal’.
Demonstrator makes a historical point outside Downing Street in a January protest
‘Racism is always with us, but today people generally are horrified when synagogues are attacked — whereas in the Thirties, certainly in Germany, you didn’t get public outrage. Even in this country there was casual anti-semitism then, but I think now that sort of language is there in a crazy fringe, not in the public reaction.’
Even so, MacMillan can understand why people say we are living in a second Weimar republic. ‘We shouldn’t be complacent,’ she warns. ‘People are worried — our system looks a bit shaky at the moment. If I were Jewish, given the history of Europe’s treatment of Jews, I would get nervous.’
It is also reasonable today to anticipate a possible major war, as switched-on people might have in the Thirties, MacMillan says. She notes that Steve Bannon, seemingly Trump’s close advisor, has said ‘there will be a war with China in the next 30 years’ and she comments: ‘He is terrifying… War is not improbable now.’
She describes how in the Thirties, the British government appeased Hitler partly because it had so much else to worry about — ‘thinking, “Maybe he’ll settle down, maybe what he wants is reasonable… let’s see what we can give him.”’ Speaking even before the announcement of the upcoming June general election, she noted that the British government today has ‘a lot on its plate’, so that it might overlook or downplay any similar dangers.
Donald Trump photographed by Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock; Mussolini via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence; London demonstration 2017 by Alisdare Hickson via Flickr, also under Creative Commons licence; Margaret MacMillan portrait courtesy of Professor MacMillan.