To the victor, the hubris of success

In a little over one years time, the majority of Europe, and to a lesser degree the rest of the world, will mark the anniversary of an event that like a few other moments in human history is seen as the founding moment of the era that follows it. Examples of such epoch defining moments would be the Greek victory over the Persians at the battle of Salamis which ushered in the Greco-Roman dominance of the classical world and the (re)discovery of the Americas by Columbus and all the implications of that moment. The event that I make reference to here is  of course the First World War. Pursuant with a casual browsing of history or the detailed study of the very same topics, I am sure that both amateur readers and academics would agree  with me that in a  long history of pointless, wasteful, mindless and utterly barbaric violence unleashed by mankind, the First World War must rank as the pre-eminent example of just how stupid mankind really can be. The reason I draw the readers attention to this impending anniversary is that already quiet rumblings are being heard and seen in the media about how the anniversary itself should be marked, for example with Britain’s leading toilet paper poopooing the nasty liberal left  for not wanting to blame the war on any one nation. The form that the commemoration of such an event takes is critical as it will ultimately define for many their relation to the historical crisis which swept Europe more clearly than the a long lost relative ever could, they may have missed out on experiencing trench foot or the horrors of Gallipoli first hand, but people can still be manipulated by the emotions that a ‘fight for freedom’ evokes.

That the events should be commemorated is a certainty in my mind. I know of course, pacifists with an extreme bent in that direction may say point out the horrors of war and such and argue that due to these reasons that war is never something to be remembered or celebrated. Of course, you will note that in my sentence above I used the term commemorated rather than celebrated, as I believe the notion that certain right wing pundits are spouting that the anniversary of the First World War should be celebrated to be morally reprehensible. It is a firm belief of my own, that those whose lives were wasted by high command on the fields of Europe should be remembered for their role in ‘protecting’ the country. However I feel the need to highlight what I believe is a troubling political climate in which the anniversary will begin as I fear that the misuse of history will be highly likely when the moment comes for it. It is a notable lesson of history that political elites are happy to evoke moments or characters from history in an attempt to garner support for their own ends that otherwise would likely not achieve any great deal of support from the average member of the public. examples of such appropriations of history would include the Napoleonic adoption of Roman iconography in an attempt to link the two great empires, the title that the early Ottoman sultans took of “Sultan of Rum” which demonstrates their desire also to identify themselves as the logical progression of the legacy of Rome or certain Nazi’s identification with the Teutonic order of knights as paragons of Germanic Christianity. Such appropriations are very widespread throughout history and that this is so should come as no surprise as it is an easy task to adopt the stories of history, certainly an easier task than both creating mythologies for people to identify with and have them become widespread whilst still alive.

Whilst the practice of appropriating moments from history is widespread, this is not to say that doing so comes without its problems. Central among the issues such a practice churns up in its wake is that more often than not, the individuals doing the appropriation are the wealthy, powerful and educated elites who as a class of humans are not noted for the general inclination towards extreme philanthropy. Indeed, often the appropriation of history is done out of extreme self interest in making those without power, without money and without the full knowledge of the ugly realities of history do not what they want to do and believe to be in their best interests but to do things which otherwise might seem abhorrent to them. I would also highlight for the reader that the appropriation can also be very non-specific in nature with those doing the manipulating of history evoking nothing more than a general theme, an example of which being politicians in Britain arguing that austerity is nought but a trifle compared to the dark hours of the Blitz which our parents and grandparents experienced.

Now that I have highlighted the way in which history has previously been appropriated I will now explain my specific concerns about how I fear the history of the First World War might be misappropriated as the anniversary approaches on two different fronts. My first concern is that the government will turn the commemoration of the event into a celebration. There is a distinct possibility that the current UK government, a beleaguered and endangered animal if there ever was one, will be keen to turn the anniversary into some form of jingoistic lovefest where all sense of proportion and dignity will be abandoned in a shameless attempt to curry favour in the lead up to a general election. The reason for my concern about the government appropriating the legacy of the First World War is basically centred around my belief that the war itself was an unmitigated disaster that claimed at the lowest estimates 15,000,000 lives and lead directly to an even worse war which claimed, again at minimum, 40,000,000 lives. If the government can find cause to celebrate in amongst all those corpses then it would simply further my belief in the current governments absolute moral bankruptcy. However the problem does not end there I fear, my own squeamishness about celebrating large scale death aside, I believe we are on a slippery slope when governments believe that death and wars are something to celebrate. When you think about it, there is a logical line of progression between celebrating past deaths for a ‘good cause’ and a willingness to directly cause deaths for a good cause. I assure the reader that however positive their impressions of the human race are, the philosophical distances between celebrating a war as having achieved a purpose and a willingness to start wars and end life on massive scale aren’t that far apart. All of this might be hot air on my part were it not for the fact that large areas of the world are already on a knife edge and its difficult to tell how little a government need rock the boat before the whole thing capsizes.

My second concern, and if I am to be entirely honest, a much greater concern at that is that the misappropriation will not be committed by the traditional elite who are usually responsible for such actions. No, my concern is that the misappropriation here will come from ‘street level’ and that if this to be the case that the general public might be all the more susceptible to it. The concern specifically is that a certain movement (read EDL), that is already paramilitary in style, will attempt to align itself with the hordes of British ‘tommies’ that were slaughtered in the defence of ‘freedom’ and gain a lot more credence in the public eye for its shameless and inaccurate appropriation of history. I mean the reality that Muslims, amongst all of the composite religions that were practised throughout the Empire, fought as bravely for a lesser share of the reward would surely fry circuitry among Britain’s leading street thug group were it widely known. By aligning themselves with the ‘tommies’ who fought for freedom against the barbaric German Hun, that the EDL will gain a certain amount of credibility in the eyes of the person who buys into the myth of the Great War and nationalism as a whole. The thought of the EDL gaining anything resembling credibility should worry the reader as it does me. The extremely violent xenophobia it preaches is a curse on all our houses and threat such lunacy poses will only grow with such a movement co-opting the legacy of the First World War. You have been warned …

The hydra reborn

I will wager that is not often that bloggers of any stripe who focus on contemporary issues feel the need or desire to resort to using ancient Greek mythology to make points about the topics they discuss. But today I will attempt that very behaviour using the analogy of the Lernaean Hyrda to argue that as things stand Europe stands on a cross roads at which it would do well to heed the lessons of history. While I’m sure any who have read to this point, digesting what some may feel is my most tortured introduction to a post yet, will already know the story  I will begin by briefly summarising the story of Heracles and the Hydra.

An ancient depiction of Heracles fighting the Hydra of Greek myth.

An ancient depiction of Heracles fighting the Hydra of Greek myth.

According to an epic poem of Greek mythology, Heracles in an act of atonement for the murder of his sons was instructed by an oracle that he should serve the king Eurystheus for twelve years and perform any task which the king set him. If he was successful in this task then he would finally be rewarded with immortality, allowing him his place alongside the Greek gods of Mount Olympus. During his tenure serving the King Eurystheus Heracles was given in all twelve tasks to perform, the second of which was to slay the Lernaean Hydra. The Hydra as recorded in ancient myths was a many-headed serpentine beast whose defining trait was a form of regeneration where for every one of its heads that was cut off, it would grow two in place of the original. The beasts one weakness was that it only remained invulnerable as long as it retained one central head. To combat the Hydra, Heracles aided by his cousin Lolaus cauterized each neck stump as he beheaded the beast so as to prevent their regrowth and eventually used a sword given to him by the god Athena to decapitate the last and central head. Commentators in more modern times have studied this story and described the idea of the Hydra as a personification of the feeling of hopelessness being as the beast would seemingly endlessly recover from the most grave of wounds its suffered meaning that only a hero with steely determination could ever hope to vanquish such a monster. Further to this in assessing the story of Heracles fight with the Hydra for hidden meanings people have often suggested that the myth is a parable for dealing with a problem completely and not leaving loose ends that will later come back to haunt us.

Now that I have summarised this particular part of Heraclean myth in as much detail as any reader should have to tolerate considering they have likely come here for political discussion I will now progress with the task at hand. I intend, using the analogy of the Hydra, to suggest that the ideology of Fascism and other far-right political movements is very much alive in Europe at this point in time as a result of the established political orders inability to deal with central problems that give rise to such movements. This inability or even lack of desire to address the issues that give rise to such discontent is critical as we have already once witnessed the monstrous ideology of Nazism bring Europe to its knees and only a fool would dismiss out of hand the worrying parallels that can be drawn between the crises of Europe in the 193os and the those of Europe now.

It cannot be denied that at this juncture in time that the economies of many European countries face an acute crisis as things stand. The stability of the Eurozone has suffered massively as a result of the lack of confidence in several European countries to repay or refinance their debts without the help of outside parties. As a result of these sovereign debt crises, the countries whose economies have been so embattled, namely Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain and now Cyprus too have reached out to the European Union in their hours of need for financial help presumably to stop an otherwise inevitable mass exodus from the European Union. The help that was sought in bailing out these struggling economies was ultimately given although the nature of such help probably left much to be desired in these countries as in all cases the loans that were given depended on the ability and willingness of the country in question to completely restructure its economy to suit the tastes of the German dominated European Central Bank. The restructuring of economies to suit the requirements of the ECB included approaches such as swingeing austerity cuts and in the most recent case of Cyprus, savings levies and capital controls to prevent any runs on banks. Such methods to satisfy the requirements of the ECB are ultimately ill advised as they are based far more on the financial models of strong economies such as that of Germany which in all likelihood could survive these methods – whereas an already struggling economy of a financially speaking weak Southern European country such as Greece is unlikely to be able to cope with such methods which have even been criticised by economists such as Paul Krugman who have argued that the effect of such austerity will be to further prolong any recession.

Beware sovereign debt crises or face this ones steely gaze

Beware sovereign debt crises or face this one’s steely gaze.

The other issue thrown up by such vigorous restructuring of economies is that it has resulted in many cases in large scale unemployment which is where the real political problem that concerns me arguably begins. With such a massive increase in unemployment and the overall decrease of financial stability in these countries, large groups of disaffected disproportionately young people being as these often form the cohort of the unskilled workers, find themselves branching out in the hope of finding radical solutions to their problems. In the past the radical solution that the unemployed might have turned to could have equally been radical left wing, communist or socialist movements but times have changed and such movements have fallen out of favour all over the world. In the mean time, with increasing political liberalisation throughout much of Europe since the end of the Cold War and the large scale assimilation and adoption of neoliberalist political policy in many countries, the far more common form of contemporary popular opposition to governments has mutated into a more right leaning approach with tendencies for this to stretch all the way towards militant xenophobia and virulent anti-Islamic groups.

Such groups can and do emerge in times that are remarkable for their lack of crisis and I make no attempt to deny their emergence during such times. The relationship between such groups and times of political crisis is that during said crises these groups suddenly become much more appealing to the population as they preach radical solutions to problems which the already established political order have failed to resolve. For an example of such a case we need look no further than Germany prior to the Nazis. The country had a history of extreme right wing movements that pre-dated any major economic crisis and instead focussed its rhetoric instead on the threat of communism inspired by the recent Russian revolution. This extreme right movement known as the Freikorps and its paramilitary groups controlled swathes of Germany during the early Weimar republic and would go on to form an early vanguard of the Nazis. Despite the considerable power which such a movement maintained they were never particularly popular as the threat of communism was hardly the most credible threat that face post WW1 Germany. However given the great depression of the 1930s and the mass withdrawal  of American investment from Germany and the economic crisis that followed, the Nazi party, in part made of former Freikorp elements, managed to use this event as a catalyst and gain much more support from the German populace.

This is what right wing paramilitaries were getting up to in Germany BEFORE the Nazis

This is what right wing paramilitaries were getting up to in Germany BEFORE the Nazis.

Central amongst the issues that the Nazi party, as the most successful of extreme right wing movements in Germany, attempted to resolve was the unemployment crisis caused by the Great Depression. Before the crash a relatively healthy amount of unemployment was evident in Germany with the figure cited at or around 1.25 million people. By the end of 1930, so only roughly three months in to the Great Depression the rate of unemployment was 15.3% meaning that nearly 4 million people were out of work. Two years into the Depression, German unemployment over 30% of the German workforce was unemployed and it was famously in this same year that the Nazi party and also the extremist communist party both started to gain ground in national elections. Similarly in nearby Spain, the prime minister at the time Jose Primo de Rivera resigned in 1930, followed by the ousting of King Alfonso XIII in the following year. A fragile democracy was eventually established although it was compromised by economic problems and social discontent which culminated in the divisive election of 1936 and the subsequent Spanish Civil War which is famously were much of the Nazi air force and elements of the SS gained their first active combat training.

please don't ask me how it represents it, but this Picasso work memorialises the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe.

please don’t ask me how it represents it, but this Picasso work memorialises the bombing of Guernica by the Luftwaffe.

The reason I have just highlighted the unemployment statistics of Germany and the role economic crises also played in the Spanish civil war is that right now in the wake of the current economic crisis currently battering the defences of Europe, mass unemployment is a common feature in almost all the cases of countries that have been bailed out by the ECB. For an article discussing this in greater detail click here , but for summary I will now quote the most important (read worrying) figures. The figures for both Spain and Germany in December or 2012 are over a record 26% of the workforce unemployed and the overall unemployment rate for the Eurozone countries was 12% which again is frighteningly high.

Much as was the case in pre-Nazi Germany, the existence of far right movements throughout Europe predates this economic crisis. For example the BNP, the EDL are both shining examples of movements here in the UK that existed regardless of any economic crisis and instead based their movements more around a broadly supported cultural opposition to the supposed “Islamification” of Europe. Similarly the Greek movement Golden Dawn also had existed for many years before the current crisis began and simply lingered in the peripheries since its inception until things started to look less than rosy for the Greek economy. Both of these movements exhibit the fact that despite the tortured legacy of extreme right wing movements in Europe that they still garner support to this day. Why movements so reminiscent of the Nazi party continue to gain any support what so ever has to be one of the greatest mysteries of contemporary politics.

Hardly strikes you as a the radical reinvention I think it  pretends it is.

Hardly strikes you as a the radical reinvention I think it pretends it is.

If pressed on the matter, I would suggest that the origin of support for such movements stems from their two pronged approach towards politics in firstly, offering radical solutions to the key issues of the day and secondly, blaming those issues on overly convenient scapegoats that are already the victims of fairly widespread political prejudice. To highlight what I mean, in the case of Nazism as the most infamous example of a successful right wing movement, the promises made revolved around ending the economic and subsequent employment crisis of the 1930s which in their view and the view of their supporters had in some part been caused by the dreaded World Jewry. It is perhaps central that for such groups to succeed that they meet both the criteria of offering radical but plausible solutions to contemporary issues and also offering convenient scapegoats for said issues to be blamed on. I highlight this as it is notable that the EDL in the UK only fulfil one of these criteria in having convenient bogeymen to blame the countries problems on and have relatively speaking floundered compared to Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-fascist movement which has gone from strength to strength in the wake of the crisis which they have offered solutions for whilst being able to blame the crisis on a corrupt and inefficient political class for the whole series of events.

Ultimately, whatever the origin of support for such movements that there is support at all is the main problem of Europe as things stand. The Hydra that is extreme right wing politics is one often preceded by economic crisis and despite the lessons of history we still haven’t dealt with the main head of this particular monster and so are damned to keep seeing its reappearance and fighting against it. To combat this Hydra effectively rather than weapons of combat what is needed is an evaluation of and perhaps movement away from the economic practices of extreme capitalism which when it fails  destroys the livelihoods of millions and drives recruits into the arms of extreme movements. Another weapon in the struggle against this Hydra which we need to utilise is the effective combating of stereotypes and scape-goating that is used to create causes for the economic crises that blight us. It is currently far to easy for extremist elements for example in Greece and Cyprus as seen here and here to blame or attack migrant workers and leftists for the crisis when the reality is that if there is a true enemy of the people in both these cases that the difference between the victim and victimiser is not race but class. The lesson of this post in its totality is that until we deal with the roots of the problem of extreme right wing politics that we currently face then we will in all likelihood see its constant recurrence  just as we are currently witnessing with all the horrors that this entails.