The rise of populism in Europe and the Americas over the past decade has led some to speculate that we are seeing a revival of the European politics of the 1930s. If so, the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on a democratic country by a dictatorship suggests we may have come to September 1939, echoing Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the trigger for World War II.
But history does not repeat itself; events may resonate with the past, but comparisons offer only limited use. The reasons for the rise of nativism differ slightly in each case, but collectively they have given rise to this most terrifying conceit: the post-truth era. How can those of us who remember the sacrifice to save democracy made by our ancestors 80 years ago resist this seemingly relentless assault on our values today?
A stark contrast to the 1930s is that populism infects countries with long-established democratic traditions, including America and the UK, nations that fought so hard to resist the Nazis and then forged the backbone of NATO, an alliance of democratic states resisting the then communist empire. So why doesn’t the triple lock of free elections, an independent judiciary and a free press make these same three bulwarks of democracy impregnable?
Laws designed to protect democratic freedoms are hijacked to dismantle them
The answer lies in the law, or more precisely in the application of the law. Populism, a misnomer because it rarely represents the majority, disregards the law; its ideology is based on fear: fear of change, fear of being usurped and fear of losing power. The very laws designed to protect democratic freedoms are abused to dismantle them. The judiciary is attacked, politicized and replaced by docile judges. Poland and Hungary have been so determined to stack the judicial system that they are now barely democratic countries. The extreme conservative supermajority on the US Supreme Court now makes this institution little more than a cudgel for the Republican Party.
The EU was so scared of pushing Poland and Hungary into Putin’s sphere that both countries’ breach of EU rule of law was not effectively challenged by Brussels, which completely misinterpreted their historic relationship with Russia. Poland was eventually fined 1 million euros a day for implementing a controversial disciplinary mechanism for judges, a fine it refused to pay. I wonder, with the pressing need to strengthen Poland’s resistance to Russia, if all will be forgotten. Hungary, on the other hand, appears to be dodging any threat of EU sanctions.
Immigration is the single issue that binds all populist movements. In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orbán prohibits refugees from seeking asylum at its borders; less than 2,000 refugees from the Middle East were allowed entry. Orban also gave Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries to strengthen his constituency. His Fidesz party is largely funded by Russian money and his voters are bribed with EU subsidies, flagrant violations of EU law.
For all Poland’s heroism in sheltering some two million Ukrainian refugees, it shamefully keeps hundreds of refugees from Syria in no-man’s land between Belarus and its own border, preventing them from seeking asylum. Unlike the Ukrainians, these refugees are not Christians and have a different skin color. Poland is not sanctioned.
The British government is paying Rwanda to take in refugees seeking asylum in Britain, breaking several international treaties (the Northern Ireland Protocol is just one of many that Boris Johnson has broken); a policy that does nothing to deter smugglers, simultaneously condescends to asylum seekers, Rwandans and anyone who has ever managed to find refuge in the UK (including my family). I can’t remember such a racist British policy since the incarceration of German Jews on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens during the last war.
Populism in Ireland appears to be at a general election
In Ireland, which has so far resisted the siren call of populism, a recent poll suggested a majority here wants a cap on the number of Ukrainian refugees entering the country. Recently, Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn deliberately confused the issue of mica compensation with the money spent by the government to house Ukrainian refugees. Alarmingly, populism in Ireland appears to be a general election away from here. A word of warning to the electorate: populists are much easier to elect than to remove.
The attack on the process of free elections is the most dangerous threat to democracy. Britain’s Vote Leave campaign was found to have breached campaign finance rules and was fined £7,000. Russian money had corrupted a freely held election but the election result was not contested; the public prosecutor was too afraid to challenge “the will of the people” who had voted.
If we are to save liberal democracy from this unprecedented uprising against it, then we must understand that democracy, by its very nature, is a fragile condition; that it needs constant maintenance, reform and protection. An independent judiciary is the keystone. But democracy must be fought every day, even in countries where it has existed for decades or even centuries.
Ninety years ago next year, the Nazis swept away the Weimar Republic, Europe’s most sophisticated democracy. In the space of six years, its Jewish citizens have been stripped of all their basic rights and murdered with impunity. For several years, my mother, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, has told me that she sees her life come full circle. I wonder if we can afford not to believe her.
- Oliver Sears is the founder of Holocaust Awareness Ireland