Rhymes and Repetitions of History’s Rondos
“History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme” – a quote apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain. So what does this historic meter reflecting events start to show us? It’s thrown up many interesting and perhaps all too obvious parallels. Yet are we still entangled in the same epic poem that seeks to line up words that rhyme with Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini; Mao and Franco? Hardly anyone who was an adult in the 1920s is alive today, but I remember speaking to Grandparents, and others, such as Berthold Goldschmidt, about the situations that resulted in tyrants turning civilised nations with long and enlightened histories into inhuman regimes driven by paranoia and violence.
It probably all started in 1918 when ultimately the populations of Europe refused to continue an existence as cannon fodder at the constant call of its ruling elite. The United States was also to blame, as at the beginning of the Century, assuming one wasn’t of African or Native American decent, it demonstrated that there was an alternative path towards hope for a better future. It was the only place where the elite was neither pre-ordained nor impenetrable. European countries were starting to move in this direction as well, with Germany providing basic welfare benefits, and employment protection unheard of elsewhere in the world. Defeat brought a new order and with it enfranchisement expanded, notably giving women the vote in Germany and Austria far sooner than in the Great Britain and even in progressive America.
As I explain in Forbidden Music – the Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis, the reasons for European dictatorships in the 1930s were the result of an unholy mix of nationalism in Europe’s post-imperial nation-states with pseudo-science that resulted in nationalism turning racist and thereby muddied ideas of how the new European order should actually work. The lost war and ensuing financial instability after 1918 were mixed with 19th century visions, whereby the mix of cultures that coexisted within the geographically small corner of the globe called “Europe” would each be granted the dignity of self-determination.
“Self-determination” for each of the new nation states could only result in neighbours eying new arrivals suspiciously over newly erected borders. Racism, noted as “blood” was brought in to justify the “exceptionalism” of each new nation state, further egged on by weird and wonderfully “progressive” half-understood concepts such as eugenics, which took the racist concepts of “blood” and turned it into “blood-lines” believing people could be bred like cattle with the strong becoming stronger while mercifully weeding out the so-called “weak” or “faulty”. It was a time when science outplayed ethics with facts, figures and flip-charts, all helpfully explained by kindly gentlemen in white jackets with spectacles on chains.
The weird and wonderful – the misappropriation of Darwin by Herbert Spencer, the ramblings of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the mixing up of such things as culture, language and above all “blood”, understood as “race” were, however, largely in the background. What tore the world apart was the defeat of Germany in 1918, the imposition of impossible to realise penalties, and the financial chaos that followed. A few years of respite followed from 1924 until the Wall Street Crash and the calling in of loans, forcing a return of the financial pandemonium everyone thought they had seen off for good. I recall both Berthold Goldschmidt and Hans Gál explaining the rise of Hitler by saying that the worst thing that can happen to a country is mass unemployment. It leads to scapegoating and conspiracy theories.
The Bolshevik Revolution was, in short, nothing but an exact rhyme with the French Revolution of 1789. If Europe’s “good fortune” post 1789 was Napoleon, the Russians offered instead first Lenin then Stalin and an authoritarian style along with personality cult that is still evident today. An elite, regardless of where or how it takes hold, does whatever it can to stay in charge. The most brutal tyranny could emerge after the reign of the Romanovs and still look humane in comparison.
As desperate as things appear today in the affluent West, it’s still difficult to explain the emerging rhymes with the very different early decades of the 20th century. We are not coming out of a sequence of wars in which millions and millions were cut down – indeed, Western Europe’s near 70 years of peace is unprecedented. The banks exploded in 2008 and may yet explode again but even the poorest in the EU have their televisions their computers, internet and retain access to education, help and opportunities that were unheard of post-1918. The poor today are largely visible by their obesity caused by high calories foods being all they can afford; post-1918 “Save the Children” was founded to rescue starving Europeans. Institutions have been put into place that until now, have spared stable, wealthy democracies from demagoguery. Yet they aren’t working and the search for history’s rhymes carries on as America throws up Trump, Britain produces its own Trump in the guise of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage and the rest of reasonably well-off Europe comes up with a variety of barn-storming conspiracy theorists all leading paranoid political parties, energised by undisguised racism, while a nostalgic Left has appeared in Spain and even in the United States and Britain – nostalgia for a Social Democracy that rescued post-war Europe, but with its inward-looking isolationism and protectionism, hardly offers solutions today, while paradoxically providing common ground for both left and right.
Technology also plays a role with a 24 hours news cycle in need of constant clicks and commentary. These are best achieved through controversy, “shock and awe”. Hyperbole is now so common we no longer notice it. “Hordes” of immigrants wait to “invade” and the EU is “undemocratic” or the Freedom Party of Austria is “full-blooded Nazism” complete with murderous anti-Semitism. Nuance doesn’t attract clicks and clicks are what news services provide to advertisers. As news is now freely available on the internet, the only revenue journalists can hope to earn is from advertising. As people block ads or simply ignore them, it drives news providers to ever-greater excesses.
The media landscape of each country is as individual as the countries themselves, but logic dictates that media is a business and businesses are subject to conditions that demand growth and returns to share-holders. It seems a frustrating toss-up as to where we can find truly unbiased access to news: Murdoch and the Barclay and Koch brothers wish to promote a right-wing agenda that provides their businesses the best environment in which to thrive and operate. Wealthy people finance Think Tanks which promote such advantageous environments, and are allowed to support politicians or campaigns almost without scrutiny. Who could possibly hope for balanced and unbiased commentary with such proprietors? The Left can’t match this degree of funding and turns to public broadcasting for a fairer presentation. Yet state media is often untrustworthy and in some modern European democracies, news readers, editors and producers are changed when governments are voted out.
Yet governments have access to information and control what’s freely made available and what’s held back for “security reasons”. Governments still have to go to the people every four or five years. If people think their lines of communication are being manipulated it’s easier in democracies to address the government of the day than the faceless tax-exiles who run much of the world’s print media and television stations. Regardless of whether news comes to us via right-wing self-interest or governmental self-justification, it feeds the paranoia of febrile social media. And paranoia is perhaps the missing rhyme with earlier times: the fear that we the people are being pulled over a barrel and that there’s a secret cabal, either disguised as neo-liberals meeting at secretive Bilderberg conferences with governments in their pay, or worse, party insiders all engaged in masonic acts of mutual protection and promotion. They’re all secretly plotting against the “little man”. Even with our present affluence, we’re all too aware of how vulnerable such affluence is with both left and right suggesting that it could be taken away at any time.
And another rhyme that chimes with today would be the holes in the information we receive, or the inevitable gaps in research, offering opportunities for ever wilder and more hysterical extrapolations. If Herbert Spencer could deduce from Darwin the murderous theory of “Survival of the fittest”, today’s wild ideas come from how technology is developing and where ultimately it might lead. It’s all too certain that in a few years, even the most qualified and specialised may find themselves replaced by an app that costs nothing and works twice as well – all at a time when university education bankrupts families with bright children and what’s been learned is already out-of-date before student loans are paid off.
If governments aren’t trusted and levels of affluence remain under question, the future appears anything but certain. This creates the need, both among populations and governments, for a scape goat. Where this monster, responsible for all of our uncertainties and insecurities is to be found varies from place to place. To many, it’s the EU, to others, it’s the arrival of refugees, and to another group, it’s an excess of immigration. The wealthy west, like the wealthy Romanovs, is only vaguely aware of the abject poverty outside its immediate orbit. With the world shrinking, it’s no longer destitution outside palace walls that matters, but destitution outside our increasingly meaningless borders – borders drawn historically by supranational aristocrats or elite-educated civil servants, in centuries past with little regard for peoples, traditions, religions or cultures. What traditions remain appear under threat as the global poor start to storm the bastions of the wealthy west. Religions we used to practice during less affluent times are under threat from fanatics who have nothing apart from fervour. Is it any wonder that their fanaticism is often murderous and unforgiving?
So if we look back for a positive rhyme that may save us from deadly historic rondos, we should look at how the Habsburgs and Hanoverians kept their heads when the Bourbons and Romanovs lost theirs. Joseph II threw out the Jesuits, offered liberation to the Jews in various parts of the Empire, extended his mother’s policies of free literacy for all and openly challenged the power of the Pope. The Hanoverians were themselves the ultimate boring bourgeoisie and as a result never appeared so remote and dissolute as the royal families of France or Russia. George III lived in a nice family home in Kew Gardens, not in a palace such as Versailles. Blood is shed when wealth isolates itself against the destitution of those it could have helped. In today’s shrinking global community, revolutions are no longer respecters of borders.
Personally, I believe another positive rhyme to look towards is the United States post 1865 or Europe post 1945. In the United States, conciliation and cooperation within a federal structure balanced local with a higher, secular authority. It was often slow and clunky, but ultimately it removed the local barbarities of individual states such as segregation and interconnected often disparate economies in such a fashion that future conflicts were unthinkable. Europe fell into two blocs, but each bloc also realised the advantages of inter-dependency over the beggar-thy-neighbour policies of the past.
To yield to the false promises of the demagogue is to accelerate further conflicts and wars. In looking for those historic rhymes that might save us from such a fate, let’s acknowledge that we have not only hoarded too much of the world’s wealth but by doing so, created the diverse vacuums that have resulted in dysfunctional governments in North Korea, Venezuela or throughout Africa. The West’s attempt to impose its own status quo resulted in wars that have left the world far less stable with minorities in the prosperous West feeling vulnerable in the very countries where their parents or grandparents sought refuge or opportunities. Let’s follow the example of Joseph II – brother of Marie Antoinette – and acknowledge and indeed, address the corruption that keeps much of the world in poverty and destitution. The world’s trading blocks, regardless of whether they’re North American, Trans-Pacific or European need to read the writing on the wall. Stability demands a degree of equity for everyone. The ability to be a stake-holder in one’s own country without having to resort to corruption or contacts should be a fundamental right regardless of whether one is a citizen of Russia, China, the United States, Germany, Nigeria or Darfur. This is what’s presently lacking, and to listen to the likes of Trump, Le Pen or Farage, the answer isn’t to address the dangerous rumbles outside the palace walls, but to fortify them. That policy does more than offer historic rhymes – it offers long strophic verses that just keep repeating and repeating while more and more people die.