Historians Weigh In: Are we returning to an age of political extremes?Historians in the News
tags: historians, extremism, current events
Historians, with their knowledge of societies across time, are often reluctant to declare a ‘new age’. Attention-grabbing newspaper headlines will boldly claim the uniqueness of our current situation, while historians curmudgeonly mutter: “It was ever thus.” However, in today’s world there are admittedly echoes of periods of extreme politics in the past.
The popularity of those who offer simple solutions to complex problems today is reminiscent of the success of extreme politics in the past. Lenin offered “peace, land and bread” to hungry, war-weary Russian peasants in 1917, while Hitler promised “bread and work” to Depression-ravaged, unemployed Germans in 1933. And both leaders had reductive scapegoats for all of society’s ills. The Soviets demonised the bourgeoisie, whereas Hitler blamed the Jews.
Immigrants seem to be the scapegoats of our day – witness the Brexit referendum and the popular resonance of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ campaign in 2016. Personality politics also helps to embed political extremes: core voters stick with popular leaders regardless of what they do. Even as bombs rained down on German cities and food rationing began to bite in the latter part of the Second World War, many Germans maintained their faith in Hitler, expressing the view that if he only knew their level of suffering, he would do something about it. Vladimir Putin may have little interest in domestic policy, but he remains popular in his fourth presidential term, credited with making Russia a great power again.
Control of the media remains a critical ingredient for the flourishing of extremism. In the past and present, dictators have sought to control freedom of expression in newspapers, on the radio and television. Today it finds new expression through the internet in the form of fake news – for example, Russia apparently flooding social media with pro-Trump propaganda during the 2016 US election.
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