This week I’ve been going back and forth between two books that, at first glance, seem to have little in common. “Post-war: a history of Europe since 1945”, by Tony Judt, and “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America», by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.
“Postwar” is a popular work of history about Europe in the decades between World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. His tone is narrative: it sounds like someone sat down next to Judt and asked him how Europe worked, and he began a loud response that didn’t stop for 960 pages. Although Judt clearly drew on a vast body of primary and secondary sources in writing it, most of it remains behind the curtain of his own confident statements about what happened and why.
The “identity crisis” is quite different. Rather than laying out a confident narrative, he shows his work with near-obsessive precision, filling paragraphs with data and statistical analysis, then stopping every few pages to bring it all together into an eloquent graph.
There’s a whole chapter on how Trump took advantage of existing weaknesses within the Republican Party, for example, accompanied by support data showing how the party’s elite failed to rally behind a mainstream candidate . Of course, one reason “identity crisis” can take this approach is that it focuses narrowly on one election rather than a decades-long story.
Why did I find myself reading two very different books? Sometimes my reading choices can seem disjointed and scattered, as if I’ve tried different perspectives on the world and abandoned them in turn after failing to give me the perspective I was looking for.
And yet, when I reread my notes, I see how these two specific books are part of my efforts to answer a question I’ve been thinking about since 2016: what suddenly seemed to change, first with the triumph of Donald Trump? in the Republican primary, then by the success of the Brexit referendum in Britain, Trump’s victory in the 2016 general election and subsequent electoral victories of far-right populist parties and politicians in Europe, South America and in the United States?
Books like “Identity Crisis” are a good way to understand the mechanics of what has changed in these crucial primaries and elections in the United States – how race and immigration have become more important to voters and how that has compounded the effects of a racial realignment that had been This has been occurring since the mid-20th century, when the battle for civil rights reshaped party politics. I found that it clarified my thinking and helped me understand what had really changed and what hadn’t changed in the many elections that people warned (or promised) would change everything.
Judt’s book is about Europe and was written long before Trump began his presidential campaign. But his analysis of how modern European identity was formed around the common idea of rejection of Nazism, and the Holocaust in particular, offers a new perspective on why the growing share of voices of the far right in some countries seems to be such an important moment.
This is the case even in countries where these parties have only managed to win a minority of votes and have been kept away from power by “cordon santé” policies which prevent them from accessing coalition governments.
In postwar European political culture, Judt writes, ideological distance from Nazism was a way of defining morality. This is what made far-right politics taboo: even if the ultranationalist and authoritarian parties did not directly adopt Hitler’s ideology, their policies were incompatible with a national identity centered on atonement for the Holocaust and the rejection of the ideas that led to it. Perhaps the rise of the far right is a sign that this taboo is disappearing – a major change, even in places where these parties have not actually captured power.
“Recognition of the Holocaust is our gateway to contemporary Europe,” writes Judt, born in 1948 into a Jewish family in London. “The recovered memory of the Jews who died in Europe has become the very definition and guarantee of the restored humanity of the continent. »
Judt is writing about Europe, but it is not difficult to see how a similar process unfolded in the United States, where victory over Nazism became part of the narrative of American exceptionalism.
“This is why traditional politicians avoid, as much as they can, the company of demagogues like Jean-Marie Le Pen,” writes Judt about the co-founder of the far-right National Front in Francedescribing the Holocaust as “much more than just an undeniable fact.”
This reminded me of a political rally I witnessed this in Dresden, Germany, in 2017. Björn Höcke, of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, complained that Germans were “the only people in the world to erect a monument to the shame in the heart of its capital”, a clear reference to the Berlin memorial dedicated to Jews murdered during the Holocaust. He called on the country to reclaim a history that had been “treated as rotten.”
After his speech, Höcke was denounced by leading politicians and by many members even of his own party. But that evening, the crowd was enthusiastic, shouting “Deutschland, Deutschland,” as Höcke publicly challenged a central tenet of German political identity: the need to remember and atone for the Holocaust.
I suspect that much of the angst over the success of the far right is not just about its real chance of seizing and exercising power – which in many places still remains remote – but the feeling that every victory she obtains in the elections is a consequence. a sign that a fundamental taboo is eroding, and with it a shared history of identity and political goals.
Reader Responses: Books You Recommend
Reader Audie Klotz recommends “Prophet Song” by Paul Lynch:
Those of us, like you, who think about some of the world’s most horrific situations all the time for work, rely on a certain degree of abstraction or distance for our own health. (I agree about Jane Austen!)
There are times, however, when we turn to fiction, not for escape, but to remind us of the human cost. Lynch’s novel, in his distinctive writing style, chronicles the ever-so-gradual collapse of a society and a family due to authoritarianism and civil war. The message is not humanitarian – helping “the others” out there – it is a call not to believe that we can keep our heads down and simply hope for the best.
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