Amnesty: ‘divisive politics at 1930s levels’

Führer: Google searches comparing Trump to Hitler spiked in the days after the US election.

The human rights organisation has warned that in the last year divisive politics of “us vs them” has reached dangerous levels. It likened the mood to the 1930s. Is this a fair comparison?

The report was damning. After assessing the state of human rights in 159 countries, yesterday Amnesty International concluded that in 2016: “Blame, hate and fear took on a global prominence to a level not seen since the 1930s.”

From Donald Trump in the USA to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, “anti-establishment” politicians have a “toxic agenda that hounds, scapegoats and dehumanizes entire groups of people.” This, the report said, “threatens to unleash the darkest aspects of human nature”.

Amnesty is not the first to make this comparison. In November last year, a Holocaust survivor said that she had “seen this once before”, referring to Austria’s far-right party. In December, Prince Charles warned Britain that rising populism had “disturbing echoes” of the 1930s. And earlier this month, one of Adolf Hitler’s biographers argued that Trump’s campaign rhetoric was taken straight from the “playbook” Mein Kampf.

There is a long-held “law” of internet comments that whoever invokes Hitler during an argument instantly loses. But these latest warnings come from respected, thoughtful voices. So are they right?

Arguably, the defining feature of the 1930s was the Great Depression. This was felt all over the world, and high unemployment fuelled the rise of fascism in Europe. In 2017, the world is also recovering from a global financial crisis — but while Germany’s GDP fell by 30% after 1929, today the economies of most Western countries are growing.

But what of fascism? In the 1930s, Europe’s most dangerous politicians evoked a mix of nationalism, “strong man” personalities, nostalgia for the past, and a disdain for elites. They claimed to speak for “the people” while turning them against each other. Many of these trends may sound familiar.

Yet others note the lack of extreme violence and censorship in today’s populist movements. Trump is not Hitler. Instead, the historian Simon Schama described him as an “entertainment fascist”.

Repeating in rhymes

Clearly the specific events of the 1930s are not being repeated. But many fear that the political mood is similar all the same. Even the demonisation of the media as “fake news” echoes Hitler’s hatred of the “lügenpresse”. We must listen to Amnesty, say some, and learn the lessons of history before it is too late — and 1930s tensions erupt into 1940s horror.

Do not get carried away, warn cautious observers. People have also likened the current moment to the culture wars of the 1960s, and the populism of the late 1800s. History is important, and comparing the past to the age we live in now is always worthwhile. But it cannot give us the whole story — and 2017 is thankfully still a long way from the violence of 1939.

You Decide

  1. Is it fair to compare the current political moment to the 1930s?
  2. How useful are historical comparisons?


  1. Draw two columns: one for the 1930s and one for now. Write words in each which describe the state of the economy, media, democracy, peace, and the “mood” of the general population. Are some areas more similar than others?
  2. Imagine that you were a child in the 1930s. Write a short speech explaining how you might feel about politics today.

Some People Say...

“History is not a straight line — it is one circle after another.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This sounds like a squabble between historians — does it really matter?
Yes — partly because the events Amnesty describes are important regardless of history. But the historical debate matters too. Comparing things to the 1930s is risky, because it implies that we may soon return to the global war and genocide that followed. This should not be done lightly. But refusing to make the comparison at all could mean that genuine warning signs are ignored.
I’m worried about politics. What should I do?
Remember that you are not powerless. There are lots of ways to get involved. Some are obvious, like writing to your MP. Others are more subtle — for example, Simon Schama says that one way to avoid repeating the events of the 1930s is to speak out against hatred and bullying if you encounter it.

Word Watch

The president of the Philippines was elected last year after promising to kill anyone suspected of involvement in the drug trade. According to Al Jazeera, around 6,000 deaths have since been linked to the country’s “war on drugs”.
Mein Kampf
Hitler’s autobiography and manifesto, written while he was in prison for trying to seize control of the German government.
Before Hitler came to power, the Nazi Party’s brownshirts were a paramilitary group which used violence and intimidation to help bring him to power.
Once he was leader of Germany, Hitler quickly shut down any newspapers which opposed him.
The “lying press”. In October 2016, a video went viral which showed Donald Trump supporters using this as an insult for journalists.
The decade is remembered for its “cultural revolution”: free love and hippy culture. But this was met with resistance by an older, more conservative generation.
In America, the “People’s Party” was extremely critical of capitalism, banks, and railroads. It was joined by hundreds of thousands of farmers.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.