Spectre of the 1930s raised by global unrest

Rebellion: “The streets will always be ours,” say millions of protestors across the world.

Are we witnessing an ominous replay of the 1930s? In recent days, some historians have warned that a political monster is stirring into life and the parallels are too close for comfort.

A week ago, it was Bolivia — angry people clashed with police after the political opposition said it had been cheated in an election won by incumbent President Evo Morales.

Just before that, the streets of the Chilean capital Santiago descended into chaos as demonstrators, enraged by a rise in public transport fares, went on a rampage of looting and prompted the president to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, Ecuador’s leader did the same after violent unrest triggered by the decision to end fuel subsidies.

And that was just South America.

Hong Kong has been in turmoil for months.

Lebanon’s capital Beirut has been at a standstill.

Parts of Barcelona resembled a battlefield last week, and tens of thousands of Britons marched through London recently over Brexit.

Protests have flared around the world in the last few months. Each has had its own trigger, but many of the underlying frustrations are similar.

In at least four countries hit by recent violent protests, the main reason for the uprising is economic.

Governments in Chile and Ecuador have incurred their people’s wrath after trying to end subsidies.

Many thousands of people have flooded Beirut in the biggest show of dissent against the establishment there in decades. People of all ages and religions joined to protest about the perception that those in power were corrupt.

Similar factors were behind deadly, civil unrest in Iraq this month — where many young people feel they had seen few economic benefits since Islamic State militants were defeated in 2017.

Another reason is autonomy.

Hong Kong has been battered by five months of often violent protests over fears Beijing is tightening its grip on the territory, in its worst political crisis since Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

The events in Hong Kong have drawn comparisons to Catalonia in recent days.

There, too, people are angry at what they see as attempts to thwart their desire for greater autonomy from the rest of Spain, if not outright independence.

Lingering economic anger and anxiety. A rebellion against the existing political order. A rise of nationalism and a retreat from international entanglements.

That sounds like a description of the world today.

In fact, it describes global sentiment in the 1930s, which many experts say increasingly looks like the best parallel to today’s environment.

The political ferment of the 1930s led to World War Two, of course, and there’s little reason to think that’s where things are heading today.

Then, fascists rose in Germany and Italy and found they had cheerleaders scattered across the West, including in the US. Britain tried to avoid getting involved in the continent’s affairs, with disastrous consequences. Leaders in Moscow, meanwhile, stepped in.

So, are we witnessing an ominous replay of the 1930s today?

A stitch in time?

The parallels between then and now are far from exact. Most notably, today’s political churning isn’t accompanied by a rise in militarism. In his book The Glory and the Dream, William Manchester summarised the effects: “Before Roosevelt’s second presidential campaign, Mussolini had seized Ethiopia; Spain had burst into flame; Germany had rearmed, occupied the Rhineland […]. In Tokyo, militant young officers drove Hirohito’s government toward expansionism and imperialism.” Nothing remotely like that scenario is developing today.

Still, the parallels are close enough to suggest that nobody should be surprised if a sustained period of economic anxiety and anger leads to a flirtation with unorthodox, perhaps even radical, political experiments. Public sentiments of anger and alienation aren’t to be belittled or dismissed. Their causes can be legitimate and their consequences shatteringly powerful.

You Decide

  1. Is it always inequality that makes people most angry?
  2. Are historical comparisons useful or misleading?

Activities

  1. If you were to go on a march about one thing next week, what would it be? Make a bold poster that you would take with you!
  2. Summarise all the points in this article that are factual. Then summarise the points that are opinions.

Some People Say...

“History never repeats itself — but it rhymes.”

Mark Twain (1835- 1910), US author

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is a fact that protests have broken out in many countries across the world, with citizens unhappy for different reasons. Some are protesting over autonomy and the right to independence. Some over economic conditions and inequality. Others are protesting over tax hikes and, elsewhere, protests are breaking out over controversial laws or prison sentences imposed by governments.
What do we not know?
The interpretation of these disparate events is a matter of opinion. It is certainly interesting to compare the global upheavals of the 1930s with our present times, and there are certain political parallels. But any attempt to say that history is repeating itself usually has to ignore too many factual differences to be very convincing.

Word Watch

Incumbent
The current holder of an office or post.
State of emergency
When a government can do certain things it wouldn’t normally be allowed to do. A government can call a state of emergency during disaster, civil unrest or war.
Subsidies
Money granted by the state or a public body to help an industry or business keep the price of a commodity or service low.
Wrath
Great anger.
Dissent
Strong difference of opinion, especially to an official idea or government policy.
Autonomy
The right of self-government.
Nationalism
An ideology that promotes the interests of a particular nation — especially with the aim of maintaining the nation’s sovereignty over its homeland.
Ferment
Agitation or excitement among people, usually about major change, leading to trouble or violence.

Subjects

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