Can History "Repeat Itself"?
The Link Between Weakened Democratic Rights of the People and Increased Danger of War

Four years before the Second World War began, caused by Nazi Germany's attack on Poland (in all likelihood in preparation of a war against the Soviet Union, but as it were, France and Britain stood by their treaty obligations and sought to aid their Polish ally), an American writer, Ernest Hemingway, wrote in his Notes on the Next War (1935), "Every move that is made now to deprive the people of their decision on all matters through their elected representatives and to delegate those powers to the executive brings us that much nearer war."(*)

It is as true today, as it was in 1935. At the time, fascist or clerical fascist parties (in Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Spain, and Portugal) and authoritarian movements (in Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Yugoslavia) had established dictatorial regimes. Today, President Obama relies, more often than he should, on "executive privilege" - just as his immediate predecessors did. It tends to disempower Congress, just like parliaments in most countries of the European Union have lost real influence to the executive.  As for the EU itself, it is run primarily by the European Commission, and the heads of state that back it. The European Parliament, though not completely without influence, is not even entitled to introduce laws on its own, debate them, vote on them, adopt them independently and have them enacted. The essential right that every parliament worth that name was endowed with in the last 100 or 150 years  is a right the European Parliament has never attained until now. 

The overwhelming power of the executive branch, whether in the U.S. or the EU or its member states, sets the stage for every authoritarian movement and every openly anti-democratic political "elite" that may rise to power in the years to come. How fast this can happen, was demonstrated by the German case.

In the past, fascism ascended largely due to internal divisions between the two main blocs of society, and this social antagonism had been sharpened by the grave global economic crisis and the Great Depression it caused since 1928. It makes some people today rather concerned because of the extended financial and economic crisis we are coping with since 2008 (regardless of intermittent stock exchange booms and refinanced banks that engage in speculation again). The present crisis has hurt, and in some countries even empoverished, those referred to by the media as the middle class, that is to say, the industrial work force, office workers and other clerks, the majority of public sector employees (including teachers, firefighters, police officers), small businessmen, owners of family farms, and so on. The downturn and the accompanying belt-tightening as well as the feeling of insecurity connected with it has lead to increased xenophobia, to hysteric concern about crime and public safety, to louder calls for enforcement of law and order. And it has given a boost to right-wing and neo-fascist tendencies in Europe  - and to the Tea Party in the U.S.. 

These tendencies worry critical contemporaries because they remember how the ascent of the extreme right began in Europe in the 1920s and 30s and how quickly the German Nazi party, for instance, turned from the small, politically insignificant, marginal group (with links to army officers and industrialists) that it was in the 1920s, into the strongest political party of the Weimar Republic. People wonder what is in store in the U.S., or in the EU, if the present trend towards the right (a trend that is so general that it has also affected the British Labour Party and America's Centrist Democrats) would follow the pattern observed in Germany between 1928 and 1933. 

The notion that "history doesn't repeat itself" is an old, almost proverbial saying, and overly or inappropriately quoting it can turn it into a cliché. And the same may be true of that other dictum, that history, should it repeat itself, may occur to us in the first instance as a tragedy, while the repetition will turn out to be a mere farce. Today, the rise of extreme right-wing, xenophobic and neo-fascist groups in some European countries (where they now get 15 or, in one country, even 30 percent of the popular vote in national elections) may well amount to no more than a farce. The much wider popular support of a very, very nationalist government in Hungary may indicate, however, in what direction general sentiment in Europe is moving under the influence of the economic situation. It need not be a neo-fascist government - it might also be a "respectable" government in league with the corporations that would further shrink what is left of democracy. In the US, researchers are coming to the conclusion that we must face the fact that the people have been deprived already of their decision on all matters through their elected representatives, because these representatives do no longer listen to the voice of the people (if they ever did, in our lifetime). 

Of course, we cling to the hope that we still can change the course of history, by relying on the ballot box, the right to vote, the right to run for office. 
And of course, Hemingway was right, in 1935, when he pointed out that openly authoritarian regimes, regimes run by one man at the top, are more likely to steer a belligerent course.(**) But aren't elections focused on two competing candidates today? Focused on a man or a woman who appears like a star, rather than on issues? Isn't presidential democracy in the US highly "personalized"? Isn't the power of the executive vaster than ever, and are not parliaments - especially in Europe - reduced to rubber stamps when the majority party almost blindly okays whatever bill the executive wants to have this party to support and push through? How democratic is this game when members of parliament, or in the US members of Congress, dance to the tune of party whips, and when party whips, the administration, and lobbyists form a "united front" against those elected representatives of the people who attempt to listen to their conscience, and to the worries and hopes and demands of the common people? 

Anticipating the coming war, Hemingway wrote in 1935, "Every move that is made now to deprive the people of their decision on all matters through their elected representatives and to delegate those powers to the executive brings us that much nearer war. 
It removes the only possible check."

As it turned out, that check was removed in most European countries and most fatefully, in Germany. But let us assume that the people, uninfluenced by propaganda, had compelled their governments in Washington and London to come to the aid of the Spanish Republic; let's assume that British warships had not intercepted military hardware for the republic and that the U.S. and Britain had drawn a red line, barring German and Italian intervention on the side of Franco:  Would this have intimidated the dictators, perhaps? Would the abortion of Nazi intervention in the Spanish civil war have made Hitler shrink back, rather than daring to annex Czech lands and Austria to boot? 

The question is a hypthetical one, and in its practical consequences, irrelevant, as far as trhe past is concerned. You don't step twice into the same river.
What happened, happened, and you can't turn back that ominous clock.

But is the question without relevance, regarding our own situation? What can we do, as a largely disempowered populace, to assert our will?
What can we do to safeguard peace and put a stop to war after war that has been unleashed in the last quarter of a century?

There may be more "in the pipeline" - as the planners and analysts and the "experts" would say.

I am sure that the peoples of the world want peace.
And yet, today, with the checks on executive power largely removed in Western democracy, it is hard to hope at present for any countervailing democratic impulse that would let us, the people, reign in the dangers of war. 

- Dan Horton


*  Ernest Hemingway, "Notes on the Next War" (1935) 

(**) "A man has ambitions, a man rules until he gets into economic trouble; he tries to get out of this trouble by war. A country never wants war until a man through the power of propaganda convinces it." (Ernest Hemingway, "Notes on the Next War" )

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