Dec 31st 2016

Was 2016 just 1938 all over again?

On December 31 1937, Cambridge classicist and man of letters F L Lucas embarked on an experiment. He would keep a diary for exactly one calendar year. It was, as he put it: “an attempt to give one answer, however inadequate, however fragmentary, to the question that will surely be asked one day by some of the unborn – with the bewilderment, one hopes, of a happier age: ‘What can it have felt like to live in that strange, tormented and demented world?’”

Lucas sought to preserve an affective archive, and to write about how it felt to live in an era of spiralling crisis.

As someone who wasn’t born in 1938 I cannot help but feel that Lucas’ solemn hope that his generation was living through the worst of it – and that lessons would surely be learned – have been well and truly dashed. Has 2016 been 1938 all over again?

Bowled over by the news this past year, one can be forgiven for grasping for the crutches of historical analogy. Indeed, a number of eminent historians of inter-war Europe have discerned thunderous echoes of the 1930s.

At present, as in the “Devil’s Decade”, we are experiencing the capricious convergence of historical forces: the fall-out of economic crisis and the extreme polarisation of the political spectrum from far-right to hard-left – the centre doesn’t hold. A tidal wave of refugees is being met by proportionately more xenophobia than compassion. Militant isolationism is thriving. Doors are being closed and walls built. Culture wars are punctuated by attacks on “experts” and intellectuals. 2016 has even seen open an unashamed airing of anti-Semitism.

The historical parallels between 2016 and 1938 are abundant. There are important differences in detail, in time and place, but the pattern of events, and of cause and effect, is striking.

Civil war raged in Spain then – as it rages in Syria today. Then as now, these internecine conflicts provide mirrors to existing fissures in international relations and deepening ideological antagonisms. By the end of 1938, and after Abyssinia, Spain, Anschluss, and Kristallnacht, not much faith was left in the ideal of internationalism or in the League of Nations – and this too sounds all too familiar.

The rescue of refugee children through the Kindertransports was just as symbolically important, yet as negligible, a solution to an immense humanitarian and moral crisis as has been the response to lone children refugees holed up in Calais this year. And what of Aleppo? Shame was, and is, a dominant feeling.

Where next?

The Munich Agreement of September 1938 was perceived by many of its British critics as an act of national suicide. The Brexit decision has likewise, again and again, been described as an act of self-harm, even of national hari-kari.

Writing at the end of the year, contemporary historian R W Seaton-Watson had no doubt that 1938 had “resulted in a drastic disturbance of the political balance on the Continent, the full consequences of which is still too soon to estimate”. Treaties weren’t worth the paper they were written on in 1938 – and at the end of 2016 it is worryingly unclear where Britain will stand after triggering Article 50.

Meanwhile, George Orwell’s assessment of the disarray of the political left post-Munich could just as well apply to Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party. As Orwell saw it:

Barring some unforeseen scandal or a really large disturbance inside the Conservative Party, Labour’s chances of winning the General Election seem very small. If any kind of Popular Front is formed, its chances are probably less than those of Labour unaided. The best hope would seem to be that if Labour is defeated, the defeat may drive it back to its proper ‘line’.

Full circle

One could go on seeking coordinates but the sum total would still be the same. The rug has been pulled out from under the assumed solidity of the liberal democratic project. A delicate tapestry of structures and ideas is coming apart at the seams.

Even more specifically, it is the psychological experience, the search for meaning, and the emotional cycle, the feelings – collective and individual – of 1938 that are uncannily familiar.

Post-truth politics is anti-rational. Emotion has unexpectedly triumphed over reason in 2016. Love and/or hate has beaten intellect. That’s true for Hillary Clinton’s “love trumps hate” slogan as much as it is for her opponent.

New political technologies render older ones obsolete. In both Britain’s referendum campaign and in the American election, traditional opinion polls failed to capture the emotion being expressed across social media platforms.

Back in 1938, it was British Gallup and the rival Mass-Observation that were the innovative political technologies. Using very different techniques, each offered fresh insight into the psychology of political behaviour and tried to unseal the stiff upper lip of the British electorate.

Mass-Observation tried to get into people’s heads, and diagnosed an increasing occurrence of “crisis fatigue” as a response to nervous strain and “a sense of continuous crisis”.

Almost immediately after the EU referendum, therapists reported “shockingly elevated levels of anxiety and despair, with few patients wishing to talk about anything else”. And the visceral nature of the US election campaign contributed, tragically, to the exponential increase of calls to suicide helplines. National crisis is inevitably internalised.

Reflecting on the psychological fallout of the Munich Crisis, novelist E M Forster observed that: “exalted in contrary directions, some of us rose above ourselves, and others committed suicide.”

As 1938 drew to a close, serious conversations were dominated by the verbal and physical expressions of fatalism, anxiety, sickness, depression, and impending doom. Lucas wrote in his diary:

The Crisis seems to have filled the world with nervous break-downs. Or perhaps the Crisis itself was only one more nervous break-down of a world driven by the killing pace of modern life and competition into ever acuter neurasthenia [shell shock].

It is too simplistic to say that history repeats itself. And yet, throughout this past year I could not escape the feeling that we have been here before. We share with those who lived through 1938 overwhelming sensibility of bewilderment, suspense, desperation and fear of the unknown. I can’t help but wonder what future historians will make of 2016.

It’s probably sage advice to go see a good movie over the holidays – and La La Land, already tipped to win an Oscar, may provide just the kind of escapism that is needed. However, when someone comes to make the movie of 2016, the soundtrack will probably be the late Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker. It certainly feels like 1938 all over again. Time to start keeping a diary.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jan 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "During the second world war, Nazi Germany banned all listening to foreign radio stations. Germans who overlooked their duty to ignore foreign broadcasts faced penalties ranging from imprisonment to execution. The British government imposed no comparable ban which would have been incompatible with the principles for which it had gone to war. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t alarmed by the popularity of German stations. Most effective among the Nazis broadcasting to the UK was William Joyce. This Irish-American fascist, known in Britain as “Lord Haw-Haw”, won a large audience during the “phoney war” in 1939 and early 1940, with his trademark call sign delivered in his unmistakable accent: 'Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling'. "
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The revelation of Trump’s hour-long recorded call with Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s Secretary of State, over this past weekend crossed a new line – a line that not only set a high-water mark of moral reprehensibility, but a legal line as well, specifically in his pressuring Raffensperger to 'find the 11,780 votes' that would hand Trump the state and his veiled threat (' it’s going to be very costly…') if Raffensperger failed to comply. ........ Raffensperger – who has been forced to endure intense pressure, intimidation and threats – has proven himself to be a man of integrity and principle."
Jan 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "A final, perhaps more sinister, possibility is that Johnson knows exactly what he is doing. His political style evokes a unique blend of dishevelled buffoon and privileged Etonian. He is someone who likes to bring good news and doesn’t take life too seriously. Making tough, controversial decisions threatens this persona and so hiding in the shadows until his hand is forced helps him to reconcile his identity threat."
Dec 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "The resultant loss of land, the growing impoverishment of its citizens, and the hostile actions of Israeli occupation forces and settlers have forced many Bethlehemites to leave their beloved city and homeland. Given these accumulated violations of human rights and their impact on Christians and Muslims, alike, one might expect Christians in the West to speak out in defense of these residents of the little town they celebrate each year.  That, sadly, is not to be – most especially (and I might add ironically) among powerful Christian conservative groups in the US which, after all, claim to be the defenders of their co-religionists world-wide."
Dec 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "Worldwide, people donate hundreds of billions of dollars to charity. In the United States alone, charitable donations amounted to about $450 billion last year. As 2020 draws to a close, perhaps you or members of your family are considering giving to charity. But there are, literally, millions of charities. Which should you choose?"
Dec 1st 2020
EXTRACT: " The Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting Félix Fénéon: The Anarchist and the Avant-Garde – From Signac to Matisse and Beyond, examining the immense influence of this art critic, editor, publisher, collector and anarchist............A crucial feature of anarchism is the emphasis on the individual as the fundamental building block, the essential point of departure for any human association whatever. The individual was characterized by Grave in 1899 as a social creature who should be “left free to attach himself according to his tendencies, his affinities, free to seek out those with him whom his liberty and aptitudes can agree.” "
Nov 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "As the pandemic raged in April, churchgoers in Ohio defied warnings not to congregate. Some argued that their religion conferred them immunity from COVID-19. In one memorable CNN clip, a woman insisted she would not catch the virus because she was “covered in Jesus’ blood”. "
Nov 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "Here are just a few ways exercise changes the structure of our brain."
Nov 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Perhaps it is Piller’s discovery that when it comes to war there is no such thing as innocence...."
Nov 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "I imagined America as the land of the free that gave voice to the forgotten. Where race, color, and creed do not matter and human rights are guarded with zeal. Where the ingathering of all cultures and people made it richer and human resources and talent knew no limits or constraints. Where opportunity awaits the able and generosity is extended to the needy. Where everyone is equal before the law and political differences are valued to make America better. Where sacrifices are willingly made to right the wrong morals and fortitude guide its leaders. Where caring about friends and allies is the hallmark of the nation and opposing oppression near and far is the emblem that distinguished America. This is the character of America. This is the soul of America. This is what made America great. The America that gave me a home. The America that fulfilled my dreams."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "“The paintings which I propose to do will depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy” – this is how Jacob Lawrence described his project in 1954. Over sixty-five years later his proposal has, if anything, become only more urgent. Two days after this exhibition closes, Americans will vote in what is arguably the most significant election in a generation, an election that will measure our commitment to preserving that democracy, the struggle for which was Lawrence’s mighty theme."
Oct 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "There are also other ways our life stories can be passed down through generations, besides being inscribed in our DNA...... One 2014 study looked at epigenetic changes in mice. Mice love the sweet smell of cherries, so when a waft reaches their nose, a pleasure zone in the brain lights up, motivating them to scurry around and hunt out the treat.... The researchers decided to pair this smell with a mild electric shock, and the mice quickly learned to freeze in anticipation....... The study found this new memory was transmitted across the generations. The mice’s grandchildren were fearful of cherries, despite not having experienced the electric shocks themselves. The grandfather’s sperm DNA changed its shape, leaving a blueprint of the experience entwined in the genes."
Oct 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "As we Americans face the potential loss of a peaceful transition of power after the election and the possible end of democracy as we know it, we are reminded that discourse matters, that words matter and that the one who quotes poetry is a man who reads—and that matters."
Sep 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "We now know the potentially appalling long-term effects of suffering cruelty from others, including damage to both physical and mental health. The benefits of being compassionate towards oneself, rather than treating oneself cruelly, are also increasingly recognised..... And the idea that we must suffer to grow is questionable. Positive life events, such as falling in love, having children and achieving cherished goals can lead to growth..... Teaching through cruelty invites abuses of power and selfish sadism. Yet Buddhism offers an alternative - wrathful compassion. Here, we act from love to confront others to protect them from their greed, hatred and fear. Life can be cruel, truth can be cruel, but we can choose not to be."
Sep 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "Over his incredible career, David Attenborough has seen more of earth’s natural wonders than almost anyone. To hear him talk, with such clarity, about how bad things are getting is deeply moving. Scientists have recently demonstrated what would be needed to bend the curve on biodiversity loss. As Attenborough says in the final scene, “What happens next, is up to every one of us”. "
Sep 15th 2020
EXTRACTS: "The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May.......The Dampier Archipelago of Western Australia is home to thousands of Aboriginal pictographs, and perhaps the oldest surviving rock art in the world. Indeed, Australia’s Indigenous art represents the longest uninterrupted tradition of art in the world – going back over 50,000 years......Aboriginal people represent the oldest continuous culture in the world...."
Sep 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution was a defining event that changed how we think about the relationship between religion and modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam showed that modernisation by no means implies a linear process of religious decline.....Reliable large-scale data on Iranians’ post-revolutionary religious beliefs, however, has always been lacking...........In June 2020, our research institute, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in IRAN...conducted an online survey......The results verify Iranian society’s unprecedented secularisation."
Sep 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Just as you can upgrade your old computer’s operating system, culture can evolve even if intelligence doesn’t. Humans in ancient times lacked smartphones and spaceflight, but we know from studying philosophers such as Buddha and Aristotle that they were just as clever. Our brains didn’t change, our culture did."