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History Repeating? Lessons We Can Learn From Inter-War Germany

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Unfathomable economic strife. Palpable anger and despair. Inept politicians in power. An easily scapegoated minority population.

When thinking of these factors, what comes to mind - Germany in the inter-war years or Greece in 2012? It was the playwright Alan Bennett who, in The History Boys, wrote, "There is no period so remote as the recent past." This aphorism proves to be especially true when studying coverage of extreme-right parties such as Golden Dawn. Authors and journalists often invoke terminology readily associated with the Adolf Hitler and the Nazis without truly examining the connection between 1930s-era fascism and today's neo-Nazis.

The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party may have been a specific result of Germany's experiences during and after World War I, but the issues raised are still especially relevant today. Examining the rise of the Nazi Party in relation to today's successful extreme-right parties is not an attempt to relativize the unique conditions under which Hitlerism flourished, but rather provides a significant case study to which Golden Dawn can be compared.

Historian Laurence Rees, author of The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and producer of the titular BBC documentary, spoke at the London School of Economics last night on the nature of leadership - mainly, how could significant portions of populations support groups such as the Nazi Party or Golden Dawn?

Rees attributed this kind of support and obedience to the internalisation of belief systems; namely, what might repulse one voter might entice another. Voters have to feel a visceral connection in order to support radical politics, and clearly something changed in the psyche of the German electorate between 1928 and 1932. In those four years, the amount of votes cast for the Nazi Party went from around 810,000 to over 17 million, a net gain of 2033 per cent. This increase is not because 16 million-plus German voters suddenly became viciously racist fascists, but rather because Hitler spoke to the electorate's needs. He expressed what was in the consciousness of the audience: The German people have been horrendously humiliated but it wasn't our fault, and moreover, it's particularly the fault of this minority.

While Golden Dawn is nowhere near as sophisticated as the Nazi machine - Rees even called the Greek neo-fascists "stupid" in regards to their inability to appear in public without brawling - their tactics remain the same as Hitler's. By attributing national misfortune to a specific minority, and by alluding to the idea that members of that specific minority are in a secret conspiracy against the majority, Hitler merely stated in an extreme way what many thought to themselves. The propagation of this conspiracy theory legitimises the growth of both hatred and radicalisation.

Rees believes that outside observers cannot understand how quickly things can change in a true economic crisis, citing a level of fear and desperation that he says is "virtually impossible" for objective observers to imagine. Much like Hitler, Golden Dawn politicians speak in visions and not policies - politicians betrayed them and democracy failed them, but by uniting the nation against the common scapegoat, the nation can be rid of the sense of shame. Unfortunately, what also unites the Nazis and Golden Dawn across decades and geographic distance is the complacency of others; wishing away the neo-fascists simply won't be enough to stop their ascent.

Invoking the initial success of the Nazi Party is not to say that the situation in Greece will ever reach the same extremes of Hitler's Germany. But despite the unique circumstances of its initial electoral victories, the rise of Nazism in Germany is still the best benchmark by which to measure successes of the parties of the extreme right today.