Never Forget, and Never Be Certain
Have we learned anything since World War II?
Two vaguely related pieces really struck me this week.
One was written byon his Substack. Goodwin is one of the scholars of populism who rose to prominence in the wake of the one-two punch of Brexit and Trump. Goodwin co-authored a book in 2018 called National Populism: the Revolt Against Liberal Democracy that’s still worth a read today.
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Goodwin takes a snapshot of the current political scene across Europe and concludes that the forces of populism are anything but spent. A solid provocation at the start:
Spend any time on Twitter, spend any time reading the Financial Times, and you’ll soon encounter another narrative for the new elite. All these populist upheavals, they say, are just a final outburst among old white populists, conservatives, reactionaries and racists who’ll soon be pushed aside by a new wave of liberal progressivism.
But will they? Will they really? Fast forward to today and the latest data tell us a very different story from the one that dominates the national conversation. Look at what’s actually happening on the ground and you’ll find something very different. National populism . . . is here to stay.
Goodwin was writing this essay before Turkey’s President Erdogan surprised most Western observers who were convinced that his time had run out. But even without the Erdogan data point, Goodwin notes that populism is anything but a spent force.
In Germany, for example, the once-ascendant, youthful Greens, said to represent the future of progressive European politics, are losing support for being part of an increasingly unpopular governing coalition. The nationalist AfD is not exactly profiting from the coalition’s pain—most of that support is going to the respectable conservative CDU. But the AfD has improved its lot in several parts of Germany. And nationally, they stubbornly remain only a few points behind both the Greens and the socialist SPD.
Meanwhile, in France, I’ve been hearing people fret that Macron’s maneuver with pensions has all but handed the presidency to Marine Le Pen.
Those of us who have been following populism in Europe have heard this kind of doom-mongering before. The truth is that there is still likely a hard cap on AfD’s number in Germany, and they are probably not that far away from it. The CDU is quite happy to accommodate voters from a broad spectrum of the country’s right wing, and the AfD’s penchant for toying with ethno-nationalist tropes puts off far more Germans than it entices. And in France, when elections are far away, everyone is happy to say they’re angry enough to vote for Le Pen. But once the vote-casting day approaches, voters drunk on anger tend to sober up.
Maybe things really have shifted enough, and mainstream voters are finally ready to give national populism another look. But will they? Will they really? I’m not yet convinced.
Prognostication is not what I found most compelling about Goodwin’s piece, however. It’s his observation about demographics. These outsider parties across Europe are young.
The leader of Marine Le Pen’s slate of candidates in 2019 was just 23. The leader of the Danish People’s Party list was 29. The spokesman for Vox is 27. The lead candidate in one list for Flemish Interest was just 26.
To be fair, this is not exactly news either. Mark Lilla was writing about the youthfulness of France’s emerging hard right back in 2018, around the same time as Goodwin was writing his book. And though my own travels in AfD-land around that same time did not yield many encounters with young activists, it also didn’t make me think that the movement was on the verge of dying out.
Still, as Goodwin notes, the demographic thing is easy to forget. I certainly do with some regularity. We mainstreamers are conditioned to think of these kinds of movements as ideological cul-de-sacs, the refuge of the desperate dead-enders. Illiberalism, it seems to us, is a solved problem. It might represent a threat, but as an ideology, it has no legs.
Which brings me to the second piece: an essay by Matthew Rose on the enigmatic German philosopher Leo Strauss in First Things from a few months ago.
The essay excavates a striking lecture given by Strauss in 1941, while the War was still far from a done deal. In it, Strauss sought to correct what he thought was a grievous mistake: writing off the phenomenon of Nazism as merely a dead-end ideology. It was a malignant, dangerous force—he agreed. But fascism also clearly met a real political need, especially among young people, that the liberal politics of the day chose to ignore.
Here’s a key passage from Rose:
Strauss cautioned that he sought not to pardon what deserved condemnation, but to make intelligible what required understanding. He therefore challenged his class to see in the youthful German protest what many had failed to perceive two decades - earlier: its moral basis. This protest against liberalism was not fundamentally inspired by a love of war or a love of nation, Strauss insisted. Nor could it be explained by material or class interests. It was inspired, as he put it in a bracing passage, by “a love of morality, a sense of responsibility for endangered morality.”
I won’t belabor this short Monday Note with a detailed summary of Strauss’ argument. I encourage you to read Rose’s article for yourself. And here’s Strauss’ original lecture, if your curiosity is as piqued as mine was.
But the gist of what Strauss saw in 1941 is that we had already then decided to demonize fascism to such an extent that we foreclosed our ability to understand where it came from. And in doing so, we were leaving ourselves as vulnerable to its re-emergence at a later date as German interwar liberals were in their time.
The essay firmed up for me a nagging feeling I’ve long had. And that’s that the legacy of World War II, and specifically the monstrosity of the Holocaust, has been misapplied. “Never again!” as a warning, as an admonition to remember, to never forget—it’s a worthy cry. But through my life, I feel like this warning has quietly transformed into something else—into some kind of slogan affirming progress. This won’t recur, because we, humanity, have learned! We are moving forward! We will never again do something so horrible!
Maybe. But I really doubt that’s true.
And if the worst comes to pass once again, it will be because we couldn’t begin to fathom why anyone among us would ever be tempted to entertain alternatives to the liberal ideals in which we are so comfortably ensconced.
Just a small note: the German CSU is not a socialist party. It is Bavaria’s version of the CDU. Bavaria is a so-called »Freistaat« (free state) and maintains a certain level of provincial snobbery for historical reasons. In every other German state, the CDU is the Christian-Conservative party (and usually the dominant force) in Bavaria, it’s the CSU. Next to American Republican hardliners, they might have a socialist sheen, but they are usually strongly anti-socialist.
I wonder if there's a connection between the admonition "never again" and the frequency with which we call our opponents "fascists" or "Nazis." I agree "never again" has become an affirmation of progress - both it and the slandering and dismissing of opponents are a lot easier than carefully understanding why people believe what they do. It's also far easier to say "never again," or to bemoan a massacre happening, than to try and stop it.