Beware the 1930s

My mind keeps going to parallels between the worlds of Brexit and Trump and what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

At the time of the referendum I was at the annual conference of the International Society for Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. A gathering of people from across the world who are used to exploring unconscious processes was a rich context in which to explore what was going on under the surface.

By coincidence, on polling day one conference session was intended to focus on ethical dilemmas. We were shown short films on two famous psychological experiments, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford experiment which are controversial both because people were harmed, and because they shed light on how civilised people can come to behave badly. They have been used to understand what happened in the concentration camps, but are much more widely applicable than that.

The ensuing discussion seemed a little dry, as if there was something important which was being avoided. I took the microphone and made a link with some of the violence of the referendum: the murder of Jo Cox, an incident in a supermarket where someone I had seen earlier in a Vote Leave stall was shouting at a cashier planning to vote Remain, and some very aggressive comments from Leave supporters in door-knocking in the campaign. This is not to accuse Vote Leave of orchestrating violence, but it suggests something was being mobilised (which has become more obvious since then). I commented on the dark streak in Europe: along with our capacity to be civilised, there is a capacity to behave in very destructive ways. I expressed my fear that this was close to the surface in the referendum and struggled with tears as I commented on the way the EU has been set up to contain that destructive streak in the European psyche, and the fears evoked by some in the UK wanting to pull away from that. I was met with a round of applause.

The tears were relevant: a sense of connecting with something raw in me, and shared by others in the room. Over the next few days others made connections with Donald Trump in the USA, and right-wing movements in France, Hungary and Poland, and the treatment of boat people in Australia. The sense was of pressure in the system getting released along a familiar fault-line between the UK and the EU.

From a British perspective, there is the convenient fantasy that we won the war and defeated the Nazis. But we have much more in common with Germany than that. We invented concentration camps, had our own anti-semitism, and Oswald Mosley’s “Black Shirts” invite comparison with the Nazis. It is tantalisingly easy to project the unacceptable side of ourselves onto the Germans, and grossly mistaken.

I find myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. The economic hardship of the last few years is not as extreme as that of the Weimar Republic, but it is deeper than people recognise: I suggest that the very invisibility is fuelling resentment.

This is not to dismiss Brexiteers as fascist. It is to say that real pain lay behind people voting for the Nazis, and there is real pain in some of those voting for Brexit. In Mein Kampf, Hitler says propaganda is aimed “only to a limited degree at the so-called intellect… The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional needs of the great masses and finding a psychologically-correct form, which is the way to affect them”. The parallel with comments from the Leave campaign is chilling. I hesitate to use the word “lies”: the things said caught people’s emotional reality, but were not much to do with the EU.

Against this, I can see why the EU would be unpopular. Founded to contain that extremist tendency, it moves slowly and wisely, by consensus rather than conflict. It’s the opposite of what Hitler was advocating, and might miss that (dangerous) and primitive appeal to collective anxiety.

Incidents of racist abuse and xenophobia since the referendum underscore the parallel with the 1930s. But dismissing people as evil is too easy and misses the collective pain that is around. Like those in Germany then who were horrified at how things were going, there is a clarion call to Liberals to pull in a different direction — working with our European partners to find a shared solution to our shared problem today.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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  • The leave voters were not anti-European. Many, I believe, were like John Cleese (who is I believe a libdem or at least SDP-as-was) who said that if there was any chance of the EU reforming itself then he would have voted to remain. The EU didn’t actually need to do much beyond limiting economic migrancy and curbing it’s love of new regulations. They gambled and lost. Many of us feel that the EU needed a kick up the backside and now that it has got it, it may finally reform and resile from increasing Federalism.

    Sure everyone has become more tribal and we need less of it but the Remain campaign made it worse by telling folk they were stupid if they had a different belief. This is an issue that divided families and work colleagues – there is no them & us! Pointing out extremely isolated incidents as if they were the norm is irresponsible.

  • There is a fallacy that the Remain camp is calling people stupid and racist. Generally that’s been put around by Leave people to deflect criticism of their disgracefully deceitful campaign.

    You may not be worried at the 500% increase in hate crimes since the referendum, but I certainly am.

  • >Jamesg
    >SOME of the leave voters were not anti-European.

    There, fixed that for you.

  • I can see where you are coming from, but I disagree. Britain has always tended towards the Eurosceptic from the very start of the EU in 1993. My suspicion is that promised EU referendums were held off in the good times precisely because advocates of the EU knew full that it was not popular enough to be certain of a victory. In truth economic uncertainty as probably help rather than hindered support for Remain.
    Wrongly, or rightly, mass immigration has never had public support and has really only happened because it piggy backed more popular policies. If you had put to a vote at anytime, It simply would not have happened.

    All that’s really happened is that people were finally given a chance to vote and they voted pretty much in accordance with what they’ve said in survey after survey. The rhetoric about the Left behinds and the alienated tends to gloss over the reality that it was the majority that voted Leave and ignores the possibility that support for remain is more about fear than enthusiasm.

  • Simon McGrath 6th Jul '16 - 10:33am

    ‘But we have much more in common with Germany than that. We invented concentration camps, had our own anti-semitism, and Oswald Mosley’s “Black Shirts” invite comparison with the Nazis.’

    Why on earth do you say this sort of thing. Yes we had something called concentration camps in S Africa ( and they were very bad) but totally different from places designed to kill millions. Like every other country we had anti semitism – but far less than France and germany and Oswald Mosley was almost completely unscuusseful.

  • Caron
    It’s 50% not 500%…

    So ….talking about deceitful…

    But it’s still a very tiny minority of idiots that are omnipresent in our society. Did you perhaps see the English football fans in France? Attempting to equate Leave campaigners with such mindlessness is truly beyond the pale. As for treating Leavers as stupid and/or racist, such rhetoric is featured on this blog every day. Some folk need to just grow up. The Liberals never used to succumb to such pathetic tribalism. But then they used to be democratic too.

  • CassieB
    I wrote European, not EU. There is a big difference.

  • Actually, James, you are wrong. It is 500%

    And that is certainly aided and abetted by the deceitful and racist language used by the Leave campaigners. I personally don’t think that anyone involved in what was a vile campaign should ever hold office again.

  • “We invented concentration camps”…
    Nonsense; such internment of civilians had been used many times before…In fact, they were set up as ‘refugee camps’ to feed/house women and children whose homes/farms had been destroyed by Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy …..
    Comparing them to Hitler’s camps is not just disgraceful; it shows wilful ignorance…

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jul '16 - 11:32am

    Doing everything we can to use the law against these crimes is essential and so to is doing all in our power to prevent the development of environments in which hate and extremism flourishes.

    You are right to point to the 1930s. But we have to understand what was creating the environment in which extremists flourished. It was widespread deflation – global deflation. And once again we have global deflationary forces.

    One of the severest engines of this deflation is the management of the Euro. The exchange rate set for the Euro is such that all but a few members of the EMU are only able to stay in the Euro by deflating their economies, depressing wages and increasing unemployment – the true engines of inter community strife, hate and racism.

    Our own ‘austerity’ policies have created similar conditions in this country. Thankfully following the referendum vote the Tories are putting austerity aside.

    But change in the deflationary forces in the EMU, which also damage our trade levels with them, is essential. As the Economist reported last week and as ex-Governor of the B of E, Mervyn King, has written in his new book – the Euro is a misguided and doomed system. The Euro is today’s version of the Gold Standard. And as in the 1930’s leaving the Gold Standard was the first step to recovery. Sadly it came too late for Germany and Italy, which descended into fascism.

    We have to avoid this happening across Europe today, where the far right are already rising. The Euro has to go.

  • “There is a fallacy that the Remain camp is calling people stupid and racist. ”

    “And that is certainly aided and abetted by the deceitful and racist language used by the Leave campaigners”

    Self-awareness, much?

    And it sure wasn’t me who made any mistake. If it’s actually true then I am more worried, but not hyperbolic about it. Unlike most here, I have actually lived in Europe for many years and speak to Europeans all the time. It isn’t like the 1930’s.

  • @jamesG The majority of Leave voters were not racists.

    The Leave campaign did nurture racism, fear and prejudice, though – and that is why those people responsible should not hold any sort of office again.

  • Peter Watson 6th Jul '16 - 12:04pm

    @Caron Lindsay “The Leave campaign did nurture racism, fear and prejudice, though – and that is why those people responsible should not hold any sort of office again.”
    As I wrote in a parallel thread (, race-related hate crimes increased significantly from 2013 to 2015.
    This was while we had Lib Dems in Government and while we were in the EU, and sadly a Lib Dem councillor even contributed to those statistics.
    But it would be equally inappropriate to write, “”The Lib Dems/Remain campaign did nurture racism, fear and prejudice, though – and that is why those people responsible should not hold any sort of office again.””

  • Thinking systemically, my big concern is that some ugly things have come into the fore in the referendum, which have worrying parallels with what brought the Nazis to power. In my view, one of the driving forces of the European Project has been a sense of “never again” which is far wiser than “who’s to blame”.

    Right now we are getting an insight into how Germany could have slid in this direction in the 1930s. The urgent task is to find an alternative. In my view, the best alternative is full membership of the EU and a deeper commitment to it than we have had, so we can contain these impulses and draw on the wisdom of others in doing that, but we do need to find a way forward that is not about attacking minorities or following “strong leaders” just because they are “strong”.

  • @Bill le Breton – …We have to avoid this happening across Europe today, where the far right are already rising. The Euro has to go.

    Given the most effective way for the UK to ‘save Europe’ is for it to remain engaged, I take it you are therefore suggesting that the UK remains a member of the EU and not be in any particular hurry to invoke Article 50. Since this gives it a place and a voice at the largest table in Europe and easy access to political leaders; particularly as the UK will most probably take over the presidency of the Council of the EU for the period July-Dec 2017.

  • Jamesg
    >I wrote European, not EU. There is a big difference.

    I was pointing out that your first words were: ‘The Leave voters were not..’
    Whatever words you put after that, it was a sweeping assertion.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jul '16 - 1:17pm

    In my comment above I was too anxious thinking about the word limit and forgot to mention the millions killed, maimed and taken from their homes, in the death camps and on the battlefields, and of course the resulting tyranny and further atrocities across half of Europe imposed by the Soviet Union over a period of 45 years.

    Of course ‘one of the driving forces of the European Project has been a sense of “never again”’. People are acting in good faith, but the facts are that the Far Right is on the March across Europe, including countries in the EU, aided and abetted by Putin, and we should look very carefully as to whether the effects of EU policy and especially EMU monetary policy is a factor in creating the climate in which the Far Right (and the Far Left) rises again.

    Idealism can blind us to reality.

    By no means the only cause, but an important factor is the deflation and the austerity policies that are driven by the European Central Bank’s negligence in the recent past and even today.

    Even if you are a Remainer surely you should be concerned by this and include this in your list of reforms that you wish to campaign for. The drive for political union is at the root of these worrying matters.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jul '16 - 1:26pm

    Roland, I think you know that that is not my opinion. The existing EU is unreformable in its pursuit of political union and the Euro is designed to help bring this about.

    Leaving the EU and joining Norway as an EEA non-EU member and a member of EFTA is a first step in bringing prosperity not just to the UK but to the members of the EU.

    If we take this step others will follow. Each country that leaves the EU and joins us in the EEA/EFTA bloc will find its ability to enjoy economic recovery increases, and as we all trade together in a single market with all four freedoms the recovery of one nation helps revive the economic fortunes of those with which it trades.

    Every day we delay starting out on that route is a tragedy, but the journey will start, sadly the next PM will get the credit.

  • @ expats “Nonsense; such internment of civilians had been used many times before…In fact, they were set up as ‘refugee camps’ to feed/house women and children whose homes/farms had been destroyed by Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy …..”

    Sorry, expats, but the concentration camps set up by Kitchener in the second Boer War to intern the wives and children of Boer soldiers. They should never be whitewashed. They were described by one of our greatest leaders, Campbell-Bannerman as being “methods of Barbarism”.

    The conditions were exposed by that great Liberal woman Emily Hobhouse. Her campaign led to Millicent Fawcett’s report confirming almost everything that Miss Hobhouse had reported. After the war a report concluded that 27,927 Boers had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about one in four of the Boer inmates, mostly children, died. However, the South African historian, Stephen Burridge Spies argues in Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics (1977) that this is an under-estimate of those who died in the camps.

    Nowhere near the same scale as the Nazi camps – but as C-B said, barbarous and something to be ashamed of.

    On the subject of Mark Argent’s lead article, I think it’s more than a little over the top. It was the after events of WW1 and the 1929 Great Crash that led to Hitler coming to power.

    I do share Caron’s concerns, but it is on a different same scale.

  • Matt (Bristol) 6th Jul '16 - 2:49pm

    Mark, I think there are risks in our current situation that we may slowly enter into a crisis of political distrust like unto the 1930s, but reducing the 1930s (and indeed the 20s) to ‘us’ and ‘Nazi Germany’ is simplistic – and, I know, you only have 500 words.

    The thing is from the end of the First World War, democracy across Europe – which in may countries was still in its infancy – was in crisis, and so was trade and stability of all kinds. There were a series of ongoing shocks (both political and financial crises) that caused a sense of prevailing depression about the future.

    Those who sought to build international cooperation and trust were facing an uphill struggle all the time, and the settlement of the War itself had left an atmosphere of distrust and rancour, which could be very easily revived and intensified.

    People hungry for a political messiah in uncertain times grasped for Communism as well as Nazism or Fascism. (And don’t forget that during the 20s, Nazism was only one of several competing ‘hard-right’ ideologies).

    In many European countries, even what we would regard as ‘centre-left’ parties organised their own militias (eg in Austria). Hitler and Mussolini were only the two most prominent dictators in a European-wide crisis.

    Britain shared in this political crisis of the 20s and 30s, even though it did not fully engage in it. There was a crisis of faith in politics, and there were incidents of political brutality that would shock us now (eg during the General Strike). And don’t forget Ireland…

    I do feel we are at risk of re-entering into a period like the 1930s. But that isn’t the same as immediately comparing any one political body to the Nazis, which is extreme, and I think you have maybe gone for too much ‘black and white’ in your article.

    The 1930s – across all of Europe – show us that there are a lot of different ways in which that can cause a political system can break down. Nazism was only the most extreme and hateful breakdown that we now remember.

  • Ruth Bright 6th Jul '16 - 3:49pm

    A really troubling article using an amateurish rehash of bits of inter-war German history . As Simon and others point out to compare British anti-Semitism and Boer War “concentration camps” with the industrialized genocide of Nazism is distasteful to put it mildly. No mention (until the omission was corrected by David Raw) of inter-war German inflation which is a million miles away from the situation we have in the UK now.

    The increase in hate crime is horrible but we should worry about societal breakdown in the UK when we have to take wheelbarrows of notes down the shops to buy a single loaf of bread.

  • I’m with Ruth Bright regarding the “amateurish rehash of bits of inter-war German history”. It does have important lessons for us today but they are perhaps not sufficiently understood.

    The Weimar hyperinflation occurred because Germany chose to finance the war largely via debt aiming to recoup it in reparations when victorious. When the boot was on the other foot and reparations had to be paid German printed money to pay its foreign debt. Cue hyperinflation. It was over by Jan 1924 when the post-war settlement was redone and US money started to flow into Germany, ultimately causing a boom.

    Hitler warned that this foreign investment was hot money that could leave as quickly as it came but as long as the good times rolled few paid heed so in the 1928 election his NSDAP scored only 2.8% of the vote.

    Then Wall Street crashed in October 1929 and that hot money left exactly as Hitler had warned, causing a severe depression to which the government responded, Osborne-style, with a strict austerity programme.

    On the back of the credibility his accurate economic call gave him plus the damage caused by austerity Hitler won 18.3% of the vote in 1930 elections and 37.3% in the 1932 election.

    This has important lessons for us now because we have an epic balance of payments deficit and MUST import much of our food and energy. This has been financed for years by incoming flows of hot money just as in 1920s Germany but that looks to be ending. Also we have a government that believes in austerity although ‘printing money’ for domestic use is not significantly inflationary.

    The first lesson is that austerity is a seedbed for all sorts of unpleasant things. Simply put, if people are denied a real stake in the system there is no longer a reason for them to support it. Much of the Brexit/Trump rage against the system is explained by that aggravated by openly lawless elites.

    My fear is that the government might try to finance our import bill by printing money; if it does we will get hyperinflation. The alternative is 1970s-style exchange controls. One way or another we will have to stop importing as much stuff – but we must have the food and energy. The danger is that the government will do something silly to escape the reality that their policies have failed and that we are much, much poorer than most think.

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jul '16 - 6:45pm

    Gordon makes the point that the National Socialists rose in the time of *Deflation* not in the time of hyperinflation.

    People too often get this the wrong way round – and this is why I warned above that it is the deflationary nature of the Euro – valued at a level to prevent inflation in Germany, but which therefore creates deflation in most other countries – that is the problem.

    At the end of the 1920s and early Thirties most western economies were on the Gold Standard. France decided to buy and hoard huge quantities of gold – raising the price of gold and lowering the general price level. The effect of France hoarding gold and forcing up the price of gold is the same as the European Central Bank setting the value of the Euro at the level appropriate for Germany.

    When he came to power in 1933 Roosevelt froze trading in gold and unilaterally lowered its price – thus raising the general price level. He deliberately created inflation in order to get people spending today rather than at higher prices tomorrow (the hot potato effect). This film from 1933 explains why

  • Bill le Breton 6th Jul '16 - 7:21pm

    Roland – it would seem Macron agrees with me!

    “We have got stuck in thinking that certain geographical arrangements would be unacceptable,” he said at the Aix Economic Forum on Sunday (3 July). “We stalled on integrating the eurozone to avoid upsetting the Brits and the Poles, but look how they thanked us.” As he calls for a statement of future EU values and and a 15 year master plan to be put to a EU-wide referendum.

    For the economy minister, the shape of the bloc that would be left after the referendum – be it a 27-country EU or just the hard core of the eurozone – is of little importance. Good sense: a fast speed Political Union/EMU (Eurozone) and an EEA solution for the rest.

    Macron reckons the eurozone needs “more solidarity and a greater boost”.

    “This is our Achilles heel,” he said. “We will not make this happen through mere coordination. We need more integration concerning fiscal and social policy and an investment policy run from a common eurozone budget”.

    On which side would Lib Dems campaign in that referendum, Political and Monetary Union or “Non”?

  • I was very interested to read in Mark’s article the mention of Milgram and the Stanford prison experiments. To me the message is, yes, about the issues of how people treat each other, but there is a missing part of the analysis. It is in fact the psychologist organising the experiment. It was the organiser who set up the experiment. It was the organiser who told the stories to the people in the case of Milgram, or in the Stanford case actually participated. This feeling of otherness that power gives is a key to the analysis.

    For most people the European Union is some sort of a trade agreement. That after all is what it is. However we must all recognise that we are all influenced to a large extent by our own situation, by the people we mix with and so on. As I sit here waiting for the Grim Reaper to call I think about the fact that I am economically secure. Many people in our country are not. I have a house many people have not. We think differently.

    Which takes us back to Milgram. He was manipulating a situation. The subjects could be manipulated because he was paying them. The first and largely ignored question is what does it say about him?

    So what does our present problem say about the people with power?

    They were in a position to manipulate the situation. They are still in a position to give attention to an objective analysis and put forward realistic plans.


  • David Garlick 7th Jul '16 - 9:55am

    The lessons of history are real, important and a vital learning resource. However I am not sure that any reference to Hitler of the Nazis ever helps as the point, good or bad, that is trying to be made gets buried under a welter complaint about that reference. Avoid doing that if you can and the point will be better listened to.

  • Simon Banks 7th Jul '16 - 10:11am

    I agree with Simon McGrath that neither the South African British-run concentration camps, nor the Amritsar massacre, nor actually anything any colonial power did equates to the industrial-scale massacre by the Nazis of people they simply didn’t like, saw as inferior or useless or anticipated might resist. Even the early killing of Aborigines in Australia was down to local “initiative” rather than government policy, while the German massacres of Herreros in Namibia and Spanish destruction of Native Americans in Argentina were in response to actual armed resistance and contrasted with how less warlike peoples were treated. Even Stalin, whose killings were industrial-scale, did not try to exterminate a whole people.

    But what Mark is surely saying is that the capacity for such evil lies in all of us. The Blackshirts could have made much more headway and what finished them was war in 1939. With a few different decisions by leading politicians (notably Hindenburg) and certainly without the Great Depression, the Nazis would never have come to power: there is evidence that their success was peaking in 1933.

    There is a rather pointless argument going on about the motives of Leave voters. Some of them had laudable motives. But those who voted Leave and deny there was much hatred and fear among their voters are whistling in the wind. The main factor was immigration – and often in places with very few immigrants, like Clacton and Harwich.

  • David Raw 6th Jul ’16 – 2:05pm………..Sorry, expats, but the concentration camps set up by Kitchener in the second Boer War to intern the wives and children of Boer soldiers. They should never be whitewashed. They were described by one of our greatest leaders, Campbell-Bannerman as being “methods of Barbarism”…..

    David, I was not trying to ‘whitewash’ the conditions in the camps…However, the fault was in the administration/bureaucracy and lack of planning…Not in intent…
    Even in today’s more enlightened world refugee camps suffer the same problems of disease/hunger, etc.
    The Nazi camps were set up to eradicate, permanently, sections of German society seen as ‘undesirables’….
    There is no comparison…

  • @Bill le Breton – Thanks for the link. My admittedly barbed point wasn’t so much to mock your preferred final arrangements but to address the very real challenge of HOW we get there from a people and relationship perspective.

    Practically all the Brexit campaign has been about Britain this, Britain that and totally focused on the UK internal audience. Hence totally ignoring the European audience, who will have a major impact on the UK’s future trade and any negotiations about that future. So my point was more about how the UK stays engaged with the EU and Europe, so that it gets the best out of its negotiations and is in a good place to assist when the EU falls apart (which the Leave campaign assures us is just around the corner), as currently it seems the view from Europe is tending more towards resentment and so shut the UK out asap, rather than welcoming the UK as a breath of fresh air; which doesn’t bode well for the quality of negotiations (both Article 50 and EEA) and hence the ‘deals’ the UK will get.

    So going back to Macron, it would seem that for the UK to have a say in his EU wide referendum, which seems to accept a multi-tiered bloc arrangement, we need to be in and not out, because I suspect the UK would lead a significant number of countries away from the hardcore eurozone Macron is proposing, resulting in better arrangements than currently offered to the EEA members… 🙂

  • Mark Argent – Your core thesis – that there are strong parallels between the 1930s and now – is undoubtedly right. Both periods are the aftermath of a ‘balance sheet depression’ which is one where much of the banking system goes bust due to too many bad loans.

    The stresses created are hard to manage; sometimes they are only resolved by war. Hence, as someone once pointed out, the difference between 1930s Germany and America was that the former got Hitler and war; the latter got FDR and the New Deal.

    The problem many have with the EU is that it is very far from being a latter-day FDR equivalent; in fact it’s making things worse – see Greece, Italy and so on. And that’s a problem that the Lib Dem powers that be seem unable to address.

  • Fascism happened because totalitarianism was a fairly intellectually acceptable response to the perceived “problems” of democracy. It was a counter argument to Communism on the one hand and a way for the old hierarchies to stay at the top of the social pile when faced with the rise of popular culture, trade unionism, universal suffrage, the effects of science on old certainties etc. It was not purely a response to the Depression. Aside from very explicit pseudo-evolutionary BS, It was also about Empire building and living space for Germans. There is nothing in Brexit remotely similar because the intellectual climate has changed. Although you can see some elements the 1930s fascism in the more extreme political parties of other EU nations.
    You could make an argument that Donald Trump shares some features of Huey Long, every man a king and all that, but again he isn’t really that similar.

    IMO, what you’re really looking at is the collapse of a basically unpopular form of internationalism/globalism. The end of the End of History.

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