Growing up, there were times when I think my generation could be forgiven for thinking that history was something which had all happened before we were old enough to care about it. The world wars were something we read about in books, we missed the 60s, were too young to remember much of the 70s and the 80s were all about music, with the nagging doubt that someone might decide to drop a nuclear bomb on us – Alphaville did not help assuage that concern with the line in their song ‘are they going to drop the bomb or not?’ And then at the end of the 80s, the Cold War was over just as we were becoming adults. We were even told it was the ‘end of history’.
George Santayana wrote that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Imagine living in a time when politicians say the following:
‘The police should patrol and secure Jewish neighbourhoods.’
‘The black-haired Jewish youth lies in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her own people.’
The second was written by Hitler. The first – actually about Muslims rather than Jews – was from Ted Cruz, the US presidential candidate who is supposed to be the acceptable Republican alternative to Donald Trump. Trump, we know, would ban all Muslims from entering the US. What Cruz is calling for was called ghettos in the 1930s. And yet he seems to consider this a perfectly acceptable proposal to make.
Trump, then. Just a series of media-grabbing headlines, saying things he would never carry out in practice? Who knows? But the level of popularity he seems to have, despite everything he has said, makes me wonder if we have really learned so little from history? And this article on Trump’s views on the use of violence against people who disagree with him is not something I ever thought I would hear – repeatedly – from someone wanting to hold elected office in a democracy. Of course it is not the same as Hitler and his Brownshirts and the apparatus he built up to exert control. But it’s on the same continuum of hatred, demonisation and dehumanisation.
And then there is Europe.
The Czech Republic, then Czechoslovakia, was the home of the Prague Spring in 1968, the uprising against the Soviet model that had been forced upon it. The phrase Arab Spring, decades later, got its name from that mass protest thousands of miles away. And now we have the current Czech president, Milos Zeman, attending in 2015 the mass military parade in China that would have been replicated in his own country under Soviet control. And saying on a previous visit to China that he had gone there to learn ‘how to stabilise society.’ I cannot imagine his predecessor, Vaclav Havel, a dissident in the Soviet era, praising the brutally suppressive Chinese policies that “stabilise society” and had already been experienced in his own country. The Czech Republic is not alone in prioritising business interests over human rights. I’ve written previously about the actions of the Metropolitan Police when a Tiananmen Square survivor protested peacefully during the visit of the Chinese president to London.
One of the features of dictatorships is the need to control the media. We saw it in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. North Korea continues the practice, as does China, and even in the era of the internet, they are able to censor what information is made available to their citizens. Just this year, Poland changed its laws to give its treasury minister the power to appoint the heads of the major media outlets. This, we were told, was to ensure the media are ‘impartial, objective and reliable.’ How state control ensures the first two of these is a mystery to me, although East Germany solved the ‘objective’ part by defining the term differently from how you and I would use it. The Polish prime minister even used the classic defence against criticism of the law which restricts press freedom by saying it was an ‘internal matter.’ This was the same accusation the East German government made when Hungarian authorities started allowing East German citizens to cross the border into Austria – ‘This is a direct intervention into the internal affairs of the German Democratic Republic.’ (They had their own definition of ‘democratic’ too.)
And I don’t think that the UK is a shining example in any of these areas. Our government’s dismal response to the refugee crisis, courting the current Chinese dictator in the interest of more business, and our finance minister’s attacks on the BBC through its funding model.
And everywhere I look, people are wanting to build new walls to separate us from someone.
Perhaps this is why I’m finding re-reading 1984 both so fascinating and so troubling. It seems we might, in common with previous generations, have learned too little from the past after all.