The condition of peace and prosperity sometimes votes for its own destruction. Those that argue loudest for abandoning sane, well-tested arrangements often do so in the belief that the whole structure is so secure that it can’t fall apart.
Forget about Brexit for a moment. Take the Austro-Hungarian Empire; in its last half-century, it was a not a bad place to be born. Its 1867 constitution ended discrimination on religious or ethnic grounds. Like the EU today, prosperity was underpinned by the free movement of people and goods, and trade and improved transport links made close neighbours of once foreign peoples. The empire then attracted refugees from poorer, less stable, less liberal states. In 1905, waves of Jewish refugees fleeing Russian pogroms swept into the Austrian Empire; the combination of the free movement of peoples within the empire and the influx of non-Christian refugees from without was incendiary for Viennese politics. The two issues became conflated. The mayor of Vienna at the time, Karl Lueger, promised the Jews of the capital city a pogrom if they ever tried fomenting revolution as they had (as he saw it) in Russia.
A big part of Lueger’s appeal – he was mayor from 1897 until his death in 1910 – was anti-Semitism. Lueger exploited the anxiety that Vienna was losing its German identity, that the newcomers were taking over. Jews were only one of a myriad of minorities within Vienna, but Lueger kept the narrative simple by blaming the Jew for everything that had gone wrong or could go wrong. Lueger’s party, the Christian Socials, advocated the repeal of civil rights for Jews, their expulsion from the capital and the seizure of their property.
There is no indication that Lueger even believed his own anti-Jewish spiel. He had Jewish friends, and was widely considered to be a tolerant and humane person. He is credited for the modernization of Vienna’s drinking water supply and transportation system, and for developing welfare and public services that benefitted the humblest of the city’s citizens.
In Lueger’s Vienna, no pogrom occurred. There was no roll-back of civil rights, no expulsions of minorities. Lueger could not have effected such a programme without overturning the constitutional order of the state, just as there is no way a President Trump could exclude Muslims from the United States without overturning the constitution of the United States. With Lueger, with Trump, it’s mostly talk.
Of course, the young Hitler was in Vienna in Lueger’s years, and he picked up on what divisive democratic politics is made of.
There is no image more eloquent of the fix the British Leavers found themselves in than the sight of Boris Johnson, in the moment of victory, tongue-tied for the first time in his life and scurrying away from the media. Is this what victory looks like? It looked more like a disaster. The Leavers had been supposed to lose narrowly, then to make capital out of being gallant patriotic losers. The ingredient that everybody underestimated was the degree of anxiety about immigration.
Whenever a Trump, a Farage or a Lueger appears, the explanation from the Left is that the success of racist and illiberal rhetoric is due to the failure of politics to serve the most disadvantaged. There is talk about the decay of old industries, economic insecurity, the alienation of people from politics by the so-called elites. The idea is that it is the role of politics to give, and that the voter is rightly aggrieved at having not been given enough, that the victims of the political order are rightly angry. It’s a simple narrative, but one that fits nicely with that of the Trumps and Farages and Luegers, who operate by validating anger and a sense of victimhood, by urging the public to scratch their sense of grievance raw. The question is why the victim narrative is so strong in a period of unprecedented prosperity – whatever the unhappiness of the British working public, it is not sufficient to push them to seek employment in Bucharest or Warsaw.
Once the Jews were to blame, pretty much everywhere, for pretty much everything. The politicians told you that you were right to be angry with them. Now that they have been exterminated in their millions, new, suitably-vague transnational enemies are required. Muslims will do for Donald Trump. Anywhere in the European Union, you can blame the EU itself. Or – as Nigel Farage demonstrated with his poster of Syrian refugees lining up by the Slovenian border – you can blame an EU that admits Muslims.
The best in Britain – those who know the EU is a good thing – lack all conviction. Even they make it sound like the EU is a problem that Britain needs to solve. The nationalistic victim narrative has been allowed to win.
Karl Lueger, for all his talk of expulsions and pogroms and expropriation, probably never imagined the constitutional order he operated in utterly collapsing and being replaced with a dictatorship. He surely never envisaged his Jewish friends and neighbours being sent to extermination camps. He didn’t dream of the starvation of millions of prisoners of war, of the reintroduction of slavery, of the scale of political terrorism employed by Hitler and Stalin, of a war that reduced cities to rubble and to the brink of famine. He couldn’t, because he was the product of an enlightened, optimistic political culture. But this is what happened, and in 1945, when the continent of Europe stopped fighting, the eastern half of the continent remained in the grip of totalitarianism.
This is the origin of the EU. It was created in view of what has happened before in Europe and with the intent to stop it happening again. And it is extraordinary that few will stand up in Britain and say that it is a great and bold and beautiful idea – and that, more than that, it has been extraordinarily successful. Above all, it has fulfilled its vocation in absorbing the ex-Communist states of Eastern Europe.
I am writing these words in Bucharest, Romania. Without the support of the EU – yes, its bureaucrats and its money – this country would have gone the way of Putin’s Russia or Egypt after the Arab Spring. There was no material or institutional basis for democracy to succeed here, and it is due to the EU that it is succeeding. Even the ex-Yugoslav space, ripped apart by war and genocide, has the potential to reintegrate itself, with some of the ex-Yugoslav states already members, others such as Serbia looking to join. The conflict in Northern Ireland, once considered as intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has in large part been resolved by the EU, by the idea of borders being permeable and less defining.
If there is anything the recent Chilcot report demonstrates about Tony Blair, it is not the criminality of his actions in going to war against Iraq, but the utter mediocrity of his vision. A message to George Bush on the 26 of March reads: ‘So our fundamental goal is to spread our values of freedom, democracy and tolerance and the rule of law.’ It may be Britain’s imperial past that led Blair to execute this mission in the Middle East, but the fact is that this was what the EU was quietly and successfully accomplishing in Eastern Europe during those very years, and yet this received relatively little attention. It seems strange that Blair’s sense of historical mission was born from a spectacular attack on New York, while the example of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo produced no such epiphany about the importance of the European Union. Kosovo, where a million people – half the population of the province – became refugees in 1999. Bosnia, where at Srebrenica in 1995 over 8,000 men and boys were murdered, in a massacre reminiscent of WWII. The victims were European Muslims.
The problem, for Britain, is amnesia. It is the sleepiness of wealth and safety and stability. Perhaps Britain is now waking up. But there is also the possibility that ground has been conceded, intellectually, and that it will be hard to make it up again. The institutions that underpin safety and affluence are only as real as we believe them to be. We talked them into being, and we can talk them in the other direction too. One politician can talk about a pogrom, the expulsion of foreigners, the supremacy that must be accorded to the native, and not really mean it. But such ideas are powerful political currency. They become vivid enough in the popular mind, like a fantasy, and beg to be taken further.
One of the most chilling sequences in Mihail Sebastian’s 1934 novel, For Two Thousand Years, describes a conversation between the narrator, a young man who happens to be Jewish, and a man called Vieru. They are both Romanians, intellectuals, and good friends. Vieru asks the narrator why he no longer comes into town – the town being Bucharest. The narrator responds that he is weary of the tense, poisonous mood, with an apostle at every street corner, calling for the extermination of the Jews:
He didn’t reply. He reflected for a moment, hesitating, a little embarrassed, as though he wished to change the subject. Then, probably after private deliberation, he addressed me in that determined manner people have when they want to get something off their chests.
‘You’re right. Yet there is a Jewish problem, and it needs to be solved. One million eight hundred thousand Jews is intolerable. If it was up to me, I’d try to eliminate several hundred thousand.’
I was startled. I think I failed to hide my surprise. The one person I had believed utterly incapable of anti-Semitism was he . . .
There is another detail worth noting in this exchange – part of a much longer discussion – and that is Vieru’s assertion that there are one million eight hundred thousand Jews in Romania. There were never even half that number of Jews in Romania. The numbers were regularly inflated by the anti-Semitic agitators in order to create the impression that the country was being invaded by immigrants. The interwar politics of Romania was crippled by the obsession that the presence of foreigners was a fundamental problem, just as Lueger made it the fundamental issue of Viennese politics.
Romania did descend into fascism, the Jews were eliminated within a few years of this conversation being registered. And the Vierus, afterwards, if they ever said anything, insisted that that really wasn’t what they had meant by ‘elimination’. But we have such words, in black and white, in the speeches of Karl Lueger and in the conversations recorded by Mihail Sebastian and we have enough perspective on events for them to shock us awake.
Now Britain has made the control of borders and the free movement of people its central obsession, its fundamental national anxiety. This is how democratic politics decays. This is the moment the demagogues are granted centre stage.