Ian Kershaw: “Brexit would be the greatest act of national self-harm in postwar history”

The pre-eminent historian of Nazi Germany, and the author of Roller-Coaster, on the new dangers facing Europe. 

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The spectre of the 1930s is haunting Europe. Following the Brexit vote and the rise of far-right nationalists across the continent, daily comparisons are made with that decade. But Ian Kershaw, the pre-eminent historian of Nazi Germany, believes they should be resisted.

“There are obvious affinities but as soon as you start to look into it with any detail you see that the differences outweigh the similarities,” Kershaw, a youthful 75, said when we met in London.

“Two things are missing from this, compared with the Thirties; first of all we’re not faced with big paramilitary organisations roaming round our streets and engaged in open violence… secondly, for all the horrible racism and xenophobia, none of these right-wing movements are internationally dangerous in the way that, say, Mussolini was and Hitler even more so.” (Kershaw wrote a definitive, two-volume biography of Hitler: Hubris and Nemesis.)

His new book, Roller-Coaster, a lucid 562-page history of Europe from 1950-2017 (and the sequel of To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949), counterposes a more optimistic narrative to our present mood of declinism. “We’re in a vastly better place than we were, not only in the 1930s, but even when this book starts in the 1950s,” Kershaw said. “Not just on the material level, where the advances are quite obvious, but also at the level of values.”

I was simultaneously relieved and disconcerted by his optimism. In Italy, the birthplace of fascism, the xenophobic Northern League has entered government (“Italy is often the first to do wrong things,” the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli observed when we met earlier this year). In Germany, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), with 92 MPs, is now the country’s largest opposition party. In Roller-Coaster, Kershaw notes the irony that greater European integration led not to the demise but “the rescue of the nation state” (in historian Alan Milward’s phrase) even before the 2008 financial crisis.

When I recently interviewed the German political theorist Yascha Mounk, he recalled how senior politicians assured him that “it can’t happen here”. Why, I asked Kershaw, did this prove not to be the case? “When the AfD started it was an anti-euro party and it didn’t have much of a following, it was seen as somewhat eccentric… But then came the migrant crisis [in 2015]. I think Merkel was morally on the right side of history but politically it was, as Sir Humphrey would say, ‘very courageous, Chancellor’. It inflamed feelings all at once that had been somewhat latent but had no political expression.”

Kershaw, who was born into a working-class family in Oldham and lives in Manchester, originally trained as a medievalist and learned German to study the country’s Middle Age peasantry. But when he visited Bavaria in 1972, he was stunned to be told by an old man in a Munich café: “You English were so foolish. If only you had sided with us. Together we could have defeated Bolshevism and ruled the Earth!”

He resolved to discover what drew so many Germans to Nazism (developing the concept of “working towards the Führer” to explain the radicalisation of policy).

Like most, but far from all British historians, Kershaw is an avowed Remainer. Does he believe that Brexit, as some have said, would be the greatest act of self-harm by any major country in postwar history? “I do,” he replied immediately. “I can’t see another example where a country volunteers, on scanty evidence, to make itself poorer.”

Some historians, such as Cambridge’s Robert Tombs, contend that the UK is making a fortunate escape from a federalising Europe. But Kershaw said: “It’s just a retrograde step and I can’t really see much of a reason for it. With all our opts-out and rebates, we were in a good place in Europe.” The Brexit vote, in this view, was not a historic inevitability but the result of contingent political errors.

Theresa May, he said, “picked up a very bad hand and has played it very badly”, though her predecessor David Cameron would truly endure “the opprobrium of history”. The referendum, Kershaw added, “was a very rash and foolhardy decision”, an unforgivable act comparable to the invasion of Iraq (which prompted Kershaw to resign his Labour Party membership) and the Suez debacle in 1956.

Donald Trump, who is permanently intertwined with Brexit, is compared by some to Hitler. “I can see why people attempt to make the comparison but I don’t think it holds up,” Kershaw told me. He also maintained that Trump was not a fascist. “Fascism is a very difficult thing to define but what Trump is standing for – even America First, isolationism in all sorts of ways – doesn’t amount to fascism. I think it’s best to analyse Trump for what he is.”

Kershaw agreed that “liberal democracy is facing the biggest crisis” in postwar history but cited three reasons for optimism: “we live in a continent of democracies where democratic roots have been quite firmly placed”; “we live in civilian societies, not military ones”; and “we’ve learned to collaborate and co-operate with each other in ways that were not the case in the 1930s”.

However, were another economic crash to occur, he warned, “it could turn really unpleasant”. But before the tide irrevocably turns, “we have the chance to bring about policies which will draw people away from the false gods of populism”.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism