Post World War II
Europe has been dominated by the post-World War II division of the spoils of war for the past 70 years. Nations in Eastern Europe disappeared behind “The Iron Curtain” and the Berlin Wall. Nations that were not controlled by Communism and the USSR, and which were not firmly organized as Democracies, were wooed, rather persistently by the US and the NATO allies to resist Communism (the dark side) and turn to the (light), Democracy and Capitalism. (With Communism you got two for the price of one; government and business were different aspects of the same entity.)
America put Air Force and Army bases all over Europe, but especially in countries that seemed to teeter between the two ideologies. Nations, in the great project to rebuild Europe, got gifts of technology, private enterprise, and even new leaders that they did not always even want. The stories that came from behind the Iron Curtain, of purges, and Five-Year Plans, and hunger, and gulags where dissidents were gagged, should have been quite enough to discourage the spread of Communism, but the idealistic expression of that ideology still had popular appeal in a number of nations, and the unsubtle interventions of America were not always helpful in advancing Democracy.
Europe maintained this basic postwar pattern even with the dissolution of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But almost as soon as Capitalism seemed to gain a foothold in Russia and the nations newly released from Russian hegemony, forces were at work to try to put the USSR together again. This movement which we see now in the actions of Putin seems akin to the national pride movements that brought Hitler to power in Germany. This appeal to national pride perhaps helps keep a rather frightening Putin in power in Russia. History stutters. The Cold War is slowly creeping back. Authoritarian rule is apparently all the fashion.
Of course, what happened in Eastern Europe has not stayed in Eastern Europe. For a while Democracy and Communism continued to perform the old political push-pull. Western Europe became the European Union for economic solidarity and strength. America became the dramatic focus of a show of awful force by a new player – radical terrorism modeled on Islam. The twin symbols of Capitalism were toppled on 9/11. America reeled. Wars of retribution did not put an end to the influx of frightened Muslims into a basically Judeo-Christian Europe. As religion got added to the mix of the already contested spheres of government, economics, and race, history is stuttering again.
Europe and America, in the midst of an economic downturn fueled by the rise of Asian economies, was now being flooded by people from antique states along the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean and in Northern Africa who were relieved of, or escaping from, authoritarian leaders. Conflagrations in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria seemed to catch the entire area on fire. Europe and America became targets of anger as old established “regimes” fell and people, caught-up in chaos and fear, attacked nations that seemed to them to have been driven to depravity by money and power. However guilty the “West” feels about having abused its power, sitting still for bombs in public places, mass shootings and death by modes of transportation (turning our own technology against us) is not something people want to do.
Before World War II we find a propensity towards “strong men”. We find it, not in whole nations to begin with, but as a minority groundswell. Even in nations like England and America there were those who perked up at the call to “nationalism” – to national pride and strength. There were those who grew suspicious of “the other”, who spoke a different language, or against Jewish people who seem inordinately good at conducting business and making money. Charles Lindbergh was quite famous for this in his day and he was a popular guy.
Hitler was, arguably, the worst strong man ever, a twisted madman who would perform any scientific atrocity to create his “master race” and rid the world of people he hated (Jews, gypsies). Mussolini, the Italian Fascist, may have looked like a pale copy, but he did quite enough damage; damage that lingers in Italy to this day. We (Americans and our allies) swore that we would never let a Hitler happen to the world again. We swore that we would never allow a government that exercised control over its people through fear and media mind control, like Soviet Union, to operate in the “free West”.
Well history does stutter and here we are again with strong men peppered around the world. (Turkey, Russia, Hungary, the Philippines, China, North Korea, Honduras, Iraq, various thugs in African nations, and more). Here we are, where thuggery and jack bootery are making authoritarianism, even in smaller nations, as in South America and Africa, a constant horror to honest citizens. Here we have heartless, vicious men who send their own people, or their own neighbors scattering away from them, to what the refugees hope will be a new safe space in more stable and humanitarian nations, only to be turned back as the Jewish people were, or isolated by those who feel their nation is being taken over by these “others”. Here we have men so “strong”, so selfish, so greedy that they will rule over an empty nation in order to get their way. (Bashir Assad, drug cartels)
Here we have, once, again fear of the other, attempts to use threats and media mind control to consolidate the power of an authoritarian personality. This time one of these “strong” men is here, in the heart of America, trampling all over our traditions and unwritten rules. Here we have a man, in full knowledge of what happened the last time someone built a wall to keep nations separate, insisting that what America needs is a wall to keep out our neighbors. He perhaps does not remember, or never knew, what Russia had to do to keep West and East Berlin apart even with a wall. There is something about a wall that makes people determined to get over it or around it. There had to be legal papers, and intelligence officers, snarling dogs, and checkpoints and guards willing to shoot those desperate enough to try to get to the other side. Already we are using the threat of separating parents from their children, of putting their children in foster care, or in “shelters”, to deter people from trying to cross a wall that does not yet even exist in some places. This threat does not seem to discourage all who want refugee status. Will we have to allow the guards at the checkpoints to shoot to kill? Will we place the heads of those who are killed on pikes and display them along the wall? How far will we let our “strong” man go to keep people out of America?
And once again, as before, there are people who are attracted to the idea of the “strong” man, and who do not seem to mind that he will destroy what he seems to be defending – that strong man means authoritarian rule by a dictator. It is not just semantics. History stutters. Are we doomed to repeat this pattern again and again?