As Germany and Spain prove, history- with all its wounds- is not over | Natalie Nougayrede

6 months, 8 days ago

The shadow of 20th century trauma still blights the future of Europe, writes the Guardian columnist Natalie Nougayrde

History is back in Europe. The Catalan referendum and the German election show this spectacularly. The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Germany and Catalonia’s apparent marching towards freedom may look like they happened on separate planets- to be sure, they are fuelled by different political beliefs- but they both have to do with pent-up frustrations. Citizens who feel that they have been insulted have gone to the ballot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both situations there is a vivid historical backdrop, with memories of Europe’s 20 th-century nightmares playing an important role: in Catalonia, the fight against fascism and Franco; in the east of Germany, the experiences of Nazism and Soviet communism.

In Leipzig and the nearby little town of Grimma, I was told about how citizens felt their self-esteem had been trampled on. German reunification has not led to a shared sense of community. Instead, it’s compared to colonisation: “westerners” took over everything- regional administrations, courts, education and the economy. Everything about life in the Communist nation– the way people garmented, what they eat, what they learned in school, how they decorated their homes, what they watched on Tv- became an object of despise and ridicule. It’s not that life isn’t better now: of course it is. There is freedom. And living criteria have improved vastly. But many eastern Germans feel their identity has somehow been disproved, as if they were being asked to forget about it.

Speaking with Catalan friends in recent days, I heard similar qualms:” We were waiting for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed nothing was changing” …” Our culture change isn’t being acknowledged as it should be “: these were common sentiments, even from people not altogether enthusiastic about breaking away from Spain.

Identity isn’t just about power, their entitlements and organizations. Former East Germans aren’t asking for secession , nor a special status. Catalonia is deeply divided on the question of independence. Nor can identity be boiled down to purely economic factors- wages, income, jobs, social class. It’s true that regions covering the former East Germany have higher unemployment( 7.1%) than western ones( 5.1% ), but the malaise reflected in the east German far-right vote went beyond material situations. Catalonia’s economy has thriven in recent decades- that hasn’t avoided protests.

A generation has passed since German reunification, in 1990; and Spain joined the European club in 1986. It’s hard to exaggerate the benefits. Anyone who visits Leipzig, with its beautifully restored facades and the amazing modern architecture of its university, will struggle to place tracings of the bleakness and poverty that once characterised eastern Europe.

Catalonia’s transformation has also been stunning. I have spent many summertimes in the Pyrenees, regularly intersecting into Spain from France. And over the years I have watched roads improved, hotels built, and prosperity spread- a region shedding the drabness left by the Franco years. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics celebrated that success.

Yet these accomplishments don’t necessarily translate into people’s minds. The European project is dependent upon the idea that economic ties and social improvement bring people together and help them overcome the trauma of history. In recent years, much has been said about how patriotism, populism and anti-establishment sentiment are a response to globalisation and inequality. Less has been said about a more specifically European ingredient: the shadow casting by 20 th-century traumas born of war and autocracy, and the difficulty- which still persists- of dealing with that legacy.

It is this history that sets continental Europe’s populist convulsions apart from the forces that have driven Brexit and Trump. Britain and the United States never experienced life under fascism, or behind a version of the iron curtain. Across Europe, populism and extremism, whether of left or right, plunges its roots into 20 th century political battles and references. Catalan nationalism, I believe, is different from Scottish patriotism in this way also: it can quickly reignite memories of oppression that are still vivid within families- narratives of life and death, in one’s own country.

When crowds in Barcelona start singing old sungs of resistance against the Franco regime, history is back. It is also back when 22. 5 % of voters in the former East Germany( twice as many as in the western part of the country) cast their ballots for a party- Alternative fur Deutschland- whose platform amounts to a rejection of everything Germany’s western-built democracy has stood for.

Last month’s German election was a clear demonstration that the Wall has survived in people’s minds. Germany and Spain today find themselves confronted by ghosts of the past- not only to do with problems related to social cohesion and integration, or how to preserve a constitutional order. Yes, politicians exploit polarisation. But it is striking to see how, over a generation after democracy was anchored in countries that had experienced the worse of the 20 th century, so many citizens feel that so much has as yet been left unaddressed.

Isaiah Berlin once wrote that patriotism feeds on a sense of wounded pride and shame. As Europe tries to sort itself out and prepare for the future- including information grassroots ” democratic conventions “ due next year across the continent- it would do well to pay closer attention to those meanders left by history. We thought that they had healed- but they genuinely haven’t.

* Natalie Nougayrede is a Guardian columnist

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