Memories of WW2 and descent to illiberal democracy

Memories of WW2 and descent to illiberal democracy

Is our cultural memory of World War 2 (WW2) affecting our political development today? A new academic paper describes how ‘Western Europe’ and ‘Central Europe’ hang their cultural identity on WW2 or the end of the Cold Ward respectively and suggests that this is driving the difference between liberal and illiberal democracies today. But what about Britain? Is the pull away from the European Union and pull towards nationalism due to a different experience of WW2? Is the UK at risk of becoming an illiberal democracy?

In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared the ‘end of history‘ because, he said, now that the Cold War was over, liberal democracy would be the dominant form of politics forever. By 1997, Fareed Zakaria was warning of a new model of government, the ‘illiberal democracy.’

In a new publication, Dr Peter J. Verovšek, uses Hungary and Poland as prime examples of illiberal democracy: “Orbán’s Hungary and Kaczyński’s Poland, have worked hard to avoid ‘evoking the images familiar from twentieth century dictatorships’ by maintaining the electoral trappings of popular legitimacy. Instead of resorting to outright repression, they have secured their rule through gerrymandering, the manipulation of electoral rules, the neutering of the judiciary, and the takeover of the media by tycoons friendly to the regime.”

Distinguishing between Western Europe, where the liberal democratic project of the European Union still holds sway, and Central Europe where many see the growing spread of illiberal democracy, Verovšek says, “While the historical imaginary of Western Europe continues to be defined by the atrocities of the Holocaust and the defeat of fascism in 1945, regimes of remembrance across Central Europe are dominated instead by the fall of communism in 1989.”

Where does the United Kingdom fit in to this? The Western European, WW2 “Allied” nation recently voted to leave the liberal, democratic post-war project of the European Union. The EU referendum and subsequent General Elections were deliberately divisive, harnessed nationalism and fears of immigration and ‘others’ including religious and ethnic minorities. Liberals were attacked for being ‘metropolitan elite‘ and ‘citizens of nowhere‘ with striking reminiscence of the anti-semitic tropes, “rootless cosmopolitan” and “cosmopolitan elite,” used by both Soviets and Nazis alike. Nationalists from privileged backgrounds invoked the ‘will of the people‘ and those that defended liberal, supra-national organisations were branded traitors or collaborators.

If we return to Verovšek’s research he describes a playbook for illiberal democracy, “gerrymandering, the manipulation of electoral rules, the neutering of the judiciary, and the takeover of the media by tycoons friendly to the regime.” Each of these can be seen directly as pledges in the UK’s Conservative Party manifesto from 2019. Redefining electoral boundaries (and redefining the basis for that once in power), bringing in voter suppression through ID requirements, publicly attacking and promising to “review” the judiciary, and dismissing the press regulation proposals of the Leveson inquiry are all promises from the UK’s new government.

The UK’s cultural memory and identity is very much hinged upon WW2 and not on nationalist emancipation after the Cold War and yet, contrary to Verovšek’s research, recent political developments in the UK suggest a political direction closer to Poland and Hungary than to Germany or France.

Verovšek says, “For Western Europeans, remembrance of 1945 serves as evidence that nationalism and the failure to protect individual rights are the primary dangers to both peace and democracy. By contrast, for Central Europeans 1989 represents a repudiation of communism as a political system imposed by external powers”

Perhaps then the apparent difference in recent political development is in how the UK remembers 1945 and WW2.

Another recent research publication shows the difference in ‘national memories of WW2.’ Here, the authors surveyed citizens of Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan) and Allied (UK, US, Russia, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, Soviet Union) to understand their perception of their own country’s role in WW2.

Results show that citizens from four countries believe their nation contributed more than 50% to the war effort (this diminishes somewhat when the number of allies on any side is pointed out explicitly): Russia, US, UK and Germany.

On the Allied side of those nations, the three current, modern leaders of Putin, Trump and Johnson have all been linked to illiberal democracy. On the Axis side, where a belief that your country was heavily responsible for the worst aspects of WW2 may lead to cultural guilt or at least a stronger defence of liberal, internationalist values, Germany scores high and is generally considered to be a leading example of liberal democracy.

Of course, this may only be a correlation rather than causation and not all European countries are included in either study. And yet, it is very clear that the US has a history of rewriting WW2 victories to replace their own nation as the hero and that the UK invokes wartime rhetoric and the ‘Blitz spirit’ at almost every crisis: from COVID19 to Brexit or, perhaps more aptly, the London Bombings. Putin too has ‘weaponised the memory of WW2.’ None of these propagandist behaviours is likely to support an outward-looking zeitgeist.

It is impossible to judge motive from the outside and so we will likely never know for sure whether it was a symptom or a manipulation of this wartime nostalgia and nationalist romanticising that led Prime Minister Johnson to call his opponents traitors and collaborators (even when such divisive rhetoric was clearly at least partially linked to the recent murder of an MP.) We will never know if it was simply a belief in strong ‘wartime’ government that led to the unlawful shutting down of parliament, something that had last happened just after WW2 in 1948. Regardless of motive, the outcome may be the same.

As Verovšek says, “Although popular sovereignty is still important in Western Europe, the lessons of 1945 showed that that the will of the people could only function properly within a ‘constrained democracy’ that protected individual human rights by enshrining them outside the sphere of majoritarian parliamentary politics”

What we can be sure of, is that in modern Britain, that lesson has been forgotten and the “will of the people,” by which is meant a ‘winning minority,’ is now the excuse to remove constraints from a ruling executive and to ‘review’ human rights and individual liberties.

Parallels with history are not necessary when such parallels with modern ‘illiberal democracies’ are so stark.


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