Through my time studying history and political science at McMaster University, I've been immersed in the events that have shaped our lives today. I've been taught about the rise and fall of great civilizations, lectured on the great leaders and influencers of the past, and been taught to dive into research on the events that lead to great points in history. The intention, of course, is to teach me that history is not merely a recording or story that has interesting characters or exciting events to it. It is more than that. It is an example of processes and actions that past men and women have taken and how they affected the world around them—a way to learn from the past, a guidebook if you will, so as to not make the same mistakes. From the technological stagnation of the Dark Ages to the Second World War, history holds many examples of events that we quite simply do not want to repeat.
And yet I can't help but look at the news in recent months and years and think that we may be headed on a path similar to one of the very darkest points in our history, World War II. The recent tragedy in Oslo, Norway that saw an extremist right-wing terrorist blow up a government building and attack a youth camp is evidence of a much larger and disturbing trend in Europe and the wider world. Far-right parties have been growing in support in recent years, largely catalyzed by rising rates of Islamic immigration. The Progress Party in Norway holds 41 out of 169 parliament seats; the Freedom Party in the Netherlands holds 24 out of 150 seats; Italy's Lega Nord hold 85 out of 945 seats; Belgium's Vlaams Belang hold 15 out of 150 seats; Denmark's Dansk Folkeparti hold 25 out of 179 seats; and Hungary's Jobbik party (a party that has promoted the idea of rounding up Hungary's Gypsy population) holds 47 out of 386 seats. These are not majorities, to be sure, but at the risk of melodrama, I must point out that neither did the Nazi party hold majorities following the 1930 German election (18.3% of the vote) or the 1932 presidential election (30%).
Today's parallels to the events that led to World War II are not limited to the rise of far right parties in Europe, either. The world's financial crisis bears similarities to the Great Depression of the 1930s. As Greece threatens to default, the European Union struggles to maintain financial stability, and the U.S. trembles under debt, the similarity grows stronger. In fact, the market collapse of 2008 and resulting economic recession bear stark resemblance to the Wall Street crash of 1929, which started the Great Depression.
Consider also the calls by United States politicians to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq and focus on domestic concerns—echoing the sort of neo-isolationist rhetoric that followed World War I, which largely caused America to enter the second World War late. One could even link the instability in the Middle East today back to the instability in the Balkan States that had made up the Austro-Hungarian Empire before its dissolution in the first World War. Even the United Nations seems to be trending towards having about as much leverage, influence, and success in stopping war and settling disputes between countries as the much-maligned League of Nations.
Don't mistake my observations as fear-mongering. I am merely reflecting on the guidebook history has written for us, and seeing potential comparisons in the present. What lessons have we learned? What lessons are we missing?
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it."
—George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense (1905)