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Learning from the past

April 24, 2016

History does not repeat itself. However certain ages can have a resemblance to each other in a way which encourages thinking about what the experiences of the past can teach us about the challenges of the present.

The 1930s have always been a salient period of history for me as it is the decade of my parent’s childhood, a decade which in many ways was in such contrast to my own comfortable upbringing in the 1970s. In particular my father’s experience of growing up in the Rhondda Valley in the height of the Depression has made a profound impact on me.  Many contemporary visitors to the South Welsh coalfields were also moved. As the future Edward VIII commented when seeing, at first hand in South Wales the level of poverty induced by industrial decline and mass unemployment “Something must be done.” Little was done at the time but the images of the Depression did much to inspire the political determination, after World War II, to create a fairer and more prosperous society.   The current issues around the future of the steel industry at Port Talbot show how deeply entrenched such experiences are in the folk memory of the Welsh.

Other narratives describe the economic traumas of the decade in other parts of the country. George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” and “Down and Out in London and Paris” are uncompromising in their descriptions of the life of the poor and unemployed and Winifred’s Holtby’s brilliant novel “South Riding”  captures the oppressiveness of the hard times of that decade.  In America the impact of the Depression, if anything even more profound there than in Britain, is captured in the writing of John Steinbeck and in particular in the “The Grapes of Wrath”.

The economic experience of the last 8 years has not been that of the 1930s but it shares some characteristics. The depth of economic distress has not been as great (for instance it took until the 1940s for British GDP to return to pre-1929 levels) and the burden has fallen more on living standards than unemployment.  There are similarities, however, in the sense of sustained period of economic stagnation and uncertainty mirrored across much of the western world and reflected as well in the policies of austerity in respect of public spending.  This has had its impact on society and on politics with the rise of extremist politicians and parties across Europe.

That of course was the other shadow of the 1930s, the decline of democracy and the rise of fascism across Europe. In the 1920s the large majority of European countries were democracies but by 1939 democracy survived in only a handful.  This is a phenomenon which, at 80 years remove, is still hard to understand but any understanding has to include the acceptance that significant numbers of ordinary people opened the path to the rise of extremist parties and that those parties, when in Government, were sustained not only by force and the fear of force but a good measure of public support. Again we are not in the 1930s but current political history shows worrying signs of the politics of anger and anxiety on which extremism thrives.

The final similarity is the weakening of international institutions and a growing tendency towards isolationism. The League of Nations, a well-intentioned attempt to prevent the horrors of the First World War ever happening again, was perhaps never fit for purpose, especially once America retreated into isolationism.  However in the 1920s there were some successes in resolving international tensions, in particular in helping Germany reintegrate into the international community.  By the 1930s however all semblance of authority in international institutions had disappeared and until the very end of the decade there was no counter to the rise and increasing aggression of the Nazis.  Europe again staggered towards a conflict in which millions died and much of its cultural identity was torn apart.  For much of the decade a dark cloud lay of the continent which its inhabitants were powerless to counter.  This sense of gathering gloom is captured so powerfully in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s accounts (“Between the Woods and the Water” and “A Time of Gifts”) of the journey he made from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul in the early 1930s. There is a scene where he visits a Jewish community in the Carpathian Mountains proudly maintaining the beliefs and rituals of their ancestors which has such a rich poignancy in the light of the events which were shortly to follow.

The 1930s were not a period of unmitigated hopelessness. There were idealists such as the young men who went off to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a story described In George Orwell’s “Homage to  Catalonia” or Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked out One Midsummer’s Morning”.  Brave men such as Nicholas Winton put themselves at risk to save hundreds of Jewish children at risk as the Germans seized control of Czechoslovakia.

It was also a time of solidarity.  My father’s memories of the Rhondda in the 1930s were of economic hardship tempered by a phenomenal sense of community.  Despite the widespread poverty subscriptions from those miners in work provided access to a network of libraries and healthcare.  In the USA FDR’s New Deal managed to create a sense of hope to a country traumatised by the Depression even if it took the War to restore fully economic prosperity.

It is a good thing to reflect on the past. From the 1930s there are powerful lessons about the insidious strains which times of economic hardship can place on the bonds within and between societies. It is easy, at such times, to resort to anger and to find scapegoats for what has happened.  However such responses are not the solution to our difficulties.  They lie in values of hope and respect for common and shared interest.  The bigger the threat the more we need to stick together.

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