It would be an exaggerated description to call this an ‘age of extremism’. Society and politics in Europe have undoubtedly become far more polarised over the past decade. The explosion of anti-establishment anger that boiled up in the wake of the bank crash of 2008, and the impact of the migrant crisis of 2015–16, have driven the polarisation, though the roots go back further. But the polarisation does not – at least, not yet – come close to the extremism seen in Europe during the 1930s. There are echoes of that era, it is true. But the differences far outweigh the similarities.
Ethnic, border and class conflict are either absent or greatly muted compared with the interwar years. Capitalism’s crisis has been contained – for now. But xenophobic populism and authoritarianism unquestionably challenge the dominance of liberal democracy in some countries. Pluralist democracy is being eroded from within in Hungary and Poland, exists only as a façade in Russia and Turkey, and is challenged in the United States by Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
Democracy is, nevertheless, broadly accepted today both by elites and the mass of the population. Nationalist populism, as abhorrent as it is, is not the same as fascism – though fascists are, of course, among its supporters. Interwar fascism promised revolutionary national renewal. Its hallmark was paramilitary violence and extreme militarism, while anti-communism was a central part of its ideological appeal.
No huge political movements, left or right, are today propagating revolution. No large paramilitary organisations dominate the streets of Europe’s cities. The violent clashes of fascists and communists that characterised the 1930s have largely gone. Militarism plays no role. Since the end of the Soviet Union, anti-communism no longer serves as an ideological driving-force. Moreover, Russian national assertiveness today is, unlike communism, not a doctrine with wide international appeal. The global clash of the extremes – fascism and communism – is also missing.
The eras are different. We live in dangerous times, but not in a new age of extremism.
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw is regarded as one of the world’s leading biographers of Adolf Hitler. His latest book is Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950–2017 (Allen Lane, 2018)
The full debate is available in issue 13 of BBC World Histories Magazine, on sale now