In Germany, the date of 30 January 1933, when President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor, formally bringing the Weimar Republic to an end, is remembered as the day of Germany’s ‘break with civilization’ (Zivilisationsbruch). If Brexit triumphs in Britain, the day of 23 June will be known for ever to our shame as the day of Britain’s break with civilization. When Leave campaigners proclaim ‘Make 23 June Britain’s Independence Day’, this is what they would like to call into being. On 30 January 1933, little by little, Germany relapsed into barbarism. If Brexit triumphs next week in Britain, we will see something similar. The evidence is already with us – MP Jo Cox, refugee campaigner and advocate for Remain, murdered on the streets of her constituency; a UKIP Leave poster picturing hordes of dark-skinned refugees flooding the country, declaiming Britain at ‘Breaking Point’. This is the true break the Leave campaign wants to install – a veritable rupture with the values of civilization for which Britain went to war in 1939.
In the first five years of the Weimar Republic, right-wing extremists carried out more than 400 murders of individuals they called ‘traitors to Germany’. Asked for his name in court, the killer of Jo Cox replied: ‘death to traitors: freedom for Britain’.
All of this happened in Germany on the eve of National Socialism – upright people assaulted and murdered on the streets; fundamental institutions of democracy and liberal pluralism shut down for good; facts, reason and common sense ignored; lies and disinformation spread around like wildfire; ‘elites’, experts and knowledgeable people shouted down and demonized; fears and discontents turned into engines of hate.
After the Wall Street Crash of October 1929, following a decade of worldwide laissez-faire economic policy, as well as a decade of fiscal dependence for Germany on US credit loans, partly to pay reparations instituted at the Treaty of Versailles, the country slid into immediate mass unemployment. In 1930 Chancellor Heinrich Brüning tried to address the crisis by embarking a policy of severe fiscal austerity, leading Hindenburg in turn to call fresh elections for September 1930 in an attempt to shore up support for the government. The result was only to give Hitler’s party a chance to make its first inroads into the German democratic political system – achieving a shocking 18% of the popular vote. The Nazis then preyed systematically on all the worst fears of the unemployed and the German working class. The Nazis lied to the German people by telling them that the causes of their misery were not austerity politics, not unregulated laissez-faire economics, not the demolition of social democracy, not workers’ exploitation, but international bureaucrats and diplomats, foreign nations, foreign laws and foreign races – not global capital but Europe.
The Leave campaign in Britain today is doing exactly the same. It is fetishistically trying to make Europe and the European Union the scapegoat for everything that most angers working people in Britain about the globalized world we live in. This anger is entirely justified and understandable – but it is being atrociously manipulated and misdirected. The true causes of the destruction of jobs, welfare, healthcare, education, housing, good chances of life for everyone and, yes, sovereignty for the British people, are not the European Union but year upon year of British domestic right-wing policies going back over nearly four decades since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, in alliance with global finance capital and American business models.
The European Union, for sure, is a deeply imperfect, frustrating and disappointing institution. It needs to be radically reformed and perhaps replaced altogether with an entirely different institution of transnational self-determination and solidarity for the peoples of Europe, from the bottom up. But this is not the opportunity this referendum presents to us. The sole and absolute opportunity it presents is for the Eurosceptic right-wing of the Conservative Party to entrench still further its pernicious grip over UK politics and to deepen still more viciously its hold over middle England and the disaffected working class. The sole reason for its taking place is David Cameron’s fatal mistake in January 2013 in believing he could contain his party’s internal divisions by issuing the promise of a referendum in a bid to call his party into line – and in the process, upon re-election in 2015, offloading the issue onto the entire population of the UK and making everyone pay the consequences.
Once again, the parallels with the last days of Weimar Germany are deeply alarming. After the Wall Street Crash, one chancellor after another in Germany made Faustian compacts with the devil, pandering ever further to the right in a bid to contain and appease an ever expanding mass of spiteful and resentful members of ‘middle Germany’ – entirely comparable to today’s middle England. These men were not men of the people, any more than Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Ian Duncan Smith and Nigel Farage are men of the people. They were cynical opportunists, all from historic German aristocratic families, seeking to whip up a demagogic power base for their agenda. In Britain after Brexit, we will be ruled by a right-wing cabal, not unlike Germany’s in the dying days of Weimar, with illiberal and anti-democratic forces spiralling out of control. The economy will go into a tailspin and resentment will be stoked still further, in a vicious cycle of self-fulfilling prophecies, entrenching the cabal ever further.
After Hitler’s entrée into the German political system in September 1930, every appeal of the Social Democrats to reason fell on deaf ears, the Nazis relentlessly exploiting the hollowing out of social democracy and transforming social and civic issues of equality and solidarity into national and nationalist issues of migrants, welfare fraudsters and jobs for natives – exactly as we are seeing in Britain today, and all across the world. On 30 January 1933 the Nazis achieved their prize –irreversible constitutional change, the country locked down and hard wired onto a new and utterly regressive path. This is what a vote for Brexit on 23rd June could represent for Britain. The right-wing fringe of the Conservative Party will have a free hand to prosecute its assault on the people of Britain, leaving the country entirely at the mercy of the winds of global finance and stripping workers even more they already are of protections against precariousness and exploitation.
Some may be voting for Brexit in good faith. Some may be doing so, understandably, from a feeling of anger at the globalized world of international finance capitalism we now live in. But they must realise that they will swept away, undercut and ultimately co-opted by barbarians they could never possibly regard as their allies, their voices silenced and their lives – possibly literally – snuffed out. All of this happened in Germany at the outset of the 1930s, not only on the left and the liberal centre but also on the historic, mainstream moderate right, the rug entirely lifted from under its feet.
It might seem an overstatement to suggest that any of this could happen here. Let us perish the thought that Britain could actually slide as far down the road as Germany did after January 1933. Fortunately, the world now has too many institutions of international law for this ever to be truly conceivable – including, of course, the very institution set up to ensure that Germany’s fate never recurred, namely the one institution the Brexiters want to see abolished, the European Union. But all the signs are there, and all point in a similar direction.
If Brexit happens, Britain will be the pariah of Europe and pariah of the world. Like Germany’s exit from the League of Nations in October 1933, Brexit will be Britain’s exit from the league of humanity. The country will enter on a future of seismic regression.
A vote for Brexit will be a vote for barbarism. Vote Remain on 23 June 2016.