The political and economical crisis of the EU might help a new European Hitler to emerge, warns historian Geoffrey Roberts. He believes the current rise of ultra-nationalism in Europe resembles that one of 1930s as history tends to repeat itself.
Professor Geoffrey Roberts sees the rise of extreme nationalism in Europe as a test for the whole international democratic concept – with no predictable results.
Still, Roberts is hopeful that European democracy can survive this current crisis because “the democratic culture, democratic institutions which are much stronger in Europe than they were before WWII.”
RT: People from WWII are still alive and the memories of that war are fresh. The war could be a good lesson for all of us but we see the huge rise of nationalist right movements in Europe. What is to blame?
Geoffrey Roberts: The extreme ultra-nationalist movement in Europe is not a new phenomenon. Recently, the political influence of nationalism has been very strong; particularly the extreme force has grown in various countries of Europe. I think that has mostly to do with the economic and political problems that Europe is facing at the moment, which pose a dire threat to the whole future of the EU.
As time goes on, the war recedes from memory and becomes much more distant even, and the more time elapses, the more possibilities there are for people to present distorted accounts of the war. Partly, this development of extreme ultra-nationalism in Europe is explained by the distance from the war troubles. But it is not the main reason. The main one is contemporary politics and economics rather than history. That is not to say that history is not important because there are many history lessons that are relevant to the contemporary crisis.
RT: If the crisis in Europe is to last, will there be a rise of more nationalist sentiment.
GR: There is a great danger of that. If the eurozone collapses, if the EU collapses, the most likely scenario it would be replaced by different fronts of nationalists. Good question is what forms of nationalism, how extreme and dangerous they are going to be.
That is the historical lesson, what happened before WWII, particularly the 1930s when there was a crisis similar to the one we’re going through now. The result of that was the rise of extreme nationalism, the emergence of a number of authoritarian and Nazi-type regimes in Europe.
The historical lesson is the great danger of that development now. I don’t see this by any means inevitable. I think the difference between now and then is the democratic culture, democratic institutions which are much stronger in Europe than they were before WWII. I’m not confident but I’m hopeful that European democracy can survive this current crisis.
RT: Do you think that a politician with anti-democratic views could rise to power through those democratic institutes?
GR: That’s exactly what happened in the case of Hitler. He did it. And that’s what happened in a number of other countries in Europe before and after WWII. It is a distinct possibility, a challenge that would be a test of Western democracy. Not just Western democracy, but European and international democracy. Can it actually survive the challenge of nationalism which thrives in conditions of economic collapse and political disorder?
RT: Could a sticking together of the united Europe work as a magic push against rise of nationalism?
GR: I don’t think it is a panacea, but I sincerely hope that the European Union doesn’t collapse. Because for all of its faults, the EU is much better than an ultra-nationalist alternative. Who knows what is going to happen? I think it is possible that the EU will survive and I hope it does.
If I were Russian, I would actually be hoping that case as well because a collapse of the EU and the rise of extreme forms of nationalism in Europe could pose quite a significant challenge for Russia as well.
RT: In Russia there are two dimensionally different takes on [Joseph] Stalin. Some say he was a great guy who won WWII and actually gave the country an immense boost. Others say he actually undermined the economy which led to eventual collapse of the USSR. What is your take on that?
GR: When Stalin died Winston Churchill reportedly said “Stalin found Russia with the wooden plough and he left it with an atomic bomb.” I think that statement sums up Stalin’s achievement. That achievement was to modernize, urbanize and industrialize the Soviet Union, to build the foundations of a country that was able to withstand the German invasion in 1941 and go on to the victory over fascism and also the foundations to the post-war rise of the Soviet Union to a nuclear superpower.
If Russia is still a great country to play an important role in the world and with an enormous potential for the future it’s because of the foundations that were laid during Stalin’s time.
Having said that, of course, there could be lots of questions and discussions as to whether or not that modernization of Russia had to have been as brutal as it was. Because of course Stalin might modernize Russia and the Soviet Union…
RT: You mean the post-war Russia?
GR: No, the pre-war Russia as well. Stalin was also responsible for the deaths of the millions of people. Take another discussion about the cost, you can have a discussion about whether or not different courses in action of events would have been perhaps more effective than the ones Stalin pursued. But nevertheless in the end it is a historical fact that the Soviet Union was successfully modernized under Stalin, although on a very brutal basis.
RT: So the cause of the collapse [of the Soviet Union] should really be put on other leaders who came after Stalin?
GR: Of course the system that Stalin built and which persisted after his death, some of the most brutal aspects of the system disappeared after his death, such as the mass terror. Essentially, it was still Stalin’s system. But that system was very defective in many ways. Those defects in the end resulted in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
RT: Was it also the mentality that Stalin tried to establish in the Soviet Union, the mentality that he left after his death was to blame for the collapse?
GR: It depends on what kind of mentality you’re talking about. Stalin was a Communist. He believed in Socialism. He believed in a Communist utopia. He believed in the Soviet system. He believed that the Soviet Union was a model for the whole world. One doesn’t have to agree with his beliefs or his vision, but one has to recognize the power of that vision. The power of that vision was very important in the historical development of the Soviet Union, both when Stalin was alive and then subsequently.
What happens is Gorbachev comes along and he questions and challenges that traditional Soviet image and he attempts to reform the system in quite a radical way. That resulted in the eventual collapse of the system.
RT: People in the West mostly see Stalin as the politician who led Russia to win WWII. In Russia there is no doubt we won the war. Without Russia the war would not be won. Are there doubts in the West about that?
GR: There are some people in the West who would want to deny. Not Russia – the Soviet Union won WWII – because that is an uncomfortable truth for them to face. That this authoritarian socialist regime, that this dictator Stalin was responsible for the defeat of Hitler. And in effect he was responsible.
RT: As opposed to Nazis?
GR: This kind of people also tends to have a view that there was no great difference between Nazism and Communism, Stalin and Hitler, which is as bad as each other. I don’t think that would be the most prevalent view. The most prevalent view would recognize the differences between the Nazism and Communism and the differences between Hitler and Stalin. Hitler was a far more dangerous dictator for the world than Stalin ever was.
I think there is nowadays an increased recognition of the Soviet role in WWII. Of course there have always been people who want to present a different, distorted view of the events of WWII.
RT: You’re someone who knows a lot about that and you studied Stalin. You wouldn’t say that at this point in the West there is a deficit of knowledge about Stalin and Russia’s role in WWII?
GR: There is always a deficit of historic knowledge about the world, not just in the West but in Russia as well. I don’t think that this deficit is too great. As I said there is nowadays much greater recognition of the Soviet role in WWII… particularly since the end of the Cold War.
During the Cold War there existed an ideological struggle going on. Part of that ideological brawl was an effort by Western Cold Warriors to deny the reality of the Soviet role defeating the Nazis. Western Cold War era views still exist and are still making the same kind of arguments, but they are not as widespread and effective as they used to be.