The Spring Of Hope: In 1848 the peoples of Europe rose in their millions to revivify the revolutionary demands of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. The crushing of this "European Spring" set in motion the self-destructive philosophical and political movements which culminated, 85 years later, in the appointment of Adolf Hitler as German Chancellor. We must hope that the convulsions of 2016-17 do not signal the beginnings of another such catastrophe.
TWO YEARS: 1848 and 1933; are linked by the consequences of political disillusionment and despair. In Germany, the “Year of Revolutions” – 1848 – ended in failure. The fervent hopes of German youth for a unified, liberal and democratic nation were dashed. In the years that followed they would be told that: “Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided – that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849 – but by iron and blood.”
Eighty-five years after “the great mistake” of believing in “speeches and majority decisions” had curdled the German intelligentsia’s faith in the rational values of the Enlightenment, the grandson of their disillusionment and despair, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor of Germany. On 30 January 1933, “iron and blood” ceased to be the effective means of achieving specific national ends, and became ends in themselves. Abandoning the voices of reason for the fiery counsel of political dragons has only one ending – and it is neither happy nor civilised.
The year separating June 2016 from June 2017 may yet be similarly identified as the starting-point of a catastrophe every bit as terrible as the one which kicked-off in 1933.
It has been a year of incoherency and incomprehension: of primal political screams and contemptuous dismissals. A year in which everything has been demanded and nothing has been conceded. A year of brute force and sophisticated manipulation, in which the champions of both political approaches remained committed only to exploiting the divisions they had created.
There will be those who advance the election of Emmanuel Macron as evidence that reason has finally triumphed over passion. That the madness which began with Brexit and descended into the delirium of Trump has, at last, been tranquilised: appropriately, in the home of the Enlightenment – France.
But this would be to confuse the shrewdness of Charles De Gaulle, the father of the Fifth French Republic, with a genuinely democratic solution to the still very real problem of organised political irrationality. The run-off presidential election was devised by De Gaulle as the last line of defence against both the residual evil of Vichy fascism and the growing menace of France’s Moscow-oriented Communist Party. A prophylactic against extremism – not a cure.
And against the daughter of Vichy, Marine Le Pen, De Gaulle’s constitution has held the line. But that in no way makes Monsieur Macron the positive choice of the French people. He has become their President not on account of the man he is, but on account of the woman he is not. Nor should we be dazzled by the 66%-34% result. Madame Le Pen’s father, in his 2002 run-off against Jacques Chirac, secured barely a fifth of the votes cast. His daughter has lifted that fraction to more than a third. The National Front now calls itself the largest single political force in France.
A similar number of Frenchmen either abstained or left their ballot papers blank. Macron owes his “victory” to the votes of two-thirds of two thirds of France. If the supporters of this former investment banker attempt to claim the run-off result as a positive mandate for the neoliberal programme his “En Marche” movement is advancing, then the partisans of irrationality and brute force will advance their own claims – on the nation’s streets.
Macron’s task, now, is not to strip French workers of their rights by presidential decree, but to make sure that 2017 does not become the year of unheeded hurts, in the same way that 1848 became the year of crushed hopes. He assured his cheering supporters outside the Louvre that his greatest wish is to bring the French people together. Now that would be a real victory!
Because hurts unheeded and hopes crushed do not disappear, they fester and weep, poisoning the blood of a nation’s politics, raising its temperature to fever heat, spawning the hallucinations and delirious ravings of demagogues for whom hurt and hope are meat and drink.
We do not know what sort of Europe might have emerged had the “Year of Revolutions” not ended in despair and disillusionment. Had her best and brightest children not, over the next 85 years, convinced themselves that it was possible to go “beyond good and evil” and return unscathed.
But the Europe which actually emerged from 1848’s crushed hopes – that we do know.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 May 2017.