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"Democracy proved incapable of defending the people," wrote Spanish journalist Manuel Chavez Nogales about the Nazi occupation of France.
By Vittorio Jucker
Published: 2016-05-26
"I

n a functioning democratic regime [Édourd] Daladier [French prime minister in 1940] would not have failed. Evaluating Daladier now we have to bear in mind the ever-present error of attributing to democracy the very crimes committed by its enemies. Daladier failed, and brought a catastrophic defeat on France, not because he was a democratic leader nor because a democratic regime was inevitably bound to lose but because anti democratic forces in France were allowed to operate criminally and without fear of reprisal, their only aim to sink the country in order to sink the regime. Democracy’s sin was that it did not stem those forces of destruction before they could cause a rebellion of the masses whose basest instincts had been artfully stimulated. Democracy proved incapable of defending the people, the real demos, from forces that in order to conquer and conserve power opted to embrace the barbarism of totalitarianism."

— Manuel Chavez Nogales


Austrian far rightist Norbert Hofer lost a tight May race for the Austrian presidency.

These bitter words were written exactly 75 years ago by liberal progressive journalist Manuel Chavez Nogales, a Spaniard in London exile, reflecting on the shockingly swift military defeat suffered by France, and with it Holland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, in early 1940. The countries were overrun and occupied by Nazi Germany in a prelude to Adolf Hitler's short-lived "new order." The French army, headed by reactionary factions, hardly bothered to fight, preferring capitulation and collaboration to resistance. Most French industrialists and business leaders as well as large chunks of bureaucracy, intellectuals, churchmen, the country's right wing forces, and even the Communists fiercely opposed France's existing Third Republic. That Republic, managed by an incompetent, largely corrupt, ineffectual and despised political system, had been unable or unwilling to drag France out of a lingering depression that had seen a decline in the standard of living and rising unemployment.

Eight decades may seem like a long time ago, yet many of the ingredients that humbled France are back among us. The coming months will witness elections in Spain, politically paralyzed for well over six months, Italy, Britain (the somewhat irresponsible Brexit referendum) and the United States, soon to move from its primary phase to the general election.

Strong populist and anti-system forces have become significant actors in the wobbly political processes of all these countries.

In Europe, political stability is at risk from movements that lash out both at domestic government and European Union management. Mainstream political institutions are bearing the brunt of sharply declining standards of living and a bad job market, which has triggered a visceral (if illogical) fear of uncontrolled immigration. In recent Austrian presidential elections, a xenophobic candidate lost by a hairbreadth.

Significant chunks of European electorates have simply stopped believing in established political parties, if not the system behind them. In fact, so-called European populism is often mislabeled. Some populist movements are openly reactionary, creating national fissures similar to those Nogales alluded to in his 1940 French scenario.

European resentment has several causes. The European Commission has handled the recession ineptly, clinging to a conservative, monetarist approach. Though Germany conditions EU policy in its role as the de facto regional superpower, its crisis-thinking has been anything but imaginative. Nor has French President François Hollande been of much use. The former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, many now in the EU, are riddled with largely unrecognized social and economic problems. If you believe the Guardian newspaper, it is Matteo Renzi's reform-minded Italy that is poised to play dynamic role in the debate about future EU management.

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