World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are empty pages in her.
— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
We are living in interesting times. Interesting, to be sure, and also immensely dangerous times.
Our civilization, mankind itself, seems to have slipped its moorings. Somehow we left all the helmsmen ashore before we carelessly, indifferently, drifted out to sea.
Change is upon us - economic, social, political, environmental - each a "force multiplier" of the others. No one can say with any precision where we're headed or how quickly but there is some evidence that our course leads to an extinction event.
Politically we're witnessing the decline of liberal democracy and the ascendancy of the radical right. Turkey, Hungary and Poland are obvious examples, perhaps America also (we might know after the November mid-terms). But there are less obvious and equally worrisome nations where liberal democracy is under attack including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, even the UK. Next up may be Brazil where the far right leader just survived a severe knife attack while campaigning for the presidency.
Since childhood I've wondered how the German people succumbed to virulent fascism and first empowered and then embraced a leader and a movement so vile as Hitler's Nazis. Could there be some pattern in post-WWI Germany that is mirrored in so many countries today?
I'm exploring this question through two notable books. The first is Sebastian Haffner's memoir, "Defying Hitler." Haffner was a Prussian schoolboy in WWI, the son to a mid-level bureaucrat. His account of daily life in Germany in the 20s and 30s is engrossing and enlightening. Coming from a relatively well-off family he writes of how inflation had become so severe that his family had to spend his father's salary immediately it was received because it would be worthless in less than a week. The entire family, including the maid, was mobilized to fan out to the shops and buy whatever they could to see them through to the next payday. They got by, barely. Most were not so lucky.
The second is Milton Mayer's 1955 book, "They Thought They Were Free." Mayer was a German-American who, after the fall of the Third Reich in 1945, found the standard descriptions of the German volk unconvincing. And so he moved to Germany where he passed himself off as one of them, making friends with people who had shortly before been loyal followers of their Fuhrer.
I hope these books will furnish insight into what can possess good people to embrace monstrous leaders. Perhaps I may find parallels between the German people and those embracing the radical right today.
Another subject I want to explore is the decline of America as the world's dominant power, what is driving it and how America and the world will be impacted. I'm beginning this exercise with Kevin Phillips' 2005 book, "American Theocracy: the Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century."
I had to buy Phillips' book - again - because I no longer have the copy I bought when it first came out. I often loan books to friends and then lose track of them as in this case.
There are two aspects of the book I want to re-visit. The first is Phillip's excellent analysis of the pattern by which a succession of nations - Spain, Holland, Great Britain and, most recently, the United States by turns went from economic dominance to global hegemon to decline. He observes how each state went from an agricultural economy into an industrial or trading giant before abandoning the very activity that propelled their ascendancy to become a financialized economy, ultimately using that nation's own wealth to grow its successor's economy.
The second area to explore is the process of decline and the dynamic between the ascendant state and the nation it ousts. Here Phillips focuses heavily on the "hand-off" between Great Britain and the United States. That was a successful and peaceful transition between two countries that shared both a common language, political traditions, wartime alliances and the same postwar adversary, the Soviet Union. However war between the transitional powers is more frequent by a two-to-one margin.
Bear in mind that there has been no precedent of a transition in the circumstances that we face today - climate change, overpopulation, massively unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and, of course, terrorism and the nuclear Sword of Damocles. These factors really raise the stakes for transitional parties and there have been plenty of indications that some elements on both sides are spoiling for a fight.
I'm launching into this quest mainly because I'm curious. Morbidly curious perhaps but who doesn't want some glimpse into the world that awaits us? Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps we would rather not know.