Conspiracy in the Digital Age

The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in the United States and was initially a phenomenon that was unique to American politics. However, its popularity has spread overseas in recent years, and its tenets have especially been co-opted by populists and right-wing provocateurs in Europe. The best explanation for this is the increasingly overarching nature of conspiracy theories and the belief in secret government plots. As mentioned in Scott’s article, the concept of a “deep state” has transcended borders and can be interpreted in different ways. The relatively ambiguous and vague nature of the QAnon posts has been captivating for many people, who have directed its “anti-elite” rhetoric to their own governments and politicians. The necessity of transnational cooperation to address to COVID-19 pandemic has only added fuel to the conspiracy theories, whose adherents see coordinated lockdowns and other shared strategies among countries as proof that a “shadow government” indeed exists.

The Kalmar article discussed the tendency of populists to use “dog whistles” to implicitly communicate certain conspiratorial positions. In this case, some Hungarian far-right nationalists identify George Soros as being solely responsible for the recent influx of Muslim migrants into Europe. Although the position of these groups on the migrant crisis is openly Islamophobic, its anti-Semitism is masked behind criticism of the Jewish Soros. The intention here is to avoid accusations of anti-Semitism, while still hinting that Jews are weaponizing an immigration crisis to the detriment of native Europeans. These tactics are hardly new to such groups, but they have become especially dangerous in an age of information overload and the fast proliferation of fake news.

Political Tactics of the New Right

I learned a great deal from Bar-On’s well-written article on the French Nouvelle Droite. One part of his piece that stood out to me was his description of how de Benoist and his allies in the New Right movement employed inversion as a defensive tactic against their opponents. In short, they would accuse proponents of liberalism and multiculturalism as being anti-French racists, for example, on account of their apparent support for the homogenizing of France’s ethnic makeup. I could certainly see parallels here to contemporary political dialogue, namely that conservatives and members of the alt-right have been known to label liberals and leftists as racists, typically in the context of the debate surrounding immigration. I think part of this also stems from the right’s hostility to the tenets of critical race theory and their aversion to engaging in discussions on the concept of “whiteness,” both of which have moved into the mainstream of social and political discourse in recent years. In other words, some on the right have managed to frame conversations about white privilege and the intergenerational trauma of marginalized groups as being a campaign of anti-white racism.

Another aspect of the New Right’s ideology that reminded me of current political realities were the peculiar alliances they formed, often with groups considered to be on the far left of the political spectrum. One of the more troublesome examples of such an alliance today is that between certain Neo-Nazis and Palestinian rights activists, who in isolated cases have found common ground in their criticism of Israel and Jews in general. In relation to the article, I think this phenomenon must be viewed through the lens of transnational history, because it involves an interaction between people and ideas that transcend national borders.

Spain Struggles to Shake Its Authoritarian Past

This past month, the last remaining statue of Spain’s former dictator Francisco Franco was removed in the small Spanish exclave of Melilla. This move followed the provisions of Spain’s Historical Memory Law, which was enacted in 2007 to acknowledge the victims of the Spanish Civil War and to formally condemn Franco’s regime. Since the caudillo’s death in 1975, Spain has embarked on a daunting yet remarkably smooth transition to become a modern democratic nation. But despite the efforts of the Spanish government to forge a new identity and leave its authoritarian past behind, echoes of the Franco era can still be heard to this day.

One recent event that brought these simmering tensions to light was the arrest and imprisonment of popular rapper and activist Pablo Hasél. The Spanish government justified Hasél’s detainment by claiming that he incited violence and insulted the monarchy. While the charges against him were certainly exaggerated, it must be noted that Hasél is not quite the harmless citizen that some of his supporters portray him as. The rapper’s politically charged lyrics can easily be considered insensitive and one can plainly see how his behavior naturally ruffles some feathers, especially among right-wing Spaniards and supporters of traditional institutions in the country. Hasél also has a history of praising controversial militant groups and occasionally using violence against political foes. But despite his checkered past, Hasél’s song lyrics alone do not warrant the nine-month prison sentence that was just handed down to him by the Spanish judiciary, a decision that highlights the fragility of free speech in Spain.

Immediately after Hasél was arrested on February 16, a series of protests and riots erupted in several cities across Spain. The violence led to over a hundred injuries and arrests and caused damage worth over a million euros. As the unrest unfolded, the Twitter account of Podemos, a left-wing populist political party in Spain, wrote that “every time that people denounce a democratic irregularity in the streets, the media powers put the focus on the unrest so that we stop debating the root problem, and nothing changes.” They certainly have a point in that the optics of destructive riots may not serve a constructive purpose because such events tend to diminish the public perception of the protester’s demands. But although the violence is certainly unfortunate, it did capture the attention of international onlookers in ways that a calmer response likely would not have. The question moving forward now becomes how to harness this attention into something that will produce meaningful change in the Spanish legal system.  

It is also crucial to acknowledge Pablo Hasél’s Catalan roots and to view his detainment in the context of the larger Catalan independence movement that has intensified within Spain over the last several years. Hasél has firmly declared his support for the movement, which seeks to establish the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia as an independent country. The recent drive for separation reached a climax in 2017, when a referendum appeared to overwhelmingly confirm Catalans’ desire for independence, only to be deemed illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain shortly afterwards. The subsequent trial and imprisonment of several key organizers of the referendum led to fierce protests in 2019, which reflected a strong feeling of resentment and distrust by Catalans towards the central Spanish government. The episode served as a clear indicator that Spain is unwilling to respect its citizen’s rights to self-determination and grant them the same level of democratic freedom as other Western countries.  

As any reasonable observer can deduce, Pablo Hasél is nothing less than a political prisoner. He has suffered the unfortunate fate of being the latest casualty of a Spanish government that has shown little hesitation in silencing prominent opposition voices who threaten its authority. Although Spain has made impressive strides towards achieving full democracy in the last few decades, recent events have shown that the government is fully prepared to take actions to bolster state power at the expense of basic democratic ideals. If Madrid truly desires respect in the international community, it is imperative that it release both Pablo Hasél and the Catalan independence leaders immediately. It is the least that can be done to show that Spain is on the path of justice and not drifting back into its authoritarian past.

Postwar Hurdles to Confronting Germany’s Past

Something that really stood out for me in the Sollors reading was the assertion that the Fragebogen originated in the ideas of the Frankfurt School. I found this rather peculiar, because my interpretation of the Frankfurt School is that it views human behaviour as being influenced mainly by societal and cultural forces more so than by an individual’s free will. So it seemed quite odd to me that a simple questionnaire could have the power to determine one’s fate in post-war Germany, because the answers given on the form did not necessarily paint an accurate picture of someone’s past, let alone the circumstances under which they may have been forced to make such a decision. I found the passage from the book The Steeper Cliff to be highly relevant to this point, stating “there were no blank spaces for fears, no dotted lines for the detailing of agonies and inner misfortunes.” It is almost like the creators of the Fragebogen forgot about the coercive power wielded by the authoritarian Nazi regime and the psychological trauma experienced by so many Germans, knowing that they could face the wrath of the state if they dared step out of line.

            It was also thought-provoking to read, in Smith’s article, about the efforts of German Jews to commemorate Holocaust victims upon returning to their hometowns after the war. In my opinion, their struggles to gain the approval of locals reflects a pervasive unwillingness to confront the past and even a preference to distort history. I think this stems from a sense of guilt among many Germans for not doing anything to prevent the persecution of Jews or for serving as an accomplice to the atrocities. Some of history’s wounds will never be healed. But the simple act of establishing tangible and permanent tributes to targets of politically and racially motivated violence can hopefully serve as a grave reminder not to repeat the mistakes of the past, hence the motto “never forget.”     

The Navalny Saga and the Future of Russia’s Opposition Movement

The speed of democratic backsliding in Russia has never been more apparent than it has been in the last several months. In the summer of 2020, a pair of ominous events demonstrated the lengths to which Vladimir Putin is prepared to go in order to consolidate his power and eliminate political opposition. In July, an ostensibly fraudulent referendum paved the way for sweeping changes to Russia’s constitution, including a provision that could allow Putin to remain in power until 2036. The next month, the popular opposition leader and Kremlin foe Alexei Navalny was poisoned and nearly killed, after which he was detained and imprisoned for over two years. The overwhelming consensus in the international community is that the poisoning was orchestrated by Russia’s Federal Security Service, acting on Putin’s orders. The targeting of dissidents in Russia has a long history, but the Navalny incident strikes a graver chord because of his prominence and influence as an activist.

As the world watched these developments with deep concern, it was disheartening to see the lukewarm response of the West. Apart from a handful of sanctions levied against Russian officials, the assassination attempt against Navalny failed to generate significant outrage in many democratic nations. To be fair, many of the same countries were struggling with their own issues concerning the defence of democracy, so it is not entirely surprising that the incident barely registered on the radar. However, if anything is clear from studying the history of authoritarianism, it is of supreme importance that the attack on Navalny should not be swept under the rug and that those responsible be brought to justice. It certainly will not be an easy task. As many who have experienced the Russian political system firsthand have stated, including Navalny himself, corruption in the country is not merely an aberration; it is institutionalized.

At a time when the Kremlin is taking increasingly bold steps to secure energy independence and nurture its blossoming relationship with China, perhaps it is time to reimagine the tried-and-true tactic of economic warfare as a means of keeping Russia in check. With construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russian and Germany in full swing, the latter country can send a powerful signal to Putin if the project is halted or cancelled entirely. If Angela Merkel and her successor are true guardians of democracy, they should be prepared to take drastic steps like this, even if means sacrificing part of Germany’s economic growth. It is also crucial that states within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, like Ukraine, resist the urge to cooperate with Moscow and instead forge deeper relations with the democratic West.

As far as others in the West are concerned, the recent protests in Russia over Navalny’s detainment and subsequent imprisonment have presented another opportunity to challenge Putin and voice support for the demonstrators. Just this week, three brave diplomats from Germany, Poland and Sweden took to the streets in Moscow to join thousands of other Russians protesting Navalny’s sentencing. Although the diplomats were promptly expelled from the country, they set an example for the type of actions that are becoming increasingly necessary to confront autocrats and preserve democracy. Their actions should serve as a rallying cry for other politicians and officials to make tangible sacrifices, instead of resorting to the usual diplomatic cliches and niceties. With any luck, a sustained campaign of street protests and more robust economic sanctions will force Putin’s hand and embolden Navalny’s allies to confront corruption more seriously.  

As 2021 continues, the Kremlin is showing no signs of halting its assault on democracy. They also have little hesitation in supporting other states who have demonstrated a similar disdain for these sacred ideals. It is often difficult to ascertain the moment at which a country has crossed the threshold to become a rogue state. However, it should be abundantly clear to international observers that Putin’s Russia has, indeed achieved this status and should be treated as such. The notion that a country with extraordinary influence and power can bypass international law with such ease and little resistance should shake us all to the core. If the concerned parties fail to act with sufficient desperation, not only will the future of democracy in Russia be exceedingly grim, it will also be threatened worldwide.

Authoritarianism and the Weaponization of Gender and Sexuality

While the gender norms of an authoritarian society mostly derive from traditionalist ideology, they also serve practical goals of the regime. During wartime, it is crucial that every citizen knows their role, leaving little room for individualism and freedom of expression. For example, men are to be hardened soldiers, and in some cases, ruthless killing machines, because this spirit is required to defend the country or conquer other regions. This concept applied to Walter Hauck, the former Nazi soldier profiled in Kuhne’s article. Although Hauck appeared to be a family man and proud father, his warm demeanor was completely absent during his time as a soldier and this was driven by the Nazi regime’s conscious effort to reinforce strict gender roles and discourage moral evaluation of actions on the battlefield. However, I found it interesting in the article that despite the outward display of masculinity among the troops, the intimacy of this brotherhood allowed more “feminine” characteristics to manifest between the men. I suspect the reason for this is because all soldiers shared the emotional trauma of war, which creates a deep level of empathy for each other’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

            Sandulescu’s article about the Romanian fascist movement’s concept of the “new man” shed more light on how authoritarian regimes incorporate gender identity into their goals. In this case, the Legionnaires sought to mobilize the Romanian population against a perceived internal threat: The Jews. This required a rejuvenated idea of manhood, in which men were to adopt almost mythical qualities of strength and aggression. According to fascist ideology, this would be impossible in a democracy, which fundamentally creates divisions in society, based on party lines and conflicting ideologies. The one-party states seeks to eliminate these differences, to create a unified national identity that can respond effectively against any potential threat.  

Fascism, Culture & Tourism

One of fascism’s primary methods of gaining support is by evoking the glory and historical prestige of the nation. Fascist regimes dedicate much energy to crafting a certain aesthetic and cultural image, one that emphasizes the triumph of the strong over the weak.

This week’s readings highlighted several examples of how fascist regimes used cultural tools to strengthen their authority at home and project a desirable image abroad. As mentioned in the Baranowski article, the Strength Through Joy program in Nazi Germany provided leisure and travel opportunities to working-class Germans. Fascism ultimately aims to create a single nation united by race, which could only be accomplished if class conflict were eliminated. This explains why the program was designed to allow lower-class Germans to indulge in activities previously reserved for the upper and middle classes. Not only did the program offer generous perks to citizens, it strategically showed them the poverty of other countries, in the hopes that they would view Germany in a more positive light. The Nazi leadership understood that in order to preserve their authority, it was crucial to give citizens the illusion of freedom and Strength Through Joy was a prime example of this.

Drawing from Crumbaugh’s book, the government of Francoist Spain used similar techniques to ingratiate its brand of fascism to the world. The postwar era saw new economic and cultural developments, so the regime needed to adjust to these changes. This was manifest primarily in the government’s focus on shaping Spain to be a desirable tourist destination. In doing so, they wished to increase their exercise of soft power around the world. Put simply, if visitors had a positive impression of the country, then fascism would seem palatable and even progressive.

Does Fascism Inherently Oppose Internationalism?

Fascists have historically occupied a unique place in the international community. While they are often thought of as insular and isolated from other countries, they also understand that international collaboration between ideologically similar states can act as a countering force to less desired forms of internationalism, namely imperialism and communism. As Motadel observes, the Second World War saw a peculiar collaboration between the Nazi Party and various factions which were opposed to the imperialism of the western Allies or the communism of the Soviet Union. The degree to which this was based in a genuine affinity for each others’ causes is questionable. The Nazis certainly had practical reasons for forging alliances with other nationalist or anti-colonialist groups. In strengthening these elements, the Nazi’s enemies would be forced to concentrate more energy on subduing them instead of fighting Germany. It can also be argued that Nazi Germany did not truly oppose imperialism, evidenced by their expansionist plan in executing Generalplan Ost. They simply had disdain for the multiethnic, cosmopolitan imperialism, of which the British Empire was a prime example. However, as Ruth Ben-Ghiat points out regarding Mussolini’s Italy, the fascist’s views on expansionism was not monolithic. In fascist Italy’s case, they portrayed their occupation of Ethiopia not as a war of extermination, but as a civilizing mission. Still, the similarities to Nazi expansionism are clear because both were based in a shared view of “Aryan” superiority and not the materialistic motivations of capitalism or communism. In other words, fascists are ambivalent towards internationalism because they don’t consider it to be inherently positive or negative. If it takes the form of international capitalism or communism, then it must be opposed. If, on the contrary, the international community serves to strengthen each individual nation, then it is a desirable goal.   

Analogies and Comparisons in Political Dialogue

Evoking analogies and comparisons to the past can be a natural response to contemporary political developments. There are both advantages and disadvantages to these actions. Recalling historical figures or events in relation to present ones can sometimes help society grasp the gravity of a situation and serve as a warning. Conversely, it can also risk trivializing the true nature and repercussions of a historical event if it is compared to a recent one. This is because we do not have the luxury of viewing the present through the lens of history, and thus our analysis of it can be prone to personal biases and a lack of nuance.

In Peter E. Gordon’s article, he refers to a recent example of a politician comparing migrant detention centers on the southern United States border to the concentration camps of the Holocaust. Gordon briefly summarizes the debate that ensues and the positions of those on both sides. In writing that “all human atrocities are human acts, and as such all are candidates for comparison,” Gordon does not explicitly affirm the validity of this comparison, but he suggests that such comparisons can stimulate a healthy and respectful dialogue. I can appreciate his point, but I also think that there is a danger in overzealous politicians employing these analogies to appeal to the raw emotions of their constituents, at the expense of those who were personally affected by a traumatic event.

Similarly, Samuel Moyn discusses the potential inadequacies of comparing the present and past, specifically with regards to the Trump administration and the parallels some have drawn between it and Nazi Germany. What I took from Moyn’s article is that in times of uncertainty, it is human nature to rummage through the historical record to find something that matches the present circumstances. When Trump was elected in 2016, many were anxious as to what the future held and some saw the situation reflected in the rise of Hitler during the 1930s. The dangers in this however, it that we risk overlooking the conditions that allowed Trumpism to take hold and thus we are unable to engage in thoughtful dialogue with those on the other end of the political spectrum. Simply dismissing Trump supporters as Nazis is unproductive and lazy if we truly wish to effect meaningful change.  

Works Cited

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/