Troubling parallels between WWII and today’s world
The rise of nationalistic sentiments and tensions over refugees point to disturbing similarities with the 1930s. Insight asks, are we headed for another global conflict?
SINGAPORE: With the refugee crises in Europe and Southeast Asia, and middle-class wages stagnating in the West, observers are warning of parallels between the global political and socioeconomic climate of the present, and that of the 1930s – just before the onset of World War II.
A significant driving factor that led to World War II was the impact of the Great Depression on the middle class communities in the West, said Dr Benjamin Schupmann, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale-NUS College.
Coupled with the influx of migrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia, this created the basis for the instability, fear and exclusion in Western countries that contributed to the outbreak of the world war.
“With these displaced populations, you have the inhabitants seeing them as different, worrying at the same time about their socioeconomic status as their wages are dropping, and immigrants seem to be rising within the ranks of society,” said Dr Schupmann.
“So, if you need someone to blame, why not blame the new guy?”
Today, similar trends are leading to similar fears – and the similarly troubling rise of political figures championing nationalist and isolationist sentiments, analysts note on this week’s episode of Insight, ‘Lessons of War’.
- “The way Hitler rose to power, he appealed to the lower middle classes. They felt that because they had seen a lot of their savings evaporate through hyperinflation, the system wasn’t looking out for them,” said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
- “I think this is the same thing Trump has done.”
- United States President Donald Trump has made several controversial moves since taking office in January, including pulling America out of the Trans Pacific Partnership and carrying out extreme vetting of immigrants – all under a broad nationalistic agenda to put “America First”
- Nationalistic sentiments are resurgent elsewhere as well. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push to make Russia “great again” has led to military adventurism, such as through Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, noted Mr Bitzinger.
Meanwhile, China’s increasingly aggressive attempts to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea has led to tensions with its neighbours – and could be a potential flashpoint for a major conflict, Mr Bitzinger warned.
“Increasingly, you have countries that are governing from a sense of fear and from the perspective of being the loser,” he said. “If everybody feels they are the victim, nobody wants to make concessions.”
But Dr Schupmann noted that while parallels between the present and the pre-war era exist, international institutions like the European Union are now in place and still considered legitimate by citizens around the world – in contrast to the situation pre-1940s.
These institutions are important for moderating different nations in dialogue and offering alternate paths for conflict resolution, he added.
Said Mr Bitzinger: “We are still dealing today with the same issues we dealt with 20, 30, 50 years ago.
“It’s how we deal with them, and the kind of people we have in charge of dealing with them, that will determine war or peace.”
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