This week I’ve been pinging back and forth between two books that at first seem to have little in common. “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” by Tony Judt, and “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America,” by John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck.
“Postwar” is a work of popular history about Europe in the decades between World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. Its tone is narrative: It reads as if someone sat down next to Judt and asked how Europe worked, and he began an out-loud answer that didn’t stop for 960 pages. Although Judt clearly relied on a vast body of primary and secondary sources to write it, most of that stays behind the curtain of his own confident pronouncements about what happened and why.
“Identity Crisis” is quite different. Rather than expounding a confident narrative, it shows its work with near-obsessive precision, packing paragraphs with data and statistical analysis, and then pausing every few pages to pull it all together into an eloquent chart.
There is a whole chapter on how Trump took advantage of existing weaknesses within the Republican Party, for example, accompanied by data on endorsements showing how the party elite failed to coalesce behind any mainstream candidate. Of course, one of the reasons “Identity Crisis” can adopt this approach is because it’s focused narrowly on one election rather than a decades-long sweep of history.
Why did I find myself reading two such different books? Sometimes my reading choices can seem disjointed and scattered, as if I had been trying on different lenses for the world and discarding them in turn after they failed to give me the perspective I was looking for.
And yet, when I look back over my notes, I see how these two specific books are part of my stumble toward answering a question that I have been thinking about since 2016: What was it that suddenly seemed to change, first with Donald Trump’s triumph in the Republican primary, then through the success of the Brexit referendum in Britain, Trump’s win in the 2016 general election and the subsequent electoral victories of far-right populist parties and politicians in Europe, South America and the United States?
Books like “Identity Crisis” are a good way to understand the mechanics of what changed in that crucial primary and election in the United States — how race and immigration became more salient to voters and how that compounded the effects of a racial realignment that had been happening since the mid-20th century, when the battle over civil rights reshaped party politics. I found it clarified my thinking and helped pin down what really did and didn’t change in the many elections that people warned (or promised) were going to change everything.
Judt’s book is about Europe and was written long before Trump began his presidential campaign. But his analysis of how modern European identity was formed around the common idea of rejecting Nazism, and the Holocaust in particular, offers a fresh perspective on why the far right’s increasing share of the vote in certain countries feels like such a significant moment.
That is the case even in countries where such parties have managed to win only a minority of votes and have been kept out of power by “cordon sanitaire” policies that block them from coalition governments.
In Europe’s postwar political culture, Judt writes, ideological distance from Nazism was a way to define morality. That was what made far-right politics taboo: Even if ultranationalist, authoritarian parties did not embrace Hitler’s ideology directly, their politics were incompatible with a national identity centered on atoning for the Holocaust and rejecting the ideas that led to it. Perhaps the traction gained by the far right is a sign that this taboo is breaking down — a major shift, even in places where those parties haven’t won much actual power.
“Holocaust recognition is our contemporary European entry ticket,” writes Judt, who was born in 1948 to a Jewish family in London. “The recovered memory of Europe’s dead Jews has become the very definition and guarantee of the continent’s restored humanity.”
Judt is writing about Europe, but it’s not difficult to see how a similar process played out in the United States, where victory over Nazism became part of the narrative of American exceptionalism.
“That is why mainstream politicians shun, so far as they can, the company of demagogues like Jean-Marie Le Pen,” Judt writes of the co-founder of France’s far-right National Front, describing the Holocaust as “much more than just another undeniable fact.”
That reminded me of a political rally I witnessed in Dresden, Germany, in 2017. Björn Höcke of the far-right Alternative for Germany party complained that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital,” a clear reference to the memorial in Berlin to Jews murdered in the Holocaust. He called for the country to reclaim a history that had been “handled as rotten.”
After the speech, Höcke was denounced by mainstream politicians and by many even within his own party. But the crowd that night was rapturously supportive, shouting, “Deutschland, Deutschland,” as Höcke publicly challenged a central tenet of Germany’s political identity: the need to remember and atone for the Holocaust.
I suspect that a major part of the angst over the success of the far right is not just about their actual chance at taking and wielding power — which in many places still remains remote — but the sense that every gain they make at the polls is a sign that a foundational taboo is eroding, and with it a shared story of political identity and purpose.
Reader responses: Books that you recommend
Audie Klotz, a reader, recommends “Prophet Song” by Paul Lynch:
Those of us, like you, who think about some of the most horrific situations in the world all the time for work, rely on a degree of abstraction or distance for our own health. (I agree about Jane Austen!)
Occasionally, however, we turn to fiction not as escape but as a reminder of the human costs. Lynch’s novel, within its distinctive writing style, chronicles the ever-so-gradual collapse of a society and family due to authoritarianism and civil war. The message isn’t humanitarianism — helping “others” over “there” — it’s a plea not to think you can keep your head down and just hope for the best.
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