Before the Catastrophe: 1940 vs 2020

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Abram de Swaan (Amsterdam)

On a beautiful spring day exactly 80 years ago,my father Meik and mother Hennie were standing on a running board clinging to the side of a car heading full speed toward the port city of IJmuiden. Rumor had it that fishing boats were docked there ready to transport passengers to England; one last chance to escape the rapidly advancing Nazi armies.

In the car ahead of them were their friends Loe de Jong and his wife Liesbeth Cost Budde. On the way, Loe had lost sight of his younger sister Jeannette and their parents amid all the chaos. My parents had to let go of the car before reaching IJmuiden. De Jong, who was then editor of De Groene Amsterdammer, would soon become well-known as the anchor of Radio Oranje, the  voice of the Dutch government in-exile, which was broadcast from London. Following the war he authored the 30 volume The Kingdom of the Netherlands During the Second World War, a chronicle which he would later recount again in a highly popular television series. My parents spent the majority of the war in hiding at the home of their political friends, Joop en Johanna van Santen, on the Herengracht, just a few streets away from Anne Frank’s secret annex.

My parents were more fortunate than the Franks, however, as was I. Just eight months after my birth, I was moved to a separate location from my parents to ensure my safety. The outcome is obvious. The underground newspaper De Vrije Katheder (The Free Lectern) was produced in the Van Santens’ home. After the war, my father resumed his career as a businessman and became the managing director of that paper, which was now operating openly. Communists and non-communists continued working together on the paper for several years, until the Communist Party of the Netherlands put an end to that.

Why drudge up these old events again? Because it is a mystery why the De Jongs and the De Swaans only attempted to flee in a panic, and at the very last moment, on the 14th of May, four days after the invasion, seemingly without having made any preparations at all. How is that possible? As Jews and left-wing anti-fascists they were deeply involved in politics. They knew as well as anyone what was happening in Nazi Germany and throughout the rest of Europe, and understood very well what was in store for them in the event of a German invasion.

The other De Swaan brothers living in Amsterdam were also caught off guard that day by an invasion that they might very well have seen coming, except for one: the eldest brother Bram, after whom I am named. He was neither politically active nor very ideological. He was a businessman and headed the family firm which produced jute bags. But by February 1940 he had already left the country on a tortuous journey to America along with his wife and their young son, just in the nick of time. That son, Sol, recounts that, before departing, his father attempted to convince his brothers to also get out with their families while they still could. They did not leave, but they all managed to survive the war.

A certain unworldliness was prevalent in the Netherlands at that time; a sort of somnolent wishful thinking, especially in government circles. The Germans, who had already annexed a willing Austria, occupied Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland in September 1939 – those same Germans would surely respect Dutch neutrality and leave us in peace, just as in the First World War. Warnings were ignored. The Dutch military attaché in Berlin, Major Bert Sas, who had an informant at the top of the German intelligence service, had already reported several times that a German invasion was imminent, but those attacks had been cancelled at the last moment. When he desperately tried to alert the government once again in the days leading up to May 10th, his warning was dismissively ignored. The gentlemen in charge knew better. Even long after the German invasion, many of these gentlemen continued to believe that they could reason with the Germans.

That was not the world in which my parents, their family and their friends lived. They did not harbor any illusions about the Hitler regime. Nevertheless, they neglected to flee in time while Bram, the rather apolitical businessman, did so. But even those most knowledgeable about people and society failed to see the catastrophe coming in time during those years.

Sigmund Freud, who understood more than anyone the dark, driving forces behind tyranny and war, had no particular insight into contemporary politics. At the start of the First World War, he had initially welcomed the German offensive, under the illusion that a short war would lead to a decisive victory. His perspective quickly changed. Following the German annexation of Austria a quarter-century later in 1938, he was trapped in Vienna. His international supporters did everything in their power to get him out of Nazi-occupied Austria. The American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Greek princess Marie Bonaparte, and the English Foreign Secretary were all instrumental in this effort, along with a host of Western diplomats who exerted pressure on the Nazis to let Freud go. But he initially had no desire to leave. When the Gestapo finally agreed to his release, they made him declare in writing that he had been treated well. Freud signed the declaration. And with that, he got away.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the most famous anthropologist of the 20th century, served briefly in the French army during the mobilization for war in May 1940. By June 22, France had already surrendered and Lévi-Strauss was released from military service. At that time he was in Vichy, where a French regime working in collaboration with the Nazis was established. He wanted to return to Paris, which was now located in the German-occupied zone. In order to get there, he had to apply for a travel permit. The official on duty took one look at him and said: “with a name like yours, I wouldn’t be going to Paris right now”. Only then did the gravity of the situation fully dawn upon him. He eventually escaped to the United States.

Yet another example: At the time Hitler seized power in 1933, Norbert Elias, the historical sociologist who would eventually publish a major work entitled Über den Prozess der Zivilisation (“The Civilizing Process”) in 1939, was the acting manager of the faculty of sociology at the University of Frankfurt, where his teacher, Karl Mannheim was a professor. It was housed in the same building where the famous Frankfurt School of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer also maintained its offices. The SS raided their offices almost immediately after Hitler took power. But Elias had disposed of the paperwork that the leftist students had left lying around just in the nick of time, and the SS officers found nothing.

Elias was relieved of his position and had no further prospects in Germany. He traveled to Switzerland but found no opportunities there either. After a while he returned to Breslau, the city where his parents lived, which was still possible at that time. He soon departed for Paris, hoping to secure an academic position there. That effort also turned out to be in vain. He tried earning a living as the sales representative for a small toy factory that he had established with two other German refugees. At the same time, he continued collecting material for his studies on court society and the civilizing process. During a short stay in Breslau, he heard that there might be suitable work for him in England, so he went and ended up settling there permanently.

Elias was an exceptionally perceptive observer of German society in the 1930s. He had a run-in with the SS very early on and recognized that, as a leftist, Jewish sociologist, he no longer had a place in Germany. Nevertheless, his wanderings were more a search for a suitable job than a flight for self-preservation.

Toward the end of 1938, shortly after the wave of street terror against Jews and political opponents known as Kristallnacht, Elias’s elderly parents came to visit him in London. By that time, Elias had become fully aware of the murderous nature of Nazism. Even then, however, he still could not have imagined that it would lead to the mass deportation and systematic extermination of millions of Jews and so many others. He begged his parents not to return to Germany, but to no avail. His father said: “I have never done anything wrong. Why would they do anything to me?” He died in 1940, at home. Elias’s mother was deported to Treblinka, where she was killed in a gas chamber. He never forgave himself for failing to convince his parents to stay in England.

Many years later, in the mid-1980s, Elias wrote an essay in which he sought to convince the Germans that Germany would remain permanently divided. A few years later, the Soviet empire collapsed and East and West Germany were reunified. When someone later confronted him about his lack of foresight, he just laughed.

That is exactly the right response. People simply cannot predict the future. One can only laugh about that human shortcoming. What is predictable, however, is the turn that this essay will now take.

Are there any lessons to be learned in May 2020 from the completely different circumstances of May 1940? The scourge now afflicting virtually all of humanity, the coronavirus pandemic, is disastrous, but, in itself, not yet catastrophic. Over time, the risk of contagion will decrease, though the elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions will have to continue to isolate themselves from their fellow human beings, who will increasingly neglect to take them into account, for quite some time to come. That is all quite terrible, but we could live with it.

In order to gain a better understanding of the course of events, it is necessary to examine the coronavirus pandemic in its broader economic and political context. In the process, there emerges a tripartite constellation that may well ultimately lead to catastrophe.

Economic activity has decreased precipitously as billions of people have been placed on lockdown in recent months. The state has intervened, providing social welfare assistance to individuals and subsidies for businesses. Under our late-capitalist system, the business sector enjoys the best of both worlds: reaping private profits under a market economy when times are good, while receiving government subsidies under a state economy when times are bad. The debts the government incurs as a result represent money well spent. If they failed to intervene, then many more people would lose their jobs while businesses everywhere go bankrupt. The government would thus relinquish even more tax revenue while having to provide even greater amounts of assistance than they are currently going into debt to do. But even in the best case scenario, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will suffer devastating losses due to the economic recession. And those people are all voters.

The coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic recession represent two phases of a three-stage rocket that may yet strike with devastating force. In the third phase, the rightward political shift that has already been underway for some time may suddenly proliferate much more broadly. This shift to the right is quite puzzling in itself. Why have citizens used their right to vote in order to restrict their own civil rights? How have authoritarian leaders come to power with the support of voters in so many more or less democratic countries? Vladimir Putin, who was elected in 1999, was one of the first. Over the last 10 years, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, among others, have followed. The most recent example is Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom.

Authoritarian-populist parties have the wind at their backs in virtually all other democratic countries as well. Though women are not absent from the right-wing movement, its leaders are, virtually without exception, men. Moreover, manliness is something they actively seek to exude: sometimes through exaggeratedly masculine, athletic- and militaristic-tinged behaviors; sometimes by acting in more clownish and provocative ways. But the leader’s personality always takes precedence over their political agenda. The leading figures of the New Right present themselves as the physical embodiment of a direct democracy in which they, the leaders, intuit, give voice to, and carry out the will of “the voter”, without the interference of political parties, representative bodies, or other institutions; without the restrictions imposed by the law or processes of deliberation; in direct communion with the people. The people, or nation, is the core concept and “we” is the keyword. The leaders determine who constitutes that “we”, as well as the “they” to be excluded from it. For if the people are to form a cohesive unit, then there must also be “others” who do not belong. Those are the undesirable elements who, whether from the inside or the outside, undermine and erode the strength of the nation. Thus, the nation is endangered and the family under threat. The nation therefore needs a strong leader, and every family a strong man.    

The people constitute an organism made up of cells, i.e. families. And it is precisely the family that is in danger due to cunning, leftist agitators, i.e the cultural Marxists, seeking to erode society at its most delicate and fragile point. They have invented feminism as a weapon in their battle against enduring Western values, and feminists, naïve as they are, unsuspectingly allow themselves to be used for this purpose. These cultural Marxists are also at the forefront of the spread of all sorts of fashionable delusions and artistic monstrosities that are intended to further destroy their own native, Western, European culture.

Just as the leader stands up for his people who therefore follow him, the man as the head of the family protects his wife and children, who must therefore support and obey him. A woman’s calling is to care for her family; her role is to bear and raise healthy, white children in order to bolster the power of the nation.

There is thus an internal threat, but external dangers exist as well. Immigrants and asylum seekers will increasingly “dilute” the native base of the population. There will be a radical demographic shift as foreigners completely supplant the native population over the long term. There is also the threat posed by international and, even worse, supranational organizations: worst of all, the European Union. These restrict the leader’s authority to chart an independent course for his people and to prioritize their own national interests.

The contemporary right-wing movement prefers not to be too explicit about all of this. Where they do not yet hold the reins of power, its leaders are still in the flirtation stage. Thus, they’ll occasionally praise neo-Nazis, but they don’t really mean anything by it. They’ll go out to eat with a racist extremist, but that by no means implies that they agree with him. They have every sympathy for thugs who ram vehicles into groups of peaceful protestors, but really, they disapprove of violence in principle. “Sexist? Who me? Not at all. I adore women!”

In short, today’s rightists, whether named Trump, Johnson or Baudet, are very coy. They love an occasional joke and a friendly jab here and there. Not everything is meant to be so serious. No, the seriousness only comes later, once they have gotten a firm grip on power. But with Trump, things do sometimes take a serious turn. During a press conference on April 13 of this year, the US President said: “When somebody is president of the United States the authority is total. It’s total.” That is the declaration of a takeover presented as a haphazard mental leap.

None of these currently manifesting trends are catastrophic in and of themselves. It is the combination of pandemic, recession and right-wing extremism that threatens to lead to a catastrophe. And on the horizon, another slow-moving disaster looms: global warming. Until now, and for some years to come, humanity continues to live on borrowed time. But rightists everywhere deny the reality of human-induced climate change and certainly will do nothing to slow it down, thus hastening the coming of a catastrophe.

In wealthy, Western countries, the coronavirus pandemic will, in all likelihood, be largely under control within a few months. Nonetheless, there will still be localized, temporary outbreaks here and there, where segments of the population will once again be placed on lockdown, with all its attendant miseries. It is difficult to predict what will happen in poorer countries in the Global South. Hopefully their tropical climates will help limit the impact of the pandemic. But if the virus spreads there with full force, then the wealthy countries will have to come to their aid, if only out of concern for containing its global spread.

In these richer countries, the economic recession can be more or less controlled with government intervention on an unprecedented scale. If successful, then the damage will be contained. If unsuccessful, or only partially so, then a reserve army of unemployed laborers will be formed by people who, despite never knowing anything in their lives but prosperity, have now suddenly fallen into poverty. Countless small business owners will go bankrupt and their status will be reduced to that of welfare recipients. An uncontrollable virus of resentment will spread. Something or somebody will have to be blamed for the disaster that has struck them, be it the Chinese, or a Jewish billionaire or the 5G-network. Paranoia, rancor and xenophobia drive the emotional life of the extreme right.

In times like these, it seems as though progressive movements have lost their mettle. The right is riding the tide virtually everywhere around the world. A breakthrough in one country rouses enthusiasm in another. What has succeeded there could almost certainly succeed here as well. Rightists at home are adopting the ideas and strategies that have proven successful abroad. From one country to the next, they follow one another in the media and seek to establish mutual contact. A global field of aligned political energy is thus taking shape. The right-wing movement, which so firmly opposes globalization and which argues for the right to self-determination for all peoples, has now become the most global of social movements, with the most like-minded ideas, the most homogenous leaders and the most uniform strategy.

Left-wing politicians pale a bit in comparison to these radical, reactionary demagogues. Biden bores people before he even utters a word; Trump is anything but boring. Johnson is always good for a laugh; Jeremy Corbyn was a tedious nag. Thierry Baudet is great fun and Lodewijk Asscher is tiresomely self-righteous. But none of these right-wing demagogues is offering any real solutions in the face of a pandemic and a recession.

In the US and Brazil, right-wing populists led by Trump and Bolsonaro deny the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. They practice the type of pure obscurantism that considers all expert knowledge to be elitist; as a disruption of the direct emotional connection between the leader and his people. When it comes to economic policy, the far-right is more cunning. Taxes are lowered, for the wealthiest in particular, and all regulations imposed on the corporate sector in order to protect consumers, workers and the environment are abolished, all under the pretext that this will lead to economic growth that will increase opportunities for the “average person”. All specious arguments, which are nonetheless swallowed whole by a large portion of the electorate.

The coronavirus pandemic provides irrefutable proof for the necessity of state intervention. The growing recession demonstrates the failings of the free market and the need for supranational, including European, crisis management. All that we need now are progressive activists and politicians who can effectively convince voters of this. That is the only way to stop the advance of the extreme right.

This three-stage process of pandemic, global recession and the spread of right-wing extremism around the world could well bring about a catastrophe of the same magnitude as the previous global catastrophe, which in the Netherlands began eighty years ago on the 10th of May.

Looking back on the late 1930s, one is immediately struck by how different things were then compared to now. But people then also had to make decisions under incredibly uncertain circumstances. The first, most human tendency is to do nothing. Of course, that is a choice in itself: namely, to go on as if nothing is wrong. It won’t be that bad. That can’t happen here.

To be sure, people in the wealthy, Western countries have lived in peace, freedom and prosperity for 75 years. They have been incredibly fortunate. But generations who have never known anything different have come to believe that this is just the way things are, that people like them are destined to live the sort of privileged existence that they have come to take for granted. It may seem as though people who live in poverty, under a dictatorship, or in the midst of armed conflicts belong to a totally different species that simply must endure such hardships, but there are no guarantees that such things cannot happen here as well.

“The crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought”, according to Dornbusch’s Law, which is often cited by economists. Though many people may be vaguely aware of some distant threat, one cannot live in a constant state of fear. Thus, the problem is one of timing: when will the crisis erupt? There is no definitive answer to that question. But a period such as this one, in which three critical trends are manifesting themselves and reinforcing one another, is extremely treacherous indeed.

Even when they recognize the danger, most people are inclined to believe that it will soon pass.  Taking this more limited historical perspective into account, one suddenly gains a much better understanding of the people living during the Second World War: “Trust me, the war will be over in a few months.” People tend to underestimate the duration of a crisis. That is usually a good thing.

During periods of disaster people hope for a miracle. And in the modern age such miracles necessarily come from science. A “wonder weapon” will be developed that will immediately settle the war, as the Nazi’s hoped would be the case with their unrivaled V2-rocket. Indeed, an unprecedented weapon was developed that brought an end to the Second World War in Asia with just two blows: the atomic bomb. That also marked the start the Cold War, which would last nearly half a century more. Nuclear weapons were never used again. Humanity has once again been lucky, but don’t think that that means that they can never be used. During the present pandemic, a new miracle cure for the coronavirus is announced each week. We may well discover an effective cure any day now, but it could just as well take years.

Do not underestimate the extreme right-wing politicians who present themselves as buffoons, loudmouths and village idiots, with their crazy hair and their nutty ideas. Adolf Hitler was called a deranged house painter until the late 1930s. He may well have been that, but he also proved capable of raining down destruction on much of humanity. Despite the fact that he doesn’t comb his hair, Boris Johnson managed at long last to get the United Kingdom out of the EU. And even though those reddish locks are implants, Donald Trump is gradually destroying the rule of law in his own country and around the world.   

All the mental maneuvers people tend to employ during times of crisis serve to keep their spirits up and to ward off anxieties. It is probably impossible to live life without any illusions. Moreover, there is no sound basis for making rational decisions during such times. Those who did not manage to get out in time in May 1940 did not have poorer judgment, but rather, just more bad luck than those who were able to escape in a timely fashion. Wrong guess. Incidentally, it would be impossible to flee to another place where there is no risk of contagion today. Nor is there anywhere to escape from an economic recession.

Based on this very rough calculation of the odds, it seems plausible that the trinity of pandemic, recession and the rise of right-wing extremism will lead to a catastrophe. No one can escape from it and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The leaderless waves of crowds lacking any program or structure, which briefly flare up in the media with their yellow vests, songs and slogans, will soon fade away once more without having achieved any lasting results. Even the Black Lives Matter movement, which lately has gone viral and global, may evaporate in a few months time having achieved no more than symbolic victories, admittedly impressive, but without bringing about lasting, material, institutional change. The only option that will truly be effective against the rise of the extreme right is collective action in robust organizations, such as trade unions, interest groups, political parties… So be it.


James Armel Smith and Robert van Krieken


Abram de Swaan is emeritus distinguished research professor of social science at the University of Amsterdam and taught a.o. at the Collège de France and Columbia University. His books have been translated in a dozen languages. The most recent are: The Killing Compartments; The mentality of mass murder (Yale U.P., 2015)and Tegen de Vrouwen (Prometheus: 2019) [Against women; The right’s worldwide war against emancipation]

2 thoughts on “Before the Catastrophe: 1940 vs 2020

  1. Pingback: Fios do Tempo. Antes da catástrofe – por Abram de Swaan – Ateliê de Humanidades

  2. Pingback: Update: Living and Thinking Crisis online series | thesis eleven

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