Geert Mak has investigated social change during the 20th century and various levels: a village in Friesland, in the northern Netherlands, a big city: Amsterdam, but most notably in his Opus Magnus ‘In Europe’ for which he has travelled the continent criss-cross, during the whole last year of the last century, 1999, investigating the places where the history of the 20th century was made: ‘a final inspection of the 20th century’. Now, 20 years later, we are well into the 21st century – reason enough for a historian to start inspecting it.

Progressive Post: What was the one thing that has really surprised you on these elections?

Geert Mak: I was very happy that so many people went out and voted again! There was a beginning of  real European politics on the level of European citizens. And that is really a turnaround because these figures have been going down for so long. But this spring, people were suddenly very interested and very involved – there was a kind of “European coffeehouse”. And it was happening not only in the newspapers, on television and on the Internet, but really at the ballot boxes. 

PP: What has brought about this sudden interest, or this “European coffeehouse”, as you say?

GM: We went as Europeans through the last decade from one long crisis to another. Perhaps a lot of people realised that these are not national problems anymore, but European problems.

This spring, people were suddenly very interested and very involved – there was a kind of “European coffeehouse”.

PP: In another book, De hond van Tišma, (Tišma’s dog – untranslated), you describe how for many Northern and Western Europeans the economic crisis was a rather abstract experience, something that didn’t really impact their lives, while in southern Europe, in Italy, in Spain, and most of all in Greece, people have seen their lives destroyed.

GM: This experience has driven Europeans further apart. From the North of Europe, especially from Germany, the Netherlands and Finland, both crises were used to massively introduce austerity politics. There were warnings enough. Economists have been warning already in 2008: ‘don’t do that. Be careful. Not too much austerity’ – also in Northern Europe. But the Northern European politicians really acted in a very Calvinist way: with austerity – and even more austerity. And the victims are of course the citizens of Southern Europe. Now, the two divisions that have always been there are much more manifest: there is the North-South divide, which you have seen around the euro crisis, and there is the East-West divide, which is a question of values. Both divisions will be very important over the next decade.

PP: One of the first stations on your 1999 journey was Paris, where you have been walking on the traces of the Paris of the early 20th century: a place of openness to the world – you find traces of the 1900 world exhibition – but also a place of anti-Semitism – you mention the Dreyfus Affair. When you come to France after these recent European elections, you come to a country where a far-right party has become the first party. Do you see a historical continuity? 

GM: Not only in France, but also in Poland and Hungary, there is a very strong anti-Semitic tradition. Europe is full of old ghosts, sometimes they are hidden for a decade, or for a few decades, but then they emerge again. 

A ‘cultural trauma’ is not only about economics, it impacts the whole society: people’s traditions, their friends, family relations – everything is upside down, just because this mine, which brought everybody together, is gone.

PP: What would you say makes these ghosts hide away – and what brings them back to life?

GM: The important point was the heritage of World War II. Jean-Claude Juncker said once, and I agree with him, ‘we are all children of World War II’. For our generation, World War II was always there, often silent, but all our families have suffered. For the younger generations, the distance is growing bigger. And that is also good: that is peace! The Second World War gave politicians the courage to jump over their shadow and that made the European Union possible. It was difficult and complicated, but people wanted to do this, because they didn’t want a war, ever again. I’ve known a few of these elderly statesmen personally, people who never cried, but they did cry when they talked about the beginning of the European Union. These generations have now left the stage, and there are other generations. And with the fading memory of the war, I see this especially in my own country, the Netherlands, people are talking much easier about concepts like ‘race’, and anti-Semitic arguments are back. They don’t have this memory anymore. 

PP: The main lessons to be drawn from the history of the 20th century were of course the two wars, and both wars were fuelled by nationalism. The European Union was all about overcoming nationalism. And now it’s precisely nationalism that is back again. Therefore: is it only about crisis and economics? Or is there something else going on? ‘Culturally’, some would say.

GM: There is much more going on than just economics. For a new book, I visited two British cities in the North, a city called Wigan, in England, and a Scottish city, Paisley. Both are very similar: old mining cities, that have a lot of economic problems now. But in Paisley, in Scotland, a big majority voted ‘remain’ in the EU referendum, and exactly the same kind of city, just a hundred miles south, voted with a big majority for ‘leave’. This has everything to do with uncertainty, with the feeling that these people don’t belong to the centre of power anymore. The people in Paisley were strongly connected to Edinburgh: they have their own parliament. And the people in Wigan  have a parliament that is far, far away: in London. They really feel alone, alienated, and that is a huge problem in a lot places of Europe. We are living in a time with very fast developments, and people cannot handle that. This causes something I call a ‘cultural trauma’, and that doesn’t only happen in mining towns or cities, where the mine suddenly closed. It’s not only about economics, it impacts the whole of society: people’s traditions, their friends, family relations – everything is upside down, just because this mine, which brought everybody together, is gone. You see this cultural trauma everywhere in Europe, also in the countryside. In France for instance, there are regions where most of the shops are closed down now.

Democracy is also an emotional thing. Without leaders you only get big buildings and anonymous institutions and that doesn’t stir democratic emotions. 

PP: Your first station in Italy during your 1999 trip was Predappio, Mussolini’s birthplace, where you discovered a souvenir shop with all kinds of fascist and Nazi paraphernalia: uniforms, swastikas and far right literature. Now, in the European elections, precisely in Predappio, Matteo Slovenia’s far right Ligue made a stunning result of almost 44 percent! What does a place like Predappio tell us about Italy’s recent history?

GM: In Italy, fascism has never been far underground. These kind of souvenir shops in Predappio would have been impossible elsewhere in Europe. But for me, it’s not about fascism: Italy was, still in 2014, under Matteo Renzi, a very pro-European country, and within five years this has totally changed. And that has a lot to do with the fact that Italy didn’t get assistance during the euro crisis and it was also left alone during the immigrant crisis. So partly of course this extreme right is a typical Italian problem, just like Brexit is a typically British problem. But it’s also a European problem and a symptom of a European problem.

PP: Which are the periods in the recent European history that inspire you to be more optimistic about the future of Europe?

GM: The 19th century was a difficult time for a lot of people; at the end of the century totally new movements came up and they really did a lot of good for the people. In that period, there was a kind of collective feeling, most movements were not individualistic, but there was a strong feeling of togetherness. I hope this will inspire the next generations, because we desperately need to get rid of this totally individualistic society. We cannot handle our problems, like climate change, in an individualistic way anymore. 
Even in today’s extreme right movements you see a big longing for this feeling of togetherness, for community. That’s how Marine Le Pen attracted a lot of old Socialists and Communists and even Christian Democrats, to whom she gave an illusion of that togetherness again. 

PP: But that is of course the togetherness of the nationalists, where the basis is the nation, an exclusive vision of the nation, of which newcomers are not a part. Where can you find a sense of togetherness in today’s world, where you just have to go out of your door to see that this old society doesn’t exist anymore?

GM: I think this is coming again. You especially see the younger generations: they’re travelling a lot and communications are of course very different from what they used to be a few decades ago. You see it for instance with the movement against climate change. And other social movements. I think we can expect very interesting things on this field. We are living in a kind of a paradigm change and it looks a little bit like the beginning of the 16th century, when the press was invented and suddenly the general public could read the Bible, and the discoveries – the Americas – changed the world. A lot of things started in that time and I have the impression, while we are in the middle of it, we are living in the same state of paradigm change in the way of thinking. It can be very dangerous, but it can be also very inspiring. But as always, when you are living in historic times, it’s very chaotic and you don’t see them as historic.

PP: How can centre-left politics offer an alternative for all these people?

GM: I think the recent elections in Denmark are very interesting. I didn’t like that Social Democrats started to embrace right wing anti-immigrant policies. But they did something else too, and I think that explains a large part of their success: they acknowledged that they had made big mistakes in the past, that they went too far with neo-liberalism and they showed themselves  again as a party that really wants to protect the working people and the poor. I think a lot of people with lower income have not felt that protection for years and they felt betrayed by their old workers parties. I think it is necessary that these parties take their responsibility again, not to push immigrants away, but to give people security and to show that they really see and understand their needs. That can really make a difference. I have seen, also my own country, much too long, left wing parties which went much too far with the neo-liberal politics and with this market-oriented very individualistic society. 

PP: Would you extend this analysis to other places where centre-left parties scored well – the other Scandinavian countries, the Iberian Peninsula and even in your own country in the Netherlands? 

GM: In the Netherlands it was very special because Frans Timmermans is very popular here. Frans Timmermans is really a kind of Social Democratic leader who has this kind of charisma and that’s an important thing. 

PP: What’s your view on leadership and its impact on European Union politics?

GM: Leadership is very important, because the European Union needs faces, real faces. Like in national politics, to develop normal and healthy European politics, you need leaders, people you can trust – or even distrust – and talk about. In politics, institutions are very important, and rules are important. But without leaders you only get big buildings and anonymous institutions and that doesn’t stir democratic emotions. Democracy is also an emotional thing. And it’s especially important since this spring, as I see appearing a real European democracy, with all its discussions, with all the rows, and also with all the extreme right – that is all part of the European democracy. 

PP: It feels almost like a cynical moment: Europe has been trying to build this European public space for a long time – and then it comes into being during the crisis. 

GM: These things always happen in crisis moments. The European Union, as a construction, is very out of balance, especially the euro, but also other parts of the European Union are very vulnerable constructions. And they have to be improved. Otherwise we will not survive as the  European Union. But I expect that the moment that this will be improved will once more be when there is a new crisis: around Italy, with the euro for example, or again around the question of immigrants. And then the European Union is forced to make decisions that they didn’t want to make in the beginning, but in the crisis, under pressure, they do. And again, the EU moves on a little bit. The question is: will this ship be repaired in the middle of the storm?