By Trudy Stevenson
“WE have been robbed by those traitors in London and Paris. The population of Italy is Aryan in origin. The Jews are not Aryan, therefore they do not belong to Italy.”
There is a chilling similarity between these statements by Benito Mussolini in 1938 with those of Robert Mugabe in 2004. For example: “Of course I want to be a free man but Blair says no.”
“Zimbabwe will never be a colony again, never, never, never!” “The whites are continuing to show contempt, they must have their resistance broken once and for all.”
This week the Western world commemorates the sixtieth anniversary of one of the greatest battles in history, D-Day 1944 or the invasion of Nazi Europe by the Allies on the beaches of Normandy, France (whence the Norman Conquest of Britain departed in 1066 but that’s another story!).
Twenty-five thousand Britons alone are expected to cross the Channel to Normandy to join others including George Bush, Nelson Mandela and Gerhard Shroeder of Germany on June 6. Hundreds of thousands of people from both sides died in this decisive battle which led to the liberation of France and the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Europe is currently full of both articles and angst as it recalls the issues involved – anti-semitism, racism, nazism and fascism. How could a mature society such as Germany or Italy allow such manifestly unethical and undemocratic movements to take root? How could France allow the Vichy collaborators to exist? What were the catalysts at play, and what lessons could be learned by other societies to avoid a similar catastrophe?
As a Zimbabwean, in a country and a time when the issues of race, ethnicity, nationalism and ethnic or political cleansing are much discussed, even if in hushed tones in dark corners, it is frightening to find similarities between our situationand that ob-taining in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.
It appears that we in Zimbabwe are also poised on the precipice of catastrophe, where Mugabe extols the virtues of nationalism, patriotism and attacks whites and anyone who does not toe his line, while those of the opposite persuasion either flee as quietly as possible (between 25% and 33% of our entire population now live outside Zimbabwe) or actively engage in various methods of struggle for change.
France’s Le Figaro this week carries a set of four lengthy articles on the rise and success of fascism, each different in perspective, but all agreed on the almost overwhelming power of the idea in its time manipulated as skilfully as it was by Mussolini and Hitler.
After the First World War, Germany was unwilling to accept the humiliation of its defeat in the First World War, while Italy was just forming as a nation-state and, together with Germany and the rest of Europe, faced the rise of international communism. Any message calling on their sense of nationalism was bound to find resonance and instant popularity.
So it was, and both Mussolini and Hitler were gifted, astute public speakers who could whip up crowd hysteria in no time at all, appealing to their pride, their patriotism, and channelling their energy and hatred to be released against the “enemy”, the Communists, and those of impure race (non-Aryan), the Jews, etc, in the Nazi version. Anyone who was not the master race or a supporter of the official party was fair game for the most inhuman treatment.
Mussolini launched the word and the concept of Fascism in 1919 in Italy, talking about the “fasces” of combat to protect the nation. This cleverly linked linguistically and culturally back to Ancient Rome, when the fasces – bundles of rods with an axe blade sticking out – symbolised the power of the Roman Consuls or by extension the state.
Mussolini skilfully used this to indicate that Fascism was rooted in the glory of Ancient Rome. He spoke much of the need for nationalism, for pride in the nation and the need to train the youth in the glorious values of the nation and to defend it and attack any danger to it.
Compare this to Robert Mugabe’s speeches, and those of his lieutenants who fall over themselves to copy his style:
“These are the allegations being made by people who do not want us to train the youth, who fear perhaps we are training the youth to be nationalistic, to respect their own culture and respect the African personality. That might be a danger, you see, to them because then when the situation is amorphous and people do not have that sense of nationalism, then of course you can be undermined very easily and undermined by external forces. That’s why, countries like Britain want us to be so they can be using their neo-colonialist methods, you see, to try and affect our countries by way of sabotage, by way of trying to rule us indirectly.”
At every rally and every public occasion, there is mention of the nation of Zimbabwe, of loyalty, sovereignty (normally mispronounced “sovereignity”), nation-hood, belonging, patriotism – all the words are there except the Roman Consul’s bundle of power! But instead of the bundle we have the land, ivhu, mwana wevhu, the glorious freedom fighters and the terrible traitors, the sell-outs, the British (same enemy!) – and we have the Zanu PF salute, the clenched fist raised high, like the Nazi salute of the clenched fingers outstretched.
The Fascist Black Shirt youths were trained to hunt down and get rid of Communists and then all perceived opponents. The Nazi Youth were trained to hunt down and get rid of Communists, Jews, and then all perceived opponents – and their party was the National Socialist German Workers Party. The Zimbabwe National Youth Service is horrifyingly similar – and the training period is being reduced from six months to three, to produce double the number of “graduates” before the next election.
People who have gone through decades of deprivation and abuse for whatever reason are ripe for persuasion to join any movement against perceived oppressors. A skilful orator can easily persuade them that their oppressors are such and such a group of people.
All the easier if a small group of people have a markedly different skin colour and can be spun into the skins of the hated colonisers of a century ago. As the rest of the world is reminded of the struggle for democracy on the beaches of France in 1944, perhaps it should also be reminded of the struggle for democracy here in Zimbabwe in 2004.
Trudy Stevenson is MDC MP for Mt Pleasant.