After the second world war, the belief that differences between so-called races are genetic became taboo. Now, with the far right resurgent, its back
In 1985, historian Barry Mehler had a dream. His research was taking him deep into the murky territory of academias extreme right wing. As he worked, he found his waking life beginning to soak into his subconscious, colouring his sleep. In his dream, his son, then two years old, was trapped in a runaway car hurtling down a hill. The traffic is going in both directions, and I am in the middle of the road desperately waving my hands trying to stop the flow, in order to save the life of my son, he tells me. Its a metaphor for how I felt.
Mehler had been looking into what happened after the second world war to scientists who, during the conflict, had collaborated with the Nazis, were eugenicists or shared their racial worldview. I was really focused on the ideological continuity between the old and the new, he says. He learned that the fear of some kind of threat to the white race was still alive in some intellectual circles, and that there was a well-coordinated network of people who were attempting to bring these ideologies back into mainstream academia and politics.
Mehler, who is Jewish, understandably found all this disturbing. He immediately saw parallels between the far-right network of intellectuals and the rapid, devastating way in which eugenics research had been used in Nazi Germany, terrifying him with the possibility that the brutal atrocities of the past could happen once more. It was impossible not to imagine that the ideological heart behind them was still beating. I felt like I was desperately trying to prevent this from happening again, he says. I thought that we were headed for more genocide. His voice betrays an anxiety that political stability in even the strongest democracies sits on a precipice.
His fear is something I have begun to share. Mehler said of his relatives who survived the Holocaust: They are prepared for things to cease to be normal very quickly. His words ring in my ears. I never imagined I might live through times that could also make me feel this way, that could leave me so anxious for the future. Yet, here I am.
I grew up in south-east London in an Indian-Punjabi household not far from where the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was killed by white racist thugs in 1993 while waiting for a bus. He was only five years older than I was, and his murder left a mark on my generation. The old British National Party bookshop was in the same town as my secondary school. Racism was the backdrop to my teenage years. But then, for a brief moment, things looked as if they might be changing. My son was born five years ago, when British society seemed to be embracing diversity and multiculturalism. Barack Obama was president of the US. I dreamed that my baby might grow up in a better world than mine, perhaps even a post-racial one.
Things ceased to be normal. Far-right and anti-immigrant groups have once more become visible and powerful across Europe and the US. In Poland, nationalists march under the slogan Pure Poland, white Poland. In Italy, a rightwing leader rises to popularity on the promise to deport illegal immigrants and turn his back on refugees. White nationalists look to Russia under Vladimir Putin as a defender of traditional values.
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