“Nobody’s seen this I would say since 1917, which was the greatest of them all, the greatest of this kind of battle,” the self-dubbed “wartime president” said. It’s reassuring, no doubt, to a grateful nation on course to lose over 100,000 of its citizens to COVID-19 by month’s end, to know that their health and wellbeing is the hands of a “wartime president” who once stated that avoiding STDs was the equivalent of the tour of duty he never did in Vietnam. When coronavirus deaths on his watch surpassed US fatalities in that war, he didn’t even muster a Tweet of feigned empathy.
This is the guy who tells the faithful through Fox News that there will be a vaccine in months, tells the rest of us a couple of days later that coronavirus will “go away without a vaccine,” and the next announces the leaders of the “Operation Warp Speed” effort to find a vaccine. Yes, this is the guy who is going to make us feel nostalgia when we see grainy black and white photographs from the Great Depression. As is now typical, he was wrong about “the greatest of them all.” The “battle” he was referring to did not occur in 1917. 1917 is the World War I movie starring George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman.
Approximately 675,000 Americans died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, ten times more than in the Great War, but what does that matter? We figured out what he was talking about and it was close enough in this era defined by the normalization of lies, ignorance and idiocy from the presidential podium. Disturbingly, that’s what vast segments of the US population has developed herd immunity to over the last four years. And it always matters, but this time, maybe more than most. There’s no vaccine for the plague that ran amok after the pandemic of 1918-1919, and what we currently have in the White House is a vector for it, not an antidote.
This month, a preliminary report authored by Kristian Blickle of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York was published, examining the rise and advance of fascism in Germany relative to the impacts and economic fallout from the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic on areas that today might be categorized as “hotspots.”
“Influenza deaths of 1918 are correlated with an increase in the share of votes won by right-wing extremists, such as the National Socialist Workers Party (aka. the Nazi Party), in the crucial elections of 1932 and 1933. This holds even when we control for a city’s ethnic and religious makeup, regional unemployment, past right-wing voting, and other local characteristics assumed to drive the extremist vote share,” Blickle finds in Pandemics Change Cities: Municipal Spending and Voter Extremism in Germany, 1918-1933.
“We show that the correlation between influenza mortality and the vote share won by right-wing extremists is stronger in regions that had historically blamed minorities,” the summary continues. “The disease may have fostered a hatred of ‘others,’ as it was perceived to come from abroad.”
In the past decade, the works of Nico Voigtländer and HJ Voth have presented similar conclusions from the same period and region, so while this may not be a surprise, amidst the noise it demands pause, for there is ample evidence unfolding in real time to suggest that the environment is already ripe for degrees of replication. Though this pandemic isn’t anywhere close to subsiding, there are warnings enough of what could follow, and now is no time to be distracted by the ringmaster and his propaganda leaching from the White House to the mouths of his carny barkers.
“Regions more affected by the pandemic may have gravitated towards political parties aligned with anti-minority sentiment,” writes Blickle. What does that portend if you’re already hemmed inside a ghetto by a military cordon? Or walled off in a compound without running water? Tear gassed by paramilitaries to confine you to hovels made of refuse on a toxic landfill, or forced to “shelter in place” without any basic amenities in metal containers dumped next to a sewage plant? These are COVID-19 realities for thousands of Romani people in Europe, where environmental racism is omnipresent in their daily survival, but is only one of a litany of human rights abuses catalogued by Amnesty International.
Six months prior to COVID-19 devastating Italy, in the capacity of Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini was formulating a Romani “eviction plan.” Salvini’s political ascent was fueled by hate-laced press events with Romani settlements as a backdrop, his promise for “mass cleansing, street by street” undiminished by high office. When criticized for waking the specter of Benito Mussolini he welcomed the comparison, and in 2018 vowed to complete a registry of all Romani in Italy, something his extremist counterpart and predecessor, Roberto Maroni, began in 2008, when even Romani children were fingerprinted, solely because of their ethnicity. Salvini remains president of Lega Nord, the third largest party in the Italian parliament, and the country’s largest in the European Parliament.
Should Salvini successfully navigate kidnapping charges brought against him for denying asylum-seekers permission to disembark from a coast guard vessel, if past is prelude, it is clear which stigmatized minority Lega Nord will persecute for the pandemic and its economic aftermath. Years before coronavirus emerged to foment it, The Independent in the UK reportedthat this “anti-Roma fury” had “echoes of Mussolini.”
“We will bring parasites in settlements and thieves in neckties to order,” said Marian Kotleba, leader of the Kotlebovci-People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS), of the Romani. Kotleba, a pro-Putin neo-Nazi, either didn’t need or couldn’t find an escalator to come down to unleash his xenophobic bile as a political platform, and instead mass-produced leaflets promising measures to target “gypsy parasites” and eradicate “gypsy criminality.” Slovakia’s Supreme Court subsequently ruled that “gypsy parasites” was not “racial defamation,” which further emboldened Kotleba as he eyed a presidential campaign. Now the head of the fourth largest party in Slovakia’s National Council, Kotleba continues to blame “immigrants” and the Romani for “running around Europe, many of them totally unchecked, bringing coronavirus here.” The fact that the Romani have been surrounded by Slovak military units to restrict their movements hasn’t stemmed Kotleba’s traction “where polls show more than half of people believe conspiracy theories.”
“The truth is that we need to undertake a complete program for a solution to the gypsy problem,” is a common refrain from Bulgaria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, Krassimir Karakachanov. Let’s pause for a second: “solution to the gypsy problem.” Does that rhetoric sound familiar? Like December 8, 1938, familiar? Karakachanov’s “program” and “solution” includes the suspension of all benefits to the Romani who endure nightmarish conditions in derelict Soviet-era wastelands like Stolipinovo where, states Amnesty International, “adequate access to water, sanitation, food, hygiene products and health care” is lacking. According to Karakachanov, severing assistance would “eliminate the profession of the ‘socially weak.’”
Erasure of Romani identity would be achieved through “dismantling clans,” and “given the poor hygiene and low health culture of a large part of the Roma” vaccines should be mandatory. “In view of the indiscriminate birth rate in the ghettos” his plan calls to “limit the possibility” of multiple pregnancies, which implies sterilization, and advocates for abortion which he classifies as “free measures.” This is coming from the Deputy Prime Minister of a European Union member nation, circa now, not Heinrich Himmler or Robert Ritter in the 1930s.
“Roma are brazen, feral, human-like creatures,” maintains former Deputy Prime Minister, Valeri Simeonov, who with Karakachanov, was a co-leader of the now disbanded United Patriots coalition in Bulgaria’s Trump-embraced Borisov administration. Karakachanov and Simeonov remain aligned in government, Simeonov being elected Vice President of the Bulgarian National Assembly. Bulgaria’s Supreme Court buttressed Simeonov last year when it acquitted him on anti-Romani hate speech charges for an address to parliament in which he called Romani children “street pigs” and Romani women “street bitches.” Like Kotleba in Slovakia, the country’s highest court emboldened Simeonov and sanctioned bigotry.
In Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, infant mortality among the Romani is twice that of each respective national average, but seemingly that wasn’t enough to impact the tribespeople’s birthrate for these self-proclaimed “conservative,” “Christian,” “family values oriented” movements in the Balkans, and so coercive sterilization was inflicted upon Romani women in all three countries until the early 2000s, with cases also cataloged in Romania and, unsurprisingly, Bulgaria.
“I would say that coercion is needed in certain situations, because we are obliged to protect the rest of the population,” said Interior Minister, Mladen Marinov, of the Bulgarian government’s approach to the Romani during COVID-19. But what happens in its wake? In Hungary, that “coercion” is embraced by the country’s leading opposition party in parliament, Jobbik – Movement for a Better Hungary. Another neo-Nazi rabble aligned with Putin, Jobbik established its vote-share on the basis of anti-Semitic, anti-Romani extremism. With a nod of deference to Third Reich collaborator, Miklós Horthy, Jobbik organized the Hungarian Guard to counter alleged “Gypsycrime.” Akin to Kotleba’s Hlinka Guard inspired unit in Slovakia, the Hungarian Guard parade in Horthy-era uniforms bearing the World War II Arrow Cross Nazi insignia. “What then is Gypsycrime? Let’s not deceive ourselves: a biological weapon in the hands of Zionism,” said Jobbik’s former Vice-President, József Tibor Bíber, after the formation of the paramilitary force.
Under the veneer of “a people’s party,” of late Jobbik has sought to present itself as the friendly face of neo-Nazism, choosing to define itself simply as “nationalist” while its former leaders organize more extreme splinter groups. “Viktor Orbán has adopted the style that we used to have years ago,” said Jobbik MEP, Márton Gyöngyösi, just before Prime Minister Orbán received “extraordinary powers” in Hungary’s “coronavirus bill.” Orbán claims he might relinquish the mandate at the end of May. The Atlantic ran the headline, “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy.” As Orbán’s anti-Romani incitement escalates, so does the humanitarian disaster. “People are chronically ill,” warned an aid-worker from the European Anti-Poverty Network, citing malnourishment, obesity and pre-existing respiratory conditions among Hungary’s Romani. “When the virus comes to the slums it will be brutal.”
In a statement on May 16, Romani Resistance Day, Željko Jovanović, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office, reminded the global community that Orbán’s Fidesz Party “spreads racism and white supremacy across Europe without repercussion” as “the EU cannot uphold the rule of law in Hungary.” May 16th, 1944, was the day Himmler’s Auschwitz Decree was to be fulfilled. Approximately 6,500 Romani victims confined in the Zigeunerlager, the “Gypsy Camp” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, were to be “liquidated.” Surrounded by the SS, the Romani refused to exit the barracks that paid mute witness to 17,000 of their relatives who had already been murdered in the gas chambers or Mengele directed “medical” experiments, worked to death as slave laborers, slowly starved, or succumbed to disease. “We’re not coming out! You come in here!” Mano Höllenreiner, then a ten-year old boy, remembered his father shouting.
Constricted as they were by death, on this day they refused to die. Just hours before, they had been warned that after roll call next morning they would be executed. In preparation to resist they fashioned weapons out of slats from bunks, some held rocks, others had secreted away tools from a warehouse in the compound. It wasn’t so much an act of defiance but of love – for each other and those brutally taken from them, for whom they would live at least one more day. It was an extraordinary display of courage and testament to the human spirit.
Mano Höllenreiner was among the three thousand deemed abled bodied and of use, who were shipped to other concentration camps. Those that remained, the elders, women and children, the infirm, comprised the majority of the 4,000 who the SS forced into the gas chambers on the night of Augusts 4, 1944. “One cannot possibly explain how it really was at Auschwitz, at the death camps,” said Mano. Bulgaria’s former deputy prime minister, Valeri Simeonov, has boasted that in his youth he “horsed around” at Buchenwald taking “gag photos” with his friends. On Romani Resistance Day 2020, sanctioned by the Croatian parliament Archbishop Vinko Puljic, the senior clergyman of the Catholic Church in Bosnia, led Mass in Sarajevo to commemorate the Ustaša Movement, Croatia’s Nazi-inspired World War II regime that condemned thousands of Romani and Jewish people to the death camps.
“The legacy of the Roma uprising orients us in finding value and meaning for our resistance in the present day,” continued Željko Jovanović. “In the bigger picture, we need to look what we are up against: the force of racists and the far right that is awakening what Ceija Stojka pictured as a ‘sleeping Auschwitz.’ This evil force does not only attack the Roma; it is destabilizing our countries, the European Union and the world again.”
With the exception of Orbán who Trump lauded at the White House last May, several of these are unfamiliar names in America and few fit easily on the tongue. But our focus shouldn’t be on what we don’t know, it must be on what we know of their ideology, their ambitions, and the political influence they have already established, pre-the coronavirus pandemic. Their ideological fathers had no such foothold prior to the 1918-1919 pandemic, they emerged out of the socio-economic wreckage of World War I in Europe which was exacerbated by the pandemic in the subsequent decade, and devolved into the Great Depression when America’s Roaring Twenties were silenced.
“I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man,” wrote celebrated US foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson in 1931. She described her interviewee as “the very prototype of the Little Man” and merely “a drummer boy.” Within two years he was chancellor, within three the “drummer boy” was Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor. This isn’t a misjudgment that should be contemplated, and god-forbid suffered six-million times over. “We conjecture that our findings may be the consequence of long-term societal changes brought about by a pandemic,” Kristian Blickle concludes in the Fed’s Pandemics Change Cities: Municipal Spending and Voter Extremism in Germany, 1918-1933.
The United Nations has warned that COVID-19 “has sparked the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.” Two-hundred and sixty-five million people are estimated to be at risk of starvation. “We could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months,” Executive Director of the World Food Program (WFP), David Beasley, told the UN Security Council on April 21. According to the WFP, the countries most at risk include Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Nigeria. The Fed study covers the fifteen-year aftermath of the 1918 influenza pandemic. The equivalent period post-coronavirus has already been identified as the global community’s last chance to avert climate disaster. Where will decarbonization and halving global emissions by 2030 rank among governments’ priorities in this new abnormal?
If these projections are even remotely close, amidst the multiplicity of global implications and human tragedy, two things hint of inevitability: a massive exodus of refugees, many of whom would likely follow the pattern of seeking sanctuary in Europe; and the recalibration of fundamentalist forces committed to jihad in those countries already shattered by years of war. Both have the potential to expand and strengthen the power centers of the nationalist and neo-Nazi parties in Europe which have been stoked by Putin to be a counterweight to a caliphate, and more manifestly, are all virulently anti-immigrant and hostile to refugees. Starkly, that is relative in the context of their hatred for the Romani.
“The EU and its Member States must act in future to end the longstanding Roma discrimination and marginalization that this pandemic regrettably is bringing into sharp relief,” insists Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA). It should, but nothing to date indicates that the EU will. And member states have done nothing to end generations of apartheid for the Romani. “In the most damaging form of segregation, Roma are placed in ‘special’ or ‘practical’ schools for children with ‘mild mental disabilities’ even when they have no such disabilities,” documented Amnesty, and that’s only one “form of segregation.”
The Romani don’t exist in the collective conscience of America, and where we exist at all it’s in the psyche as a caricature stillborn, wrapped in medieval pejoratives. The extraordinary rendition of a race. But we are here. We first arrived in the Americas with Columbus as slaves. The million or so Romani on these shores are a message in a bottle for our kin in Europe, for whom the worse it gets, the louder the silence. No primetime headlines. No hope from the Ringling Brothers who came to town and took up residence on Pennsylvania Avenue and C Street.
“Our struggle and resistance to oppression is continuous,” concluded Željko Jovanović. “We can recognize the same evil in its various incarnations as it hunts us today—ethnic violence and killings, forced sterilization, evictions, segregation, impoverishment, paternalism.”
Can you hear that? That sound is people being herded onto a platform. It’s the train they are loaded on leaving the station. It gets unbearable from there.