ROME — Pope Francis suggested Saturday that Europe is repeating the errors of pre-Nazi Germany by allowing new anti-immigration nationalisms to take hold.
In an address to socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, Pope Francis recommended a book by “an Italian intellectual from the Communist Party” with the “very evocative title: Syndrome 1933.”
In his 2019 book, Siegmund Ginzberg compared what was happening with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933 to 2019 Italy, where a new anti-immigrant nationalism and populism threaten to become the dominant political movement.
The book “refers to Germany, obviously,” the pope said Saturday. “With the fall of the Weimar Republic emerged a whole mix of possibilities to get out of the crisis. And there an ideology began to show that the path was National Socialism and it went on and on and arrived at what we know: the drama that was Europe with that homeland invented by an ideology.”
“Because ideologies sectarianize, ideologies deconstruct the homeland, they do not build,” Francis continued. “Learn that from history. And this man in that book very delicately makes a comparison with what is happening in Europe. He says: Be careful that we are repeating the similar path.”
“It is worth reading,” he said.
“It is very sad when ideologies take over the interpretation of a nation, a country, and disfigure the homeland,” he said, adding that “I hope it never happens to us.”
According to at least one journalist’s interpretation of Ginzberg’s book, the direct analogy with Hitler concerns the leader of Italy’s Lega party, Matteo Salvini.
The book presents “disturbing analogies with the present day of our country, in which the rise of the Northern League leader seems to replicate the same characteristics of his tragic predecessor for a whole series of reasons,” wrote Sergio Caserta in Il Fatto Quotidiano shortly after the book’s release.
“The focus, the center of the political message of every aspiring dictator is the identification of the ‘enemy,’” Caserta wrote. “For the Nazis at that time it was the Jews, but also Communists, nomads and others, starting with gays,” he said, while today “they are basically migrants, who, in the Salvinian imagination, are the cause responsible for every possible peril: terrorism, crime, disease, but also more materially, competitors for every possible right: work, home, healthcare, and social assistance.”
“Still today, Matteo Salvini identifies evil, more than with his political opponents, with the left and social centers, NGOs, and even the Church in the person of the pope and those who are committed to defending the rights of migrants.”
Saturday’s off-the-cuff address was not the first time that Pope Francis compares today’s populist and pro-sovereignty movements in Europe with Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s.
In a 2017 interview, the pope said that “the most typical example of populism in the European sense is the Germany of 1933.”
After Hindenburg, “Germany tries to get back up, searches for its identity, looks for a leader, someone to give it back its identity and a youngster named Adolf Hitler says, ‘I can do it; I can do it,’” Francis said.
The risk of such populism, he said, is that in times of crisis people can begin to think: “Let’s look for a savior who gives us back our identity and let’s defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other people that may rob us of our identity.”
Again in 2018, Francis compared European populists to Adolf Hitler, suggesting that populism caused the Second World War.
“It is important for young people to know how populism is born,” the pope said. “I think of Hitler in the last century, who had promised development for Germany. They should know how populisms begin: by sowing hate. You can’t live sowing hate.”
The pope’s words followed upon the election of Italy’s first elected populist government in decades, formed by a coalition between the progressive, Eurosceptic 5-Star Movement and the pro-sovereignty Lega party.
“Study your history, this is the way the Führer started, with racial purity,” he said. “We are now in full World War III fought piecemeal and even religion is deformed to be able to hate better.”
“Making hatred grow, creating violence and division represents a path to destruction and suicide,” the pope added.
Increased efforts are needed to teach the young about the history of the First and Second World Wars “so they do not fall into the same error and so they know how populism spreads,” he said.
And once again in 2019, the pope returned to the same theme, implicitly comparing the populist rhetoric of Matteo Salvini with that of Hitler.
“Sovereignism” — the movement spearheaded in Italy by Salvini — reveals “an attitude toward isolation,” the pope said. “I am concerned because we hear speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934. ‘Us first, We…We…’ These are frightening thoughts.”
“Sovereignism means being closed,” the pope continued. “A country should be sovereign but not closed. Sovereignty must be defended, but relations with other countries and with the European community must also be protected and promoted.”
“Sovereignism is an exaggeration that always ends badly: it leads to war,” he said.