Letter from Cascais – November 2020

Since November 9, our life is subject to new restrictions under a re-imposed State of (Health) Emergency. A curfew is in place, from 11pm to 5am on weekdays and from 1pm to 5am on weekends (Saturdays and Sundays). These measures are intended to contain a recurring surge in Covid-19 infections and deaths.

However, the weekend hours of the curfew seem odd. Not only are there several exceptions, such as leaving home to buy food, go to pharmacies, walk your dog etc., but the most drastic impact is on restaurants which have to close, due to lack of customers. Being prevented from going out for lunch on Saturday or Sunday is rather unusual in Portugal.

Most other European countries have also imposed new restrictions, in view of concern about rising infections and increasing mortality. The Austrian government announced drastic daytime lockdown measures from November 17, including school closures.

Earlier this month, we breathed a big sigh of relief when it was finally announced, after several days of uncertainty, that Joe Biden had won the November 3 presidential election in the USA. The possibility of another term for President Trump filled us and our friends around the world with great fear.

So far, the incumbent has failed to officially accept his defeat. While Biden has won the popular vote, the fact that over 70 million people still voted for Trump demonstrates the division of American society and reflects a frightening mindset on the part of pro-Trump Americans.

While the Covid-19 pandemic continues to overshadow our lives, Europe is also facing other problems. EU-UK negotiations about Brexit have so far failed to produce a mutually acceptable result. Most recently, fatal terrorist acts in France and Austria by Islamist extremists have caused much concern and generated political debates about effective and appropriate measures to protect our societies against such activities.

As the late American historian David Fromkin pointed out, the “strategy of terrorism” includes an element of provocation designed to make us inclined to react “in kind”. Certain terrorists are not only targeting the immediate victims but want us to change our free and democratic way of life by adopting restrictions in the name of security.

As Thomas Jefferson said: “A society which exchanges a piece of liberty for a piece of security will lose both and deserves neither.” Since these terrorists are acting in the name of a specific religion, we are also tempted to regard all immigrants or, generally, people from other cultures and of different beliefs as suspects and enemies. Many moderate Muslims in Europe are, therefore, suffering mistrust and discrimination.

Bigotry and intolerance within our societies and cultures may also lead to violence.

The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995, by an Orthodox Jewish extremist was an example of “homemade” terrorism. Last year, a high-ranking regional bureaucrat in Germany, who spoke out for the acceptance and protection of refugees, was murdered by a right-wing extremist in front of his home.

Fortunately, Portugal has been spared such attacks so far, and it remains a relatively peaceful and safe country. However, racism is a problem, even within the national sport of football (soccer).

Lately, a right-wing party by the name of Chega (‘Enough’) has made headlines. While claiming to support democratic values and institutions, it has a distinctly populist agenda, and several leading members and supporters are known for their right-wing extremist views.

In 20th century history, the month of November saw tragic events and developments caused by extreme nationalism, xenophobia, antisemitism and bigotry.

On November 11, 1918, World War I came to an end. It caused military casualties of about nine million and civilian deaths estimated at 13 million. The related Spanish flu epidemic caused additional deaths of many million people.

Much has been written about the causes of this tragic war. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 and the resulting confrontation between Austro-Hungary and Serbia eventually drew Germany, France, Britain and Russia, who were involved in interlocking alliances, into war. In his book The Sleepwalkers, Cambridge historian Christopher Clark describes in detail how these European nations “stumbled” into the conflict.

At the end of the war, the empires of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey disappeared. The Russian Tsar had already abdicated in 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution followed in November that year.

The subsequent peace could not protect Europe nor the Middle East from social instability and new conflicts. In Europe, the rise of fascism and the Nazi dictatorship in Germany led to another world war and the Communist Soviet Union expanded into eastern and central Europe. The “Iron Curtain” (Churchill’s words) between East and West only disappeared when the Berlin Wall began to come down on November 9, 1989.

November 9 (1938) also marks the anniversary of “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass), the horrific pogrom against Jews which was carried out by SA storm troopers (and civilians) in Nazi Germany and Austria. Jewish homes, institutions, schools and shops were ransacked, and many synagogues were destroyed. More than 100 Jews were killed and thousands were arrested. It was a horrible example of inhumanity and cruelty in a country traditionally known for its culture, learning and civilization.

Europe today has been enjoying democracy and peace for many decades. However, it is still facing threats from populists and extremists. We cannot take our democratic way of life for granted and must remain watchful.

As I am writing this, the streets of Cascais are virtually deserted. The curfew is in place and apparently effective. Let us hope that we can overcome the pandemic soon.

By Jurgen H. Racherbaumer

Jurgen H. Racherbaumer is a retired business executive. Born in Germany, he has spent his professional life in Europe, South East Asia and Canada. Since 2016, he and his wife have enjoyed living in Cascais and exploring Portugal. His special interests are international affairs and modern history.