Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is a semi-autobiographical account of his life in the city in the early 1930s. By the time Isherwood died in 1986, just three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city had experienced not just a home-grown fascist dictatorship, near obliteration and division, but a Soviet imposed communist dictatorship too.
I first visited Berlin in December 1989 just weeks after the Wall fell. I still go there but my trips during the first decade or so after the fall of the Wall were the most memorable. Then, before it was rebuilt and reshaped, the legacy of the trauma it had sustained was laid bare. Amongst the literature I devoured to understand the city’s painful past, Goodbye to Berlin stands out.
The book is notable because it epitomises what happened next and why. Its six stories slice through the social strata of the city during the decay of the Weimar Republic. And its most powerful message is about normalisation — what people will put up with, in the context of decline and what they will accept as normal. People like the Nowaks, who live in cramped and debilitated rooms, and whose unwitting complacency about the coming terror is excruciating to read.
‘When Hitler comes, he’ll show these Jews a thing or two’ remarks Frau Nowak to Herr Christoph, before going on to say, after he challenges her, ‘they’d never turn out the Jews.’ Frau Nowak, though, doesn’t ‘understand (Nazi) politics (herself).’ Rather she says ‘why can’t we have the Kaiser back? Those were the good times, say what you like.’
We’re a long way from there, you might say. And for now, I think you’d — just about — be right. But if it doesn’t sound horribly familiar in the context of Brexit Britain and Trump’s America, I’m afraid you’re deluding yourself too. Read today by anyone, with even the sketchiest understanding of 20th- century history, Isherwood’s book is a reminder of the clear and present danger we face.
Which brings me to Trump and the UK government’s wretched appeasement of him during the last few days.
Ever since Trump was elected, a debate has ensued about whether he’s a malign autocrat or a mad fool. I don’t much care for the mad label, not least because it lets him off the hook. Lest we forget, the most vicious criminals plead insanity when they are caught. The extent of his autocratic tendencies may be a moot point but his disrespect for the rule of law is plain enough.
What threads through this discussion is whether it’s permissible to use the ‘F’ word to describe Mr Trump. It’s a weighty issue and a vexed question. Google ‘Is Trump a fascist?’ and you’ll get a reading list you could be wading through until the middle of next week. Some of it is meticulous theoretical analysis of whether his presidency and policies fit with our historical understanding of fascist ideology. Does he pass the test?
Bandying the term around without good reason is clearly unhelpful. And there are those who suggest it trivialises the horror of fascism. Commenting with disdain on the Trump protests, Claire Fox, Director of the Academy of Ideas commented, ‘calling him fascist is just hysterical, sort of toy-town use of political categories.’
Yet as I read that remark, I couldn’t help feeling that Claire, whatever her misgivings about the nature of the protests, misses the point. That she should seek to underplay the risk presented by such a resolutely closed mind occupying the White House feels a tad ironic. I invariably disagree with Claire on the Moral Maze but in a Trumpian world, room for her institute and what it represents would be scarce.
For me, increasingly, the moral dilemma isn’t using the F word in relation to Trump. It’s not using it. I used it the day after he was elected and then ruminated on whether it was the right thing to have done, despite that fact that even a seasoned conservative commentator on American politics like Andrew Sullivan had already done so. Since then, amongst a steady stream of opinion, former Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, has published her book, Fascism: A Warning.
Albright’s premise is that the fascism the 20th century experienced was not atypical and could return. The rigour of her analysis has been questioned and yet her assertion that what we are experiencing now can ‘feel like signposts on the road back to an era when Fascism found nourishment and individual tragedies were multiplied millions-fold’ reminded me of Isherwood’s stories.
Closer to home, Jonathan Freedland recently wrote that, inspired by Trump, the world could be heading back to the very time that Isherwood depicts. And Fintan O’Toole has cautioned us that ‘trial runs for fascism are in full flow.’ The point about both of their warnings is that they are actually not just from history, they are from here and now. Theirs is a clarion call we can’t afford to shun.
In all this soul searching, about whether it’s right to use the F word, there is a horribly mistaken assumption that we will know what fascism looks like when it comes next. That because it isn’t wearing a moustache and invading foreign territory with jackboots, it somehow can’t be. And that in the muddle about whether it looks like the past we miss the true significance of the very thing that’s in our present midst. As Michael Rosen warns, fascism doesn’t necessarily ‘arrive in fancy dress; it arrives as your friend.’
All of which makes the events of the last few days here at home almost too much to bear. Whether it was a working visit or a state visit was ultimately lost in the pomp of it all. Pomp which left our own head of state dwarfed and momentarily upstaged by the man who was her guest. For monarchists and republicans alike that was the height of discourtesy. So much for the special relationship.
And whether it needed to happen at all stopped being the point as soon as Theresa May offered her hand — of friendship — once more to the tiny hand of the man who once boasted that the very same could grab pussy with impunity. A man who, by the time she did that, had used his visit to conduct diplomacy through the megaphone of The Sun. And a man, who after all this, she sought to defend on the Andrew Marr show the day after.
It isn’t just that we have welcomed a political thug who, whatever you think of his own ideological leanings, has relied on the counsel of undoubted fascists in the US and lobbied the UK on behalf of one here. Or even that we appear to have failed to take the opportunity to raise the remotest concern about his administration’s behaviour.
No, worse still, May’s supine cowardice gave succour to those within her administration, like Liam Fox, to pour scorn on legitimate and principled protest. And that’s precisely how normalising works. When you fail to call out extremism, you open the door to those who defend it. In the end, the British state, unwittingly or not, embraced the man and his message. That’s not diplomacy, it’s ignominy.
So you can scoff at Trump baby’ blimp. And I’m not so sure about the wisdom of poking fun at his physique. But the reality is that it was left to the people, and not the state, to represent the best of British values in the wake of his visit. What that says about the state we’re in is as troublesome as anything I can remember.
Nicola Sturgeon’s presence at the front of Glasgow’s Pride march has been seized on, cynically, by some as opportunism. But the stakes are just too high for that sort of point scoring. She was invited and accepted with gusto. I can think of no better response to Trump’s presence in Scotland.
Thirty years on from the end of the cold war, we know that Fukuyama’s acclamation of the end of history proved fatally flawed. But history repeating itself doesn’t have to be inevitable. You don’t have to call Trump a fascist if you don’t want to. But don’t mistake the peril that he — and those like him around the world — represent.
I’ll leave the last word to Isherwood. At the end of the book, he encounters his former landlady, Fraulein Schroader, who within weeks of Hitler coming to power is a lost cause. Already reverently talking about ‘Der Fuhrer’ before he was, she is ‘adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime.’
‘Today’, he says, ‘the sun is brilliantly shining; it is quite mild and warm. I go out for my last morning walk, without an overcoat or hat. The sun shines, and Hitler is master of this city…
No. Even now I can’t altogether believe that any of this has really happened…’