The resistible rise of Beppe Grillo

Digital populism in Italy.


“If we rely on a fictional account of the world when making decisions then the authors of the fiction have a better claim to be in charge than we do.” (Dan Hind, A Programme of Media Reform)

That acting skills have become one of the most valued assets in politics isn't big news. During the recent US presidential campaign, for instance, the sudden rise in Mitt Romney’s popularity was triggered by his brilliant performance during a presidential debate whose political content was, well, hardly a subject of debate. Nonetheless, the professions of politician and actor are still considered to be distinct, with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger being notable exceptions. But this may fast be becoming an outdated distinction. In Italy, a comedian is leading a new political movement that is sweeping the already disfigured domestic political landscape. But there is nothing to laugh about; quite the contrary.

Beppe Grillo has risen from the status of mediocre comedian to that of political leader in an escalation of digital populism that threatens to garner his party around 100 of the 630 seats in the lower house of the Italian parliament at the next election. Grillo, the founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), has been running a mostly internet-based political campaign through the party's blog and the local groups that have emerged from it. The movement has a strong anti-politics agenda - all political parties are crooked, the argument runs, and they all need to go. Not especially nuanced, but exactly the kind of populist rhetoric that disillusioned and apathetic Italian voters are buying into. Never mind that Grillo has recently opened the doors of his movement to the candidacy of members belonging to the neo-fascist organization Casa Pound.

The comedian-turned-politician is the undisputed leader of his movement, yet he won’t himself run for the presidency. He is more of a choreographer. The copyrighted symbol of the M5S belongs to him and a recent wave of summary purges among the movement’s ranks should leave no doubts as to who is in supreme command. Behind the barker is an even more sinister figure, the internet entrepeneur Roberto Casaleggio.

Recently interviewed in the Guardian, the web guru behind the M5S, declared that “it’s like Jesus Christ and the apostles” referring to the Grillo phenomenon - an apt characterisation of a movement that has more in common with a religious cult than a political party. Coincidentally, Grillo starred in a film called Looking For Jesus in 1982, directed by Luigi Comencini and scripted by Silvio Berlusconi’s televisual ideologue Antonio Ricci (more of whom later). 

Casaleggio is one of those cyber-evangelists Steven Poole described in a recent article in the New Statesman as “dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade.” He is the one who suggested the comedian should open a blog where to proselytise fearful and exasperated netizens only too willing to throw the proverbial first stone and join the next virtual pogrom. Casaleggio claims that the internet is tearing down the wall between the state and citizens, thereby allowing a more direct form of democracy. Hardly. The M5S’s battle is in fact aimed at entering the corridors of power to replace “those thieves” rather than creating an alternative political system based on different, fairer principles. It is not the system itself that is wrong, but those who run it, the movement's rhetoric implies. Give me power, runs Grill's implicit pitch, and I’ll fix everything. How? Well, the movement has a statute written by Casaleggio and Grillo whose rules cannot be changed. If you don’t like them go elsewhere, found your own movement.  M5S's rigid hierarchy is also evident in Grillo’s categorical refusal to engage in televised debate (the same applies to all the movement affiliates, those who did not obey were immediately expelled). True, Italian television may not be the most enlightened of political arenas but Grillo’s squeamishness is pronounced.

He is in fact the quintessential child of what Umberto Eco called “Neotelevisione”, the Trojan horse of Silvio Berlusconi. Despite the movement's flauntingof the internet as a kind of otemic fetish, commercial television is the real motor of Grillo’s success. He debuted in Berlusconi’s media empire in the early 1980s with the TV show Fantastico. It is thanks to his privately owned TV channels and its programmes that Berslusconi exerted power, and Grillo is simply one of his apostles, though now animated by patricidal ambitions.

Pivotal to Berlusconi’s  influence and commercial innovations is Antonio Ricci (creator of Fantastico), a man who, in Variety’s words, “with his penchant for comedy and variety, changed the face of Italian television”. Indeed. If programmes had up to then mainly targeted families with quiz shows, song contests and generalist spectacles that appealed to multiple generations of viewers, Ricci’s schedule attracted a younger audience. Ricci’s programmes are a primary ingredient in the toxic infodiet of millions of Italians. That Grillo was formed professionally in this milieu should raise a doubt or two about his self-validating claims of anti-systemic purity. Grillo’s association with Ricci was not limited to television, but culminated in Ricci’s only foray into the Seventh Art, the aforementioned Looking For Jesus. Comencini’s film is about a Vatican official hunting for a photogenic messiah to be televised nationwide in order to bring peace to the troubled nation. Grillo, needless to say, plays the budding tele-messiah.

Fast-forward 20 years and Grillo is filling the  void left by Berlusconi, exploiting Italy's weak democratic traditions for his own ends. “You should be thankful that I’m here or there would probably be the neo-nazis in my place,” Grillo has declared. It was meant as reassurance, but sounded more like a threat.

Showman: Beppe Grillo addresses supporters (Photograph: Getty Images)
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The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis