Daleks at the Doctor Who Experience. Photo: Getty Images
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Sergeant Pepper pots

Alwyn W Turner on the cultural meaning of the Daleks.

On 2 January 1941, Cardiff suffered its worst air raid of the Second World War. “For over five hours,” reported the South Wales Echo, “German planes, sweeping over the city, dropped thousands of incendiaries and numerous high explosive bombs.” The intensity of the firebombing was such, noted the Times, “that it was possible to read a newspaper in the street”. That night 165 people were killed, hundreds of houses were destroyed and Llandaff Cathedral was so badly damaged that it was closed for the next 15 months.

A couple of hundred yards from the cathedral, ten-year-old Terry Nation was alone in an Anderson shelter. He was an only child. His father was in the army and his mother was an ARP warden. He spent that night and many others sheltering from the Luftwaffe’s bombs on his own, reading adventure stories and listening to incongruously cheerful programmes on the radio.

Twenty-three years later, by which time he was a journeyman writer for radio and television, Nation was commissioned to contribute a seven-part story for a proposed BBC teatime science fiction series to be called Doctor Who. But he had another job – on a variety show for the comedian Eric Sykes – so he knocked out the BBC scripts as quickly as he could. Writing an episode a day, he finished it in a week and forgot all about it. Perhaps it was the pace of the writing that enabled him so effectively to tap into subconscious fears that resonated widely. Speed helps when inventing new myths: Robert Louis Stevenson created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in three days, Anthony Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange in three weeks, Henry Rider Haggard knocked out She in six weeks.

Similarly, Nation had no time to weigh every word; he was looking only to spin a yarn. Dredging through his childhood memories of H G Wells and Jules Verne and the terror of the Blitz, he came up with the Daleks, a science- fiction incarnation of the Nazis by another name: anonymous, pitiless, killing machines, bent on genocide. They were an instant sensation when they made their debut in 1963 and, although Nation had killed them off at the end of the serial, the viewing public demanded their return. They came back the following year, when Dalekmania was the only serious rival to Beatlemania as the cultural sensation of 1964, and they’ve been coming back ever since. As Doctor Who starts gearing up for its 50th anniversary year, it’s no great shock to find the Daleks revived once more to launch the new series.

They were an unlikely success, incapable of facial expression and with restricted movement – after their first appearance an eight-year-old viewer wrote to the BBC wondering “how the Daleks get up and down the steps”. Yet they have proved phenomenally durable, scaring generation after generation of children. Endlessly reinterpreted by other writers, they exist independently of actors, and remain the ultimate baddies – resolutely evil, with no redeeming features. Very early on, political cartoonists began using them as a shorthand for screeching, monotonous intolerance. Leslie Illingworth created the “Degaullek” to represent the intransigence of the French president’s dealings with his international partners; Daleks were also seen painting the slogan “Keep Monsterland White” on the wall of Broadcasting House in a Daily Mirror cartoon at the time of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.

At the outset, the identification of the Daleks with the Nazis hardly needed spelling out. Most of the population had personal memories of the war and it was difficult to avoid the associations when the creatures lined up, raised their right arms in a stiff salute and announced: “Tomorrow we will be the masters of the planet.” Or when, in the second story, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, they rampaged through a bomb-scarred London, using humans as slave labour, until their commander issued the ultimate order: “Arrange for the extermination of all human beings – the final solution.” As time went on, the parallels became more explicit. In 1972, humans who worked for the Daleks were dubbed “quislings”. And in 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks”, we finally met the creatures’ humanoid forebears, the Kaleds; they wore black uniforms, clicked their heels and greeted each other with a Hitler salute, jerking the forearm up from the elbow, palm out.

This was in a context in which the Second World War provided the dominant imagery shaping the national identity. By the time Doctor Who was revived in 2005, 30 years after “Genesis”, Britain was a very different place. Those who still remembered the war were now pensioners. A new shared cultural moment had been found in the memory of the Carnaby Street version of the 1960s. The opening ceremony of the London Olympics underlined the point, with its insistence that British popular culture began in the 1960s, as though rock’n’roll were invented by the Beatles.

The Daleks now fed a new nostalgia. Their reappearance was heralded on the front cover of the Radio Times with a picture of the monsters in front of the Houses of Parliament, though the image had nothing to do with the episode it was promoting. It was a recreation of a scene from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”. In 1964, the sight of Daleks in London had drawn on fears of Nazi occupation; now it evoked the Swinging Sixties.

Images of the war were to recur, however, most notably in “Victory of the Daleks” in 2010, when the tinpot dictators appeared with Winston Churchill. But it was revealing that the Tardis had landed in 1940: this was period drama, or at least a variation on it, not a living cultural experience.

Another significant aspect of the original monsters has also disappeared. In Terry Nation’s conception, the Dalek shells had been created to house the survivors of a war that had ended with the use of neutron bombs. At the time, the idea of a neutron bomb, which had been secretly tested by the US earlier in 1963, was much talked about and Nation was part of the first anti-nuclear generation, aware of the escalating destructive power of humanity. That the Daleks’ fictional creator, Davros – introduced in the 1970s – was so strongly reminiscent of the wheelchair-bound, deranged Nazi scientist played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove suggested that nuclear paranoia remained a preoccupation.

Now, stripped of such doom-laden associations, the Daleks have fallen out of favour with Doctor Who writers and many older fans. They’re seen by some as limited and simplistic. When the show’s executive producer, Steven Moffat announced last year that he was giving them “a rest”, he called them “the most reliably defeated enemies in the universe” and suggested that, having been beaten so often, they should just “trudge away”.

They’re also a bit embarrassing. Daleks have never appealed much to adults, and grown-up fans don’t always like to be reminded that they too hid behind sofas when they were kids. Above all, they’re simply too popular. The only Doctor Who monsters that are recognisable by name alone, even to those who’ve never knowingly watched the programme, they’ve always been public property, appearing in pantomimes, pornography and pulpits – even as bridesmaids in The Vicar of Dibley.

And still they can’t be written out of Doctor Who, because children continue to fall for them. Partly the appeal is that they are so easy to mimic. Tuck your elbows in, stick your arms out and squawk the word “Exterminate” – it’s much more satisfying than playing at Cybermen. And partly it’s the moral starkness of the creatures. The Daleks come from a black-and-white world in more ways than one: there’s no postmodern relativism here.

Maybe, as Who writer Terrance Dicks reflected, there’s also an element of wish-fulfilment in there as well – a fantasy that you too could get inside a Dalek “and then go down to school and blast all the teachers or blow up the school bully”. But there’s never been a truly satisfactory answer to why they were so appealing to children. “Obviously if I knew, I’d do it again,” Nation once said. “It’s a bit like asking: why is the dark scary?” observed Russell T Davies, when he brought the creatures back in 2005. “I don’t know. It just is.” But the roots of that scariness surely lie in a Cardiff bomb shelter. Just around the corner, as it happens, from where Doctor Who is now made.

Alwyn W Turner is the author of “The Man Who Invented the Daleks: The Strange Worlds of Terry Nation” (Aurum Press, £20)

A new series of “Doctor Who” begins on BBC1 on 1 September

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A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Are we too complacent in thinking that the toxic brew of paranoia and populism that brought Hitler to power will never be repeated?

The conventional wisdom holds that “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, in Edmund Burke’s familiar phrase; but this is at best a half-truth. Studying the biography of a moral monster triumphantly unleashed on the political and international stage points us to another perspective, no less important. What is necessary for the triumph of evil is that the ground should have been thoroughly prepared by countless small or not-so-small acts of petty malice, unthinking prejudice and collusion. Burke’s axiom, though it represents a powerful challenge to apathy, risks crediting evil with too much of a life of its own: out there, there are evil agencies, hostile to “us”, and we (good men and women) must mobilise to resist.

No doubt; but mobilising intelligently demands being willing to ask what habits and assumptions, as well as what chances and conditions, have made possible the risk of evil triumphing. And that leads us into deep waters, to a recognition of how what we tolerate or ignore or underestimate opens the way for disaster, the ways in which we are at least half-consciously complicit. If this is not to be the silly we-are-all-guilty response that has rightly been so much mocked, nor an absolution for the direct agents of great horrors, it needs a careful and unsparing scrutiny of the processes by which cultures become corruptible, vulnerable to the agendas of damaged and obsessional individuals.

This can be uncomfortable. It raises the awkward issue of what philosophers have learned to call “moral luck” – the fact that some people with immense potential for evil don’t actualise it, because the circumstances don’t present them with the chance, and that some others who might have spent their lives in blameless normality end up supervising transports to Auschwitz. Or, to take a sharply contemporary example, that one Muslim youth from a disturbed or challenging background becomes a suicide bomber but another from exactly the same background doesn’t. It is as though there were a sort of diabolical mirror image for the biblical Parable of the Sower: some seeds grow and some don’t, depending on the ground they fall on, or what chance external stimulus touches them at critical moments.

If what interests us is simply how to assign individuals rapidly and definitively to the categories of sheep and goats, saved and damned, this is offensively frustrating. But if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

***

It would be possible to argue that the anti-Semitism of a lot of German culture – as of European Christian culture overall – was never (at least in the modern period) genocidal and obsessed with absolute racial purity; limited but real possibilities of integration were taken for granted, converts to Christianity were not disadvantaged merely because of their race, and so on. Yet the truth is that this cultural hinterland offered a foothold to the mania of Adolf Hitler; that it gave him just enough of the permission he needed to identify his society’s problems with this clearly definable “alien” presence. In his new book, Hitler: the Ascent, Volker Ullrich compellingly tells us once again that no one could have been under any illusion about Hitler’s general intentions towards the Jews from his very first appearance as a political figure, even if the detailed planning of genocide (lucidly traced in the late David Cesarani’s recent, encyclopaedic Final Solution) took some time to solidify. Yet so much of the German public heard Hitler’s language as the slightly exaggerated version of a familiar trope and felt able to treat it as at worst an embarrassing overstatement of a common, even a common-sense, view. One of the most disturbing things about this story is the failure of so many (inside and outside Germany) to grasp that Hitler meant what he said; and this failure in turn reinforced the delusion of those who thought they could use and then sideline Hitler.

To say that Hitler “meant what he said”, however, can be misleading. It is one of the repeated and focal themes in Ullrich’s book that Hitler was a brazen, almost compulsive liar – or, perhaps better, a compulsive and inventive actor, devising a huge range of dramatic roles for himself: frustrated artist, creative patron, philosopher-king (there is a fine chapter on the intellectual and artistic circle he assembled frequently at his Berchtesgaden residence), workers’ friend, martyr for his people (he constantly insinuated that he believed himself doomed to a tragic and premature death), military or economic messiah and a good deal else besides. His notorious outbursts of hysterical rage seem to have been skilfully orchestrated as instruments of intimidation (though this did not exactly indicate that he was otherwise predictable). Ullrich devotes a fair measure of attention to the literal staging of National Socialism, the architectural gigantism of Albert Speer which gave the Führer the sophisticated theatre he craved. In all sorts of ways, Hitler’s regime was a profoundly theatrical exercise, from the great public displays at Nuremberg and the replanning of Berlin to the various private fantasies enacted by him and his close associates (Göring above all), and from the emotional roller coaster he created for his circle to the dangerously accelerated rate of military-industrial expansion with which he concealed the void at the centre of the German economy.

Theatre both presupposes and creates a public. In the anxiety and despair of post-Versailles Germany, there was a ready audience for the high drama of Nazism, including its scapegoating of demonic enemies within and without. And in turn, the shrill pitch of Hitler’s quasi-liturgies normalised a whole set of bizarre and fantastic constructions of reality. A N Wilson’s challenging novel Winnie and Wolf, a fantasia on Hitler’s relations with Winifred Wagner, culminates in a scene at the end of the war where refugees and destitute citizens in Bayreuth raid the wardrobe of the opera house and wander the streets dressed in moth-eaten costumes; it is an unforgettable metaphor for one of the effects of Hitlerian theatre. Ullrich leaves his readers contemplating the picture of a vast collective drama centred on a personality that was not – as some biographers have suggested – something of a cipher, but that of a fantasist on a grand scale, endowed with a huge literal and metaphorical budget for staging his work.

All of this prompts questions about how it is that apparently sophisticated political systems succumb to corporate nervous breakdowns. It is anything but an academic question in a contemporary world where theatrical politics, tribal scapegoating and variegated confusions about the rule of law are increasingly in evidence. On this last point, it is still shocking to realise how rapidly post-Versailles Germany came to regard violent public conflict between heavily armed militias as almost routine, and this is an important background to the embittered negotiations later on around the relation between Hitler’s Sturmabteilung and the official organs of state coercion. Ullrich’s insightful account of a de facto civil war in Bavaria in the early 1920s makes it mercilessly plain that any pretensions to a state monopoly of coercion in Germany in this period were empty.

Yet the idea of such a state monopoly is in fact essential to anything that could be called a legitimate democracy. In effect, the polity of the Third Reich “privatised” coer­cion: again and again in Ullrich’s book, in the struggles for power before 1933, we see Nazi politicians successfully bidding for control of the mechanisms of public order in the German regions, and more or less franchising public order to their own agencies. A classical democratic political philosophy would argue that the state alone has the right to use force because the state is the guarantor of every community’s and every individual’s access to redress for injury or injustice. If state coercion becomes a tool for any one element in the social complex, it loses legitimacy. It is bound up with the rule of law, which is about something more than mere majority consent. One way of reading the rise of Hitler and National Socialism is as the steady and consistent normalising of illegitimate or partisan force, undermining any concept of an independent guarantee of lawfulness in society. It is the deliberate dissolution of the idea of a Rechtsstaat, a law-governed state order that can be recognised by citizens as organised for their common and individual good. Rule by decree, the common pattern of Nazi governmental practice, worked in harness with law enforcement by a force that was essentially a toxic hybrid, combining what was left of an independent police operation with a highly organised party militia system.

So, one of the general imperatives with which Hitler’s story might leave us is the need to keep a clear sense of what the proper work of the state involves. Arguments about the ideal “size” of the state are often spectacularly indifferent to the basic question of what the irreducible functions of state authority are – and so to the question of what cannot be franchised or delegated to non-state actors (it is extraordinary that we have in the UK apparently accepted without much debate the idea that prison security can be sold off to private interests). This is not the same as saying that privatisation in general leads to fascism; the issues around the limits to state direction of an economy are complex. However, a refusal to ask some fundamental questions about the limits of “franchising” corrodes the idea of real democratic legitimacy – the legitimacy that arises from an assurance to every citizen that, whatever their convictions or their purchasing power, the state is there to secure their access to justice. And, connected with this, there are issues about how we legislate: what are the proper processes of scrutiny for legislation, and how is populist and short-view legislation avoided? The Third Reich offers a masterclass in executive tyranny, and we need not only robust and intelligent counter-models, but a clear political theory to make sense of and defend those models.

***

Theatre has always been an aspect of the political. But there are different kinds of theatre. In ancient Athens, the annual Dionysia festival included the performance of tragedies that forced members of the audience to acknowledge the fragility of the political order and encouraged them to meditate on the divine interventions that set a boundary to vendetta and strife. Classical tragedy is, as political theatre, the exact opposite of Hitlerian drama, which repeatedly asserted the solid power of the Reich, the overcoming of weakness and division by the sheer, innate force of popular will as expressed through the Führer.

Contemporary political theatre is not – outside the more nakedly totalitarian states – a matter of Albert Speer-like spectacle and affirmation of a quasi-divine leader; but it is increasingly the product of a populist-oriented market, the parading of celebrities for popular approval, with limited possibilities for deep public discussion of policies advanced, and an assumption that politicians will be, above all, performers. It is not – to warn once again against cliché and exaggeration – that celebrity culture in politics is a short route to fascism. But a political theatre that never deals with the fragility of the context in which law and civility operate, that never admits the internal flaws and conflicts of a society, and never allows some corporate opening-up to the possibilities of reconciliation and reparation, is one that exploits, rather than resolves our anxieties. And, as such, it makes us politically weaker, more confused and fragmented.

The extraordinary mixture of farce and menace in Donald Trump’s campaign is a potent distillation of all this: a political theatre, divorced from realism, patience and human solidarity, bringing to the surface the buried poisons of a whole system and threatening its entire viability and rationality. But it is an extreme version of the way in which modern technology-and-image-driven communication intensifies the risks that beset the ideals of legitimate democracy.

And – think of Trump once again – one of the most seductively available tricks of such a theatre is the rhetoric of what could be called triumphant victimhood: we are menaced by such and such a group (Jews, mig­rants, Muslims, Freemasons, international business, Zionism, Marxism . . .), which has exerted its vast but covert influence to destroy us; but our native strength has brought us through and, given clear leadership, will soon, once and for all, guarantee our safety from these nightmare aliens.

***

This is a rhetoric that depends on ideas of collective guilt or collective malignity: plots ascribed to the agency of some dangerous minority are brandished in order to tarnish the name of entire communities. The dark legacy of much popular Christian language about collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus could be translated without much difficulty into talk about the responsibility of Jews for the violence and poverty afflicting Germans in the 1920s. (Shadows of the same myths still affect the way in which – as recent reports suggest – sinister, vague talk about Zionism and assumptions of a collective Jewish guilt for the actions of various Israeli politicians can become part of a climate that condones anti-Semitic bullying, or text messages saying “Hitler had a point”, on university campuses.)

Granted that there is no shortage of other candidates for demonic otherness in Europe and the United States (witness Trump’s language about Muslims and Mexicans), the specific and abiding lesson of Nazi anti-Semitism is the twofold recognition of the ease with which actually disadvantaged communities can be cast in the role of all-powerful subverters, and the way in which the path to violent exclusion of one kind or another can be prepared by cultures of casual bigotry and collective anxiety or self-pity, dramatised by high-temperature styles of media communication.

Marie Luise Knott’s recent short book Unlearning With Hannah Arendt (2014) revisits the controversy over Arendt’s notorious characterisation of the mindset of Nazism as “the banality of evil”, and brilliantly shows how her point is to do with the erosion in Hitlerian Germany of the capacity to think, to understand one’s agency as answerable to more than public pressure and fashion, to hold to notions of honour and dignity independent of status, convention or influence – but also, ultimately, the erosion of a sense of the ridiculous. The victory of public cliché and stereotype is, in Arendt’s terms, a protection against reality, “against the claim on our thinking attention that all events and facts make by virtue of their existence”, as she memorably wrote in The Life of the Mind. Hitler was committed to the destruction of anything that challenged the simple self-identity and self-justification of the race and the nation; hence, as Ullrich shows in an acutely argued chapter of Hitler: a Biography, the Führer’s venom against the churches, despite their (generally) embarrassingly lukewarm resistance to the horrors of the Reich. The problem was that the churches’ rationale entailed just that accountability to more than power and political self-identity that Nazi philosophy treated as absolute. They had grounds for thinking Nazism not only evil, but absurd. Perhaps, then, one of the more unexpected questions we are left with by a study of political nightmare such as Ullrich’s excellent book is how we find the resources for identifying the absurd as well as for clarifying the grounds of law and honour.

The threats now faced by “developed” democracy are not those of the 1920s and 1930s; whatever rough beasts are on their way are unlikely to have the exact features of Hitler’s distinctive blend of criminality and melodrama. But this does not mean that we shouldn’t be looking as hard as we can at the lessons to be learned from the collapse of political legality, the collective panics and myths, the acceptance of delusional and violent public theatre that characterised Hitler’s Germany. For evil to triumph, what is necessary is for societies to stop thinking, to stop developing an eye for the absurd as well as the corrupt in language and action, public or private.

Hitler: a Biography – Volume I: Ascent by Volker Ullrich is published by the Bodley Head

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism