Show Hide image

Class war zone

Aggressive and disruptive behaviour blights many state schools, and the only remedy - excluding pupi

Mohammed was only 13 years old and wasn't especially tall or powerful, yet I was terrified of him. "I'll fucking kill you. Do you get what I mean, geezer? I'll fucking deck you!" he screamed at me as I asked him to leave my classroom. He had hit a boy over the head and spent much of the lesson swearing. By this time, I was trembling with rage and fear, and was relieved when he finally left the room.

Soon afterwards Mohammed was excluded from the school and I gave up teaching. It was 1997 and the chaos he had caused had sapped my confidence. Because the school was not a stereotypical inner-city comprehensive, but located in a prosperous London suburb, I felt doubly deflated; I felt that I had become horribly soft. In fact, the school did have discipline problems, with a significant rump of children from troubled backgrounds, but few teachers there were trained to cope with the more challenging ones such as Mohammed. Rowdy classes became riotous, lessons became war zones.

Several years later, with my spirits refreshed and missing the buzz and excitement of the classroom, I returned to full-time teaching, quickly becoming a head of department at a school in Havering, outer London. In this new position of responsibility I had to teach several children who had been excluded from other schools or had been passed on to me by more junior teachers. By this time, I had become a more tolerant pedagogue, less obsessed with results, more adept at handling disruption. I was calmer and more consistent in my approach. Some of my pupils were potentially just as aggressive as Mohammed had been, but I was able to cope with them; I'd learned to "give and take", to negotiate, to form good relationships with difficult children.

One child, John, had been permanently excluded from another school but had settled well at my new school and ultimately succeeded in attaining eight good GCSEs. I recently spoke to John about his life now and was delighted that everything was going well for him. He had trained to be an electrician and was set, he said, on earning better wages than me. "What I liked about it in your school," he told me, "was that my mates and some of the teachers taught me how to deal with my anger. Sometimes I used to get so mad, I would just punch anyone who was around me, but then I learned to walk away from rucks. And I think that helped me concentrate more. The school stuck with me even though I was out of order sometimes. They didn't kick me out. That counts for a lot."

Talking to John, I began to think about Mohammed, who had been jailed soon after being permanently excluded from school. I recalled how there were times when he had been keen on learning, had even shown interest in Shakespeare and reading. He had wanted to succeed, but I, and many other teachers at the school, had been preoccupied only by what was wrong with him, meting out punishments and threats that had caused a vicious downward spiral. During my investigations in trying to find out what had happened to him, I learned from another former pupil at the school that Mohammed was still "up to no good"; he had become a drug dealer and had cut some heroin with washing powder and nearly killed a user.

Had I contributed to Mohammed's troubles? Had my old school failed him? If extra resources had been available to give him proper care and attention, would we have spared society huge amounts of money and distress in the long term?

Mohammed fitted the typical profile of an excluded child. He was male, of mixed race, had special educational needs and was in foster care. He was permanently excluded in 1997, exactly at the point when the new Labour administration swept to power promising to address the problems presented by children like him. Tony Blair's mantra, "Education, education, education", was as much about sorting out the Moh ammeds of this world, about being "tough on the causes of crime", as it was about improving results.

In spite of the government's best efforts to massage the figures, exclusion rates have remained more or less steady for a decade; on average, roughly 9,000 children or more are permanently excluded from school every year and nearly 400,000 children given "fixed-term" exclusions, according to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Eighty per cent of them are boys. Government figures show that Roma children are three and a half times more likely to be excluded than other children, and those from black or mixed ethnic backgrounds are twice as likely to be excluded as whites. Children in care are eight times as likely to be excluded, and those with special educational needs are three times more likely to be ordered to leave their school.

After 11 years of a Labour government, school exclusions continue to affect the underprivileged.

In 2007, as many as 140,000 pupils who were excluded for short periods from school were eligible for free meals, accounting for a third of such exclusions, even though these children make up only 12 per cent of the school population. But if schools were better equipped and staff better trained to deal with the persistent disruption exhibited by children from dysfunctional and deprived households, would exclusion rates be drastically reduced?

Meanwhile, society as a whole is paying an increasing cost. Significant research by the charity New Philanthropy Capital, which offers advice on giving, reveals that the average excluded child costs society more than £63,851 a year. This figure includes the future lost earnings of the child resulting from poor qualifications, and also costs to society in terms of crime, health and social services. In total, this amounts to £650m a year. This is probably a gross underestimate, since many excluded children are not accounted for in the figures.

The human cost of failing to deal with the problem is incalculable: carrying a knife is the most common offence among children excluded from school, and 50 per cent of men in prison were excluded. "Research shows that at the root of school exclusions, and much crime, is the inability of young people to communicate properly," says Lord Ramsbotham, former chief inspector of prisons. "If we addressed these problems in the classroom, many of our problems with antisocial behaviour would disappear.

"At the moment, what happens is that these young people, having been alienated from their families at an early age, are then excluded from school and turn to crime: drug-taking and dealing, knife crime and, in extreme but increasing cases, murder. Research shows that while poor parenting and low socio-economic status are major factors, school exclusion plays a significant environmental role in helping shape the criminals of tomorrow. The government needs to appoint a minister for inclusion to begin to address these issues."

Ofsted, in its report, Reducing Exclusions of Black Pupils from Secondary Schools: Examples of Good Practice, identified three interrelated features that significantly reduce exclusions: "Respect for the individual in school and a systematic, caring and consistent approach to behaviour and personal development, the courage and willingness to discuss difficult issues, a focus on helping pupils to take more control of their lives by providing them with strategies to communicate well and look after each other."

I know from my own experience that good mentoring really helps; the best schools allocate both "academic" and "professional" mentors to troubled pupils. The academic mentor will set clear, achievable targets twice a week which are then closely monitored, while professional mentors, usually drawn from the world of work, will show pupils opportunities beyond the classroom.

Frequently, these pupils have tailor-made numeracy and literacy lessons, and work in small groups with tutors to engage with the curriculum. Furthermore, pupils with particular psychological needs will have relevant lessons such as "anger management" classes or counselling sessions. While this may sound expensive, it needn't be: some schools have met the costs easily by getting rid of expensive management posts and reallocating the resources into buying in mentors and academic tutors. The alternative of the pupil referral unit is far more expensive; with staff ratios of one teacher to six pupils, the units mean thousands more pounds are spent per pupil than in a mainstream school.

Studies show that targeted early intervention can significantly reduce the problems caused by school exclusions. Take the case of Abby, a child who at the age of 12 was in foster care and regularly in trouble at school in south London. She was confrontational; she fought with other children and abused teachers. But she was also on the autistic spectrum, a condition that was not dealt with properly at school. Frequently, she would misinterpret the teachers' instructions, literally pulling her socks up in response to this metaphorical order. A series of fights and slanging matches with teachers led to her being permanently excluded before she could take any GCSEs. Once out of school, she quickly turned to petty crime such as shoplifting. Fortunately, her case was taken up by the National Teaching and Advisory Service (NT&AS), and some trained professionals were assigned to her who would supervise both her academic and social needs. Much to the astonishment of her former school, she attained seven GCSEs and is now at college.

"The link between youth offending and educational failure has of course been known about for years. But successive governments have failed to do much about it, although this government has undoubtedly done more than the others," says Tim Walker, the chief executive at NT&AS. "Organisations like mine can make a big difference if we intervene at the right point; we can put troubled children on the path to success."

One small but significant step to making exclusions a more constructive experience would be to grant children the right to appeal against their own exclusions, being assigned a trained "advocate" to represent them. A scheme like this has already been piloted in ten boroughs between 2005 and 2008 by Save the Children with its three-year EAR to Listen project, which gave excluded children an independent advocate to speak for them at exclusion panels and liaise between home and school generally.

That the project had an 80 per cent success rate in supporting children and young people to remain, re-enter and re- engage with education, but there is little political impetus behind spreading its good practice throughout the country. "The government has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives children the right to be heard and taken seriously in all matters affecting them, but we are nowhere near granting this to our excluded pupils," says Tom Burke, a spokesperson for the Children's Rights Alliance for England. Since September 2007, schools have been obliged by law to promote pupil well-being. "We would hope that new guidance on the duty, which the government will require schools to implement next year, will add further weight to exclusion panels to considering a child's rights when making exclusion decisions."

At the root of the social chaos caused by exclusions is a chronic lack of consistency. Some schools are eager to exclude disruptive pupils, while others are extremely reluctant to do so, even for serious offences. Schools anxious not to have their figures sullied by too many exclusions are choosing to operate a system of "internal" exclusions - locking pupils up in rooms with no windows, keeping them away from lessons in separate buildings, quietly telling them not to come to school at opportune moments such as when the inspectors are there. But this only creates worse problems for society in the long run; alienated and uneducated children, who are neglected by their schools and families, are left unsupervised to cause havoc.

It is only by being "consistently caring" towards these vulnerable children that we will clean up the mess. But no one in any of the three main political parties has had the courage to argue publicly that we should provide advocates for disruptive children on exclusion panels, insist on their having the right to appeal against their own exclusions, or that we should keep them in mainstream classes, if at all possible. Projects such as Save the Children's EAR to Listen, which provide excluded children with the proper support to stay in school, have been proven to be by far the cheapest and most effective way of solving the problem. Save the Children estimates that providing advocates for our most vulnerable children should cost no more than £8.5m, compared with the £650m that taxpayers are currently paying to cover all the harm exclusions cause.

I spoke to Michael Gove, shadow secretary of state for children, schools and families, about the Tories' attitudes towards exclusions. The Conservatives have pledged to scrap independent appeal panels, the only form of outside scrutiny that schools currently have when they exclude pupils, and Gove confirmed that the party aims to make this a manifesto commitment. "We want to introduce a number of measures within schools that will stop exclusions, such as early intervention strategies that will mean pupils will be dealt with effectively before the drastic step of excluding them is taken," he told me.

"We want to give headteachers the power to exclude pupils without being overruled by outside bodies so that they are secure that their authority won't be challenged or, as is often the case at the moment, undermined."

How would he ensure consistency on exclusions? Home-school contracts, he said, would be clear about what behaviour was acceptable and what was not. This is not a new idea: Labour has attempted and failed to make home-school contracts work. In fact, such contracts are simply a list of rules for parents that have been drawn up by the school, and these can vary from place to place.

Gove was clear that the Tories would not accept the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its insistence on a child's right to appeal his or her exclusion, but would allow individual schools to adopt this procedure if they felt it appropriate. This would give schools the chance to experiment in the ways in which they grapple with the issue of exclusion. "Our priority will be to stop exclusions in the first place," he said. "We believe our reading programme in primary school should have a big impact in this sense; the overwhelming majority of excluded children can't read properly. If we ensure that all children can read by the time they are seven, we will have cut down greatly upon the causes of exclusion.

"If we stop the causes of exclusions, we won't be kicking out kids on to the streets to cause mayhem. Our plans for improving pupil referral units will mean that all difficult children will be catered for in a supportive learning environment."

Overall, his plans seemed contradictory; and while he is sincere, I and many people in the system do not share his faith in the judgement of headteachers, on which so many of his plans rely. The Tories' plans will increase the inconsistency in the processes by which children are excluded, giving them no redress whatsoever. They will create an even angrier generation of rejects than we have now. His plans for referral units will be costly, without ever getting to the root of the problem.

Labour, anxious about being labelled "soft", has not even attempted to argue with Gove's proposals. The party prefers, instead, to sneak in guidance and legislation that bolsters children's rights in a piecemeal and inchoate fashion. The media is partly responsible for this: for all the column inches devoted to antisocial behaviour and crime perpetrated by children, there is seldom any serious attempt to look at some of the mundane root causes. Pointing out the inconsistency in schools' approaches towards exclusions and the need for proper, uniform disciplinary procedures, doesn't make good copy. Screaming about the need to expel thugs and yobs from school does. As a result, the public is never properly informed about the issues and the debate remains banal.

There are straightforward, successful and cheap measures that could drastically reduce school exclusions tomorrow. But the political and educational will to implement them doesn't exist. And so we are condemning our society to an ever rising tide of lawlessness.

Francis Gilbert's "Parent Power: the Complete Guide to Getting the Best Education for Your Child" is published by Piatkus (£9.99) http://www.francisgilbert.co.uk

Exclusion by numbers

  • 30% of permanent exclusions are for persistent disruptive behaviour (2007 figures)
  • 27% are for physical assaults on staff
  • 17% are for assaults on pupils
  • 11% are for verbal abuse against an adult
  • 5% are for verbal abuse against a pupil
  • 3% for bullying, racist abuse and damage
  • 2% are for sexual misconduct
  • 8,680: number of permanent exclusions from primary, secondary and special schools in 2006/2007
  • 363,270: fixed-term exclusions from state secondary schools
  • 45,730: fixed-term exclusions from primary schools
  • 20: number of times more likely that excluded children will end up in prison, compared to the general population

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

What is exclusion?

Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families

  • Headteachers have the right to remove a child from school for serious misbehaviour
  • "Fixed-term exclusion" is when the child is excluded temporarily (from one half-day to a maximum of 45 days in one school year). The school sets work for the period, which the child's guardian is expected to supervise
  • "Permanent exclusion" is when the child is ordered to leave the school permanently. The child may then have a "managed move" to another school, or go to a "pupil referral unit", to be taught in very small classes. Some may drop out of education altogether

Portraits by Natalie Pecht

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks

AKG-IMAGES/ULLSTEIN BILD
Show Hide image

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