A portrait of D H Lawrence by Edward Weston, 1924. Edward Weston/©1981 Centre for Creative Photography/Arizona Board of Regents/National Portrait Gallery
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D H Lawrence: A Letter from Germany

"We have brought it about ourselves—by a Ruhr occupation, by an English nullity, and by a German false will. We have done it ourselves. But apparently it was not to be helped."
This letter by D H Lawrence, written in 1928 and published in the NS of 13 October 1934, is one of the pieces in “The New Statesman Century”, our anthology of the best and boldest writing from the first 100 years of the NS, with contributions from Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens and Bertrand Russell. This 250-page special issue is out now, available in selective WHSmiths and online at: newstatesman.com/century
 
We are going back to Paris to-morrow, so this is the last moment to write a letter from Germany. Only from the fringe of Germany, too.
 
It is a miserable journey from Paris to Nancy, through that Marne country, where the country still seems to have had the soul blasted out of it, though the dreary fields are ploughed and level, and the pale wire trees stand up. But it is all void and null. And in the villages, the smashed houses in the street rows, like rotten teeth between good teeth. You come to Strasbourg, and the people still talk Alsatian German, as ever, in spite of French shop-signs. The place feels dead. And full of cotton goods, white goods, from Mülhausen, from the factories that once were German. Such cheap white cotton goods, in a glut.
 
The cathedral front rearing up high and flat and fanciful, a sort of darkness in the dark, with round rose windows and long, long prisons of stone. Queer that men should have ever wanted to put stone upon faithful stone to such a height without having it fall down. The gothic! I was always glad when my cardcastle fell but these goths and alemans seemed to have a craze for peaky heights.
 
The Rhine is still the Rhine, the great divider. You feel it as you cross. The flat, frozen, watery places. Then the cold and curving river. Then the other side, seeming so forsaken. The train stands and steams fiercely. Then it draws through the flat Rhine plain, past frozen pools of flood-water, and frozen fields, in the emptiness of this bit of occupied territory.
 
Immediately you are over the Rhine, the spirit of place has changed. There is no more attempt at the bluff of geniality. The marshy places are frozen. The fields are vacant. There seems nobody in the world.
 
It is as if the life had retreated eastwards. As if the Germanic life were slowly ebbing away from contact with western Europe, ebbing to the deserts of the east. And there stand the heavy, ponderous round hills of the Black Forest, black with an inky blackness of Germanic trees, and patched with a whiteness of snow. They are like a series of huge, involved black mounds, obstructing the vision eastwards. You look at them from the Rhine plain, and you know that you stand on an actual border, up against something.
 
The moment you are in Germany, you know. It feels empty, and, somehow, menacing. So must the Roman soldiers have watched those black, massive round hills: with a certain fear, and with the knowledge that they were at their own limit. A fear of the invisible natives. A fear of the invisible life lurking among the woods. A fear of their own opposite.
 
So it is with the French: this almost mystic fear. But one should not insult even one’s fears. Germany, this bit of Germany, is very different from what it was two and a half years ago, when I was here. Then it was still open to Europe. Then it still looked to western Europe for a reunion, for a sort of reconciliation. Now that is over. The inevitable, mysterious barrier has fallen again, and the great leaning of the Germanic spirit is once more eastwards towards Russia, towards Tartary. The strange vortex of Tartary has become the positive centre again, the positivity of western Europe is broken. The positivity of our civilisation has broken. The influences that come, come invisibly out of Tartary. So that all Germany reads Men, Beasts and Gods with a kind of fascination. Returning again to the fascination of the destructive East, that produced Attila.
 
So it is at night. Baden-Baden is a quiet place. No more Turgenevs or Dostoevskys or Grand Dukes or King Edwards coming to drink the waters. All the outward effect of a world-famous watering-place. But empty now, a mere Black Forest village with the wagon-loads of timber going through, to the French.
 
The Rentenmark, the new gold Mark of Germany, is abominably dear. Prices are high in England, but English money buys less in Baden than it buys in London, by a long chalk. And there is no work—consequently no money. Nobody buys anything, except absolute necessities. The shopkeepers are in despair. And there is less and less work. Everybody gives up the telephone—can’t afford it. The tramcars don’t run, except about three times a day to the station. Up to the Annaberg, the suburb, the lines are rusty, no trams ever go. The people can’t afford the ten Pfennigs for the fare. Ten Pfennigs is an important sum now: one penny. It is really a hundred Milliards of Marks.
 
Money becomes insane, and people with it. At night the place is almost dark, economising light. Economy, economy, economy— that, too, becomes an insanity. Luckily the government keeps bread fairly cheap. 
 
But at night you feel strange things stirring in the darkness, strange feelings stirring out of this stillunconquered Black Forest. You stiffen your backbone and you listen to the night. There is a sense of danger. It is not the people. They don’t seem dangerous. Out of the very air comes a sense of danger, a queer, bristling feeling of uncanny danger.
 
Something has happened. Something has happened which has not yet eventuated. The old spell of the old world has broken, and the old, bristling, savage spirit has set in. The war did not break the old peace-and-production hope of the world, though it gave it a severe wrench. Yet the old peace-and-production hope still governs, at least the consciousness. Even in Germany it has not quite gone.
 
But it feels as if, virtually, it were gone. The last two years have done it. The hope in peace-and-production is broken. The old flow, the old adherence is ruptured. And a still older flow has set in. Back, back to the savage polarity of Tartary, and away from the polarity of civilised Christian Europe. This, it seems to me, has already happened. And it is a happening of far more profound import than any actual event. It is the father of the next phase of events.
 
And the feeling never relaxes. As you travel up the Rhine valley, still the same latent sense of danger, of silence, of suspension. Not that the people are actually planning or plotting or preparing. I don’t believe it for a minute. But something has happened to the human soul, beyond all help. The human soul recoiling now from unison, and making itself strong elsewhere. The ancient spirit of prehistoric Germany coming back, at the end of history.
 
The same in Heidelberg. Heidelberg full, full, full of people. Students the same, youths with rucksacks the same, boys and maidens in gangs come down from the hills. The same, and not the same. These queer gangs of Young Socialists, youths and girls, with their non-materialistic professions, their halfmystic assertions, they strike one as strange. Something primitive, like loose, roving gangs of broken, scattered tribes, so they affect one. And the swarms of people somehow produce an impression of silence, of secrecy, of stealth. It is as if everything and everybody recoiled away from the old unison, as barbarians lurking in a wood recoil out of sight. The old habits remain. But the bulk of the people have no money. And the whole stream of feeling is reversed.
 
So you stand in the woods about the town and see the Neckar flowing green and swift and slippery out of the gulf of Germany, to the Rhine. And the sun sets slow and scarlet into the haze of the Rhine valley. And the old, pinkish stone of the ruined castle across looks sultry, the marshalry is in shadow below, the peaked roofs of old, tight Heidelberg compressed in its river gateway glimmer and glimmer out. There is a blue haze.
 
And it all looks as if the years were wheeling swiftly backwards, no more onwards. Like a spring that is broken and whirls swiftly back, so time seems to be whirling with mysterious swiftness to a sort of death. Whirling to the ghost of the old Middle Ages of Germany, then to the Roman days, then to the days of the silent forest and the dangerous, lurking barbarians.
 
Something about the Germanic races is unalterable. White-skinned, elemental, and dangerous. Our civilisation has come from the fusion of the dark-eyed with the blue. The meeting and mixing and mingling of the two races has been the joy of our ages. And the Celt has been there, alien, but necessary as some chemical reagent to the fusion. So the civilisation of Europe rose up. So these cathedrals and these thoughts.
 
But now the Celt is the disintegrating agent. And the Latin and southern races are falling out of association with the northern races, the northern Germanic impulse is recoiling towards Tartary, the destructive vortex of Tartary.
 
It is a fate; nobody now can alter it. It is a fate. The very blood changes. Within the last three years, the very constituency of the blood has changed, in European veins. But particularly in Germanic veins.
 
At the same time, we have brought it about ourselves—by a Ruhr occupation, by an English nullity, and by a German false will. We have done it ourselves. But apparently it was not to be helped.
 
Quos vult perdere Deus, dementat prius.
 
AKG-IMAGES/ULLSTEIN BILD
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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