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We are killing in the light of God

More than five million people have died in the war that has been raging in eastern Congo. And now, y

Late summer in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and soldiers wearing rain ponchos stand guard outside a base littered with the stumps of freshly cut trees. Under a plastic canopy sits the head of military operations, a short, thick-sideburned man wearing Sunday clothes: blue football shirt, three-quarter-length jeans and pristine white trainers. For more than a decade eastern Congo has been torn apart by conflict involving rebel groups, foreign armies and government troops, battling each other for control of territory and lucrative minerals.

But Major Abdoul and his men are here further because of a different war, one in which God is the inspiration and human beings are the bounty. For more than a year, the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from neighbouring Uganda has exported its unique brand of terror into the remote and vast district called Haut Uélé, killing or abducting thousands of Congolese villagers and forcing hundreds of thousands more to flee their homes.
I have come to find out why.

“Let me give you chapter one," Major Abdoul says.

The first time LRA fighters came to Congo was in late 2005, he explains. Their "chief" had been attacked at home in Uganda and in South Sudan and he wanted refuge. Major Abdoul was part of a Congolese government delegation that went to meet the chief's people in a place called Aba, close to the border with Sudan. They told the rebels they could stay in Congo if they agreed to disarm.

“They went back to their chief in the bush and he refused our request. A week later we discovered some of them had moved into one of our national parks, called Garamba."

Major Abdoul pauses to consider the walkie-talkie that crackles in his left hand.

There was more to tell, he says, a lot more. Chapters two, three, four and a conclusion.

But that would have to wait. "In Congo we respect Sunday," he says. "An off day."

In fact, the story has a prologue as well. In 1987 a former altar boy in his twenties named Joseph Kony - the man who would become the chief - left his village in northern Uganda with 11 other men to start a rebellion. The aim was to overthrow Yoweri Museveni, whose bush army had seized power the previous year from Tito Okello, from the same Acholi ethnic group as Kony. The rebels had few guns but then Kony's most potent weapon did not need bullets. The Holy Spirit, he believed, was guiding him. Fight beside me and pray hard, pray very hard, and no harm will come to you, he told his followers.

The Lord's Resistance Army, as they became known, proved adept in guerrilla warfare and soon grew in strength. Some of the fighters were believers both in Kony's spiritual powers and in the need to defend the Acholi people from further revenge attacks by Museveni's troops, who had chased thousands of former government soldiers back to the north. But kidnapping was the main form of recruitment, with boys and girls often the targets. One of the early victims was Lily Atong. The year was 1993 and she was ten years old. The rebels came to her hut one night and dragged her off into the darkness. She would come to know the chief.

Museveni tried to crush the rebels militarily but they knew the bush too well. Kony, who told his followers that he would one day rule the country according to the Ten Commandments, ordered retribution after each government offensive. The people of northern Uganda - the Acholis, his people - government sympathisers and ordinary villagers both, would suffer. Thousands of civilians were killed, some by young boys kidnapped from their classrooms only months before. Other victims carried a message on their faces. A padlock forced through a mouth. Lips sliced off. Ears and noses, too.

While Museveni was being hailed for bringing stability and economic growth to Uganda, the war in the north dragged on, largely un­noticed by the outside world. He tried to deny Kony food and cover, herding 1.8 million people in northern Uganda into camps for their own "protection". But the LRA was able to exist comfortably across the border in Sudan with the help of the government in Khartoum, which wanted to punish Museveni for supporting rebels fighting a civil war in South Sudan.

By 2004, the conflict was attracting more international attention, mainly because of the so-called Night Commuters. Each evening, as many as 40,000 children, women and elderly people would leave their villages to walk to the towns, where they slept in churches or schools or on the pavement. In the morning, they would return to their houses.

“How can we sleep at home?" Florence Adwar, a 48-year-old Night Commuter asked me in October 2004. "If we do, the rebels will attack us and take our children."

By then, 20,000 children had been kidnapped. Though many had returned home or been killed, several thousand remained in the bush as LRA fighters or commanders' wives. The war was about to enter a new phase.

Chapter two

Garamba National Park is a vast complex of grassland and thick bush in the remote northeastern reaches of Congo bordering Sudan. It attracts few visitors and offers ideal cover for a rebel army, something that did not go unnoticed by Kony's foes. Within a few months of the meeting between Major Abdoul's delegation and LRA representatives, the United Nations sanctioned a covert mission to kill Kony before he became too settled. A team of Guatemalan Special Forces operatives, trained in jungle warfare, entered Garamba in January 2006. Ten days later, at dawn, they came up against a band of hardened LRA fighters. Eight Guatemalans were killed, five injured. The mission was a disaster.

After this the rebels, feeling more secure, cleared patches of bush to build camps and plant crops. They used their AK-47s to hunt antelopes. "Back then they did not harass local people, only taking seeds from time to time," says Father Benoît Kinalegu, who runs the Justice and Peace Commission in Dungu, where Major Abdoul has his base, about 50 miles south-west of Garamba.

Indeed, it seemed that Kony might finally be prepared to end the war. In May 2006, he met a team of peace negotiators who had brought along with them a few journalists. Until then one of the few images that existed of Kony showed a wild-looking man in a T-shirt, with long dreadlocks. Now he had short hair and a military uniform. A BBC news clip of the interview shows him in good humour. He talked about being guided by spirits, about how he was a "man of peace". "I am a human being like you. I have eyes, a brain, and wear clothes, but they are saying we don't talk with people, we eat people, we are killers. That is not true. Why do you meet me if I am a killer?"

As peace efforts progressed, some of the dozens of wives that Kony had chosen from the ranks of kidnapped girls, and who had subsequently been freed, were convinced to join a delegation to help persuade him to end the war. One of them was Lily Atong, the girl who had been kidnapped in 1993. She had spent 12 years in the bush with the LRA, eight as Kony's wife. Before being captured by Ugandan troops in Sudan in 2005, she had borne him three children. The youngest child, whom Kony named George Bush, was still breastfeeding; Lily took him along on the peace journey to Congo.

They met Kony, but when the time came for them to depart with the rest of the delegation he refused to let them leave. Lily had been kidnapped for a second time, this time by the chief himself.

Kony's erratic behaviour was not the only obstacle to a peace settlement. Representing the LRA at the formal peace negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, was a team of Ugandans from the diaspora who were prone to infighting and making grandiose statements. None had been in the bush as a fighter; the team's one common interest with the rebels was a wish to see Museveni leave power. Then there was the issue of the war crimes charges raised by the International Criminal Court against Kony and four of his most senior commanders, including Dominic Ongwen, who had been kidnapped as a boy. Though many people in northern Uganda would have been happy to see the ICC charges dropped if it helped end the war, the arrest warrants remained in place during negotiations. Kony used them as an excuse to postpone signing a final deal. For three years, the rebels had mounted only sporadic attacks, but by the second half of 2008 it was clear that the peace process was over.

Chapter three

To reach Dungu, the main town in Congo's Haut Uélé district and the location of Major Abdoul's base, I hitched a ride with UN peacekeepers on a helicopter flying from Bunia, 200 miles south-east, close to the Ugandan border. Surrounded by thick bush, split by two large rivers and dotted with once-elegant colonial-era buildings, Dungu would have had a certain charm in happier times, perhaps even just a year earlier. But now thousands of internally displaced people had set up makeshift homes there. Congolese soldiers guarded the bridges to prevent further incursions by the LRA, which had already kidnapped dozens of civilians from the town.

One afternoon I took a motorbike to a village called Bamukandi, about four miles from the centre of town. A tall white missionary who was raking leaves next to a Catholic church bellowed, "Ferruccio!" when I introduced myself. Ferruccio Gobbi is a small, compact man with thinning silver hair who first came to Uganda from Italy in 1970, aged 28. Seated in a reception room, beneath a picture of Pope Benedict XVI, he told me his story.

On 17 September 2008, LRA units attacked several Congolese towns and villages, including Duru, where Father Ferruccio and one other Comboni missionary were based. The rebels began their raid at the primary school early in the afternoon, locking the doors and tying up the pupils. At the parish where the missionaries lived, a female LRA fighter ransacked Father Ferruccio's room, stealing clothes and burning personal items, including his passport. His arms were bound so tightly behind his back he feared they would break. The looting continued for hours. Houses were burned, market stalls razed. One of the fighters made a satellite phone call within earshot of Father Ferruccio's colleague, a Sudanese who understood Acholi. The rebel was taking instructions from Kony.

At 6pm that day, the two missionaries were forced into a line with dozens of villagers and marched past the hospital and the airstrip. As they were about to enter the bush, the rebel commander ordered that the missionaries be released. Father Ferruccio was trembling. The rebels had searched his trouser pockets but not his shirt pocket, where he had a list of nearly 50 LRA fighters whom he had helped to defect and return to Uganda since 2006. He also had photographs of the rebels on his camera, which had been taken. In the chapel was a diagram showing the LRA positions in Garamba. It had gone unnoticed.

“If they had seen any of that I'm sure I would have been killed," Father Ferruccio said.

The following morning, about 12 miles from Duru, the rebels released the elderly people they had kidnapped, keeping about 90 men, women and children, many of whom remain in the bush today. Father Ferruccio and his colleague hired a motorbike to take them across the border to Sudan.
I asked him why the rebels had targeted Duru.

“I think it was a revenge attack for helping with the defections," Father Ferruccio said. "But maybe they also wanted to clear a path to the Central African Republic for later." (In Uganda, another of Kony's wives told me that Kony had talked about a dream where the angels told him to start abducting Congolese because the local army had decided to hunt him down.)

My translator and driver, a young Congolese man named Brown, indicated that we needed to leave. It was after 5pm and he was nervous. “Oh, Papa, this is a very bad area," he said of Bamukandi, where there had been several recent LRA raids, as we mounted his motorbike. Brown took a shortcut and soon we were lost, bumping along a tiny footpath past abandoned huts, with the light fading. "I don't want to meet Kony," Brown said.

Chapter four

14 December 2008. A blanket of early-morning fog hung over Garamba National Park. Lily Atong was with Kony at Camp Kiswahili, his main base. At 7am he announced he'd had a vision that an attack was coming. He had correctly predicted many Ugandan strikes in the past, his followers knew. He was right again.

Uganda, South Sudan and Congo had agreed to work together to destroy the LRA, launching a military campaign called Operation Lightning Thunder. "We knew that Kony had no intention of stopping fighting," Major Felix Kulayigye, spokesman for the Uganda People's Defence Force, told me in his hilltop office at an army base in Kampala. "This is a man who has access to 50 women at a time. He has received state visits from regional leaders. Yet he is a peasant. What do you expect him to do? He cannot come home to be vice-president."

The United States, which had designated the LRA a terrorist group, eagerly backed the offensive, providing $1m towards logistics and help with intelligence. Norbert Mao, a former opposition MP from northern Uganda involved in the peace process, told me that the former US assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer had wanted to give "a Christmas present" to President Museveni in the final days of the Bush administration.
As the Ugandan helicopter gunships approached Garamba, Kony remained calm. "At first he told us to move to another place, and then he said we should stay and prepare him tea," Lily would later recall. "He said: 'The bullets will not kill anybody - let's have tea.'"

When the attack began, the rebels scattered into the bush. Fighter jets later continued the pounding. There were casualties - how many, nobody is sure - and the various LRA camps in Garamba were destroyed. But Kony, his top commanders, and many other rebels escaped unharmed. The following morning, the chief gathered his followers in the bush a few miles away from Camp Kiswahili. He reminded them it was God that sent him to earth to fight, so they should not fear.

“If I had signed the peace deal I would have been killed," he said. "If they were serious about peace they would not have done this."

The planners of Operation Lightning Thunder failed to consider the inevitable consequence of their mission - that Kony would take revenge on civilians, as he had done in Uganda. His response took just ten days. On 24 and 25 December, LRA units mounted simultaneous raids in and around three Congolese towns 160 miles apart, none of which had been given army protection. To ensure maximum casualties, the rebels waited for villagers to gather for church services or celebrations before striking.

What followed became known as the Christmas Massacres. Machetes, knives, hoes and clubs were used to kill nearly 500 people, in perhaps the biggest killing spree ever carried out by the rebels. Bullets were not wasted. In the villages of Mabando and Bama, mothers were forced to put their small children in grain mortars and pound them to death, according to Sister Ellen Yawala, who was in the town of Doruma, 100 miles north-west of Dungu, at the time of the attack there.

“Many of the dead had broken arms and legs," she told me one morning at a convent in Dungu. "Their arms tied behind them. You could tell by the look on their faces that they died in bad conditions. Some of the women were naked from the waist down."

The attacks continued into 2009. With Ugandan ground forces now in pursuit through the thick bush, Kony ordered his fighters to split into smaller groups. Some headed further west past Doruma towards the forests of the Central African Republic, some north in the direction of South Sudan, others deeper into Congo. Several of Kony's wives and children were sent off in a group with one of his senior security officers. Lily Atong was among them. She had her one-year-old baby, Sophia, Kony's child, on her back. Young George Bush was there too, carried by a boy.

The Ugandan army soon had their trail and launched an ambush. The young boy grabbed George Bush and fled into the bush. Lily followed. She evaded the soldiers but could not find the boy and her son. "We walked the whole day looking for him. Finally I said, 'God has a plan for me and for Bush.'"

The next Ugandan attack came swiftly. When a bullet grazed the face of another of Kony's wives, she and Lily surrendered. The Ugandan soldier who fired the shot apologised when he realised who they were. We know you were forced to become Kony's wives, he told them. We have come to rescue you.

Lily was flown to Sudan and then back to northern Uganda. When she was reunited with her two eldest children at an orphanage, they were overjoyed to see her. But they had a question - where was George Bush?

“Until today they ask about him," Lily told me. "'Have you heard about Bush?' I tell them, 'No.'"

Since coming home Lily has learned that she is expecting her fifth child by Kony. She recounted her story at a centre for formerly abducted women near Gulu in northern Uganda. When a woman first arrives there, the counsellors ask her to set a goal she wants to achieve before returning to normal life - learning how to bake bread, to use a sewing machine, to braid hair. One woman answered that she wanted to go a full month without having a nightmare. "It is the cannibalism that some of them were exposed to that disturbs them the most," a counsellor told me. "Being forced to stir body parts in a pot over a fire. How do you forget that?"

In the months after the airstrike, the Ugandan army said that it had rescued 300 kidnap victims. Most were not Ugandans but Congolese, Sudanese, or from the Central African Republic. They spoke a babel of languages.

The LRA's leadership remained ethnically Acholi but it was fast becoming a multinational rebel force. The rebels splintered into even smaller groups, comprising as few as four fighters, moving swiftly and silently on foot. They continued to prey on Congolese civilians, stealing food and items such as jerrycans, to be lashed together to build rafts to cross the region's web of rivers. Villagers disappeared into the bush with the raiders, forced to beat or even kill their colleagues who tried to run away.

With the Congolese army still deploying to the area, some towns established self-defence groups. But resistance and reasoning were usually futile, as 56-year-old Joseph Mbaramuke found out. After his village came under attack, he gathered his family and set off on foot for Dungu.

Several rebels ambushed them on the road. Mbaramuke pleaded with them not to take his children. They shot him in the side and left him for dead.
He told me this outside his flimsy hut in Dungu. His son, 16 years old and vacant-eyed, had returned from the bush two months earlier, following a fight with Ugandan soldiers. The rebels put the new recruits on the front line in the battle, the boy said, allowing the older fighters to escape.

By the time of my visit in August this year, at least 1,200 civilians had been killed by the LRA in Congo during the preceding 12 months, according to the UN; perhaps as many as in any single year during nearly two decades of war in northern Uganda. More than 2,000 people had been kidnapped or reported missing. In July there were 56 LRA attacks - an extraordinary number, even if most of the raids were small and some might be the work of local bandits. Fear of attack or abduction has caused hundreds of thousands of Congolese to flee their homes. Denied access to their fields, they are now hungry in a fertile region.

Aid workers are doing what they can, but it is not enough. Road travel is considered too dangerous. In most conflicts, humanitarian access can be negotiated with even the most hardline rebel groups. There are no lines of communication to the LRA.

To reach Faradje, a town on the eastern edge of Garamba National Park, I had to take another helicopter flight. Three children, two girls and a boy, were also on board. Each of them carried a new backpack and a bottle of water. Their flight passes stated: "Ex-abducted child". None showed emotion until we were about to land, when the boy, perhaps ten years old, broke into a smile. Their mothers ran on to the dirt airstrip towards the helicopter, arms raised.

A Congolese psychologist working for an aid group in Faradje told me that some of the kidnapped children were so tired from marching in the bush that they slept for two or three days consecutively when they first reached safety. For weeks afterwards, they would tread carefully, so as not to leave footprints. At night, around the fire, they ensured that there was no smoke. Lessons from the LRA are not easily unlearned.

Conclusion

Officially, Operation Lightning Thunder ended in March. But the hunt for Kony continues. While units such as those under Major Abdoul are in charge of security in northern Congo, Ugandan forces are doing most of the hunting for the rebels there. The Ugandans are also in South Sudan, where LRA attacks are causing great distress to the local people, and in the Central African Republic, where Kony is said to be hiding.

“Two weeks ago we had a visit from the commander of the special forces, who is also Museveni's son [Major Muhoozi Kainerugaba]," Norbert Mao, the northern Ugandan former MP, told me in mid-August. "I asked him where Kony was and he said, 'I don't know. He is off air.'"

But the rebels' continued ability to launch attacks, as well as reports of them using sophisticated weapons, suggest that Kony is talking to someone. The Sudanese government in Khartoum is the most likely party, most experts believe. With a referendum on independence due in South Sudan in 2011, President Omar el-Bashir, Kony's fellow fugitive from the International Criminal Court, has a motive for seeing the LRA spread instability there.

At his base in Dungu, Major Abdoul said it would not come to that, because the story of Kony's rebellion is fast coming to a close. "We are now just waiting for the big party when the LRA is defeated," he said.

His end is not the end.

Later the same day, a tiny five-seater charter plane airlifted victims of an LRA attack from a town called Bangadi to Dungu. The two men and a woman, all elderly, thin and poor, had been ambushed when they returned to their abandoned village in the hope of finding food. There were five rebels, including one female, all with dreadlocks, all dirty. Only the woman fighter could speak the local language. After the villagers had been beaten so severely on their legs that none was able to walk, she told them: "Don't cry."

When I listened to accounts of the attack, it seemed senseless. The villagers had little worth stealing, and posed no threat. Then I realised they carried a message in their stories, in their misery, in their shattered legbones.

We are still here.

Xan Rice is a New Statesman contributing writer. He lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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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