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Special investigation: a charter for torture

In Afghanistan, British forces hand over prisoners with only flimsy guarantees they will not be abus

What is striking about the history of torture in Afghanistan is that no matter which regime is in power - the communists, the mujahedin, the Taliban and now Hamid Karzai's western-supported government - the methods remain the same. From the 1980s to the present day, electrocution and beating have been the principal weapons used against those the state deems dangerous or undesirable.

A former jihadi recently told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism about the similarity in treatment between his arrests in the 1980s and in late January 2009. "In Afghan­istan, some types of torture are common and these are beating and electric shocks, given twice a day," he said. "I was tortured at nine in the morning and again from two to three o'clock in the afternoon.

“They kept me in a toilet, kept me thirsty and hungry, and used to hang me upside down for 20 to 30 minutes at a time. I was frequently threatened with death. I was not allowed to meet my family during either imprisonment."

He was released after 25 days, once the elders of his tribe had paid the equivalent of £2,000 in Pakistani rupees.

In another case we investigated, a father was forced to listen to the torture of his 20-year-old son and 16-year-old nephew. The family's ordeal began at 3am one day in early March this year, after a team of Afghan and foreign intelligence operatives broke down the door to his home in a village in eastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. They took Shamsuddin (not his real name) and his son and nephew, put black hoods on their heads and accused them of being insurgents. Shamsuddin told us that his brother, the father of his nephew, had been killed by a Taliban bomb just eight months earlier. He said it was "impossible" to have the idea that they could be Taliban fighters.

The three men were taken to the area of Kabul where most foreign agencies and missions are sited, including the US embassy, the centre for Nato forces and CIA headquarters.

He described being handcuffed, hooded and beaten over several days, but said that for him this was not really torture. The unbearable thing was to hear the agony of his son.

“There was a window like a hole in the door. I was trying to see what was happening to my son. You know a parent always longs to know what is happening to his child. I could hear the sound of the instrument beating my son. I felt his pain as if it was my own, and I heard my own son shouting and screaming.

“I wasn't normal. Hearing your son shout and scream and call on God. From the sound of the instrument they used to beat him, it wasn't wood or a fist, but sounded like a length of rubber or electric cable. It lasted for an hour each time. They were asking questions, but I couldn't hear what they were asking. I could just hear the sound of him screaming and the sound of rubber or a cable whipping him."

Shamsuddin has since been released, but his son has not. His fate is unknown.

What makes many of the reported cases of torture in Afghanistan so disturbing is not just that the western invasion was supposed to end such practices, but that the Allied forces have, in effect, been colluding in such treatment.

Last year, the high court in London heard testimony from ten men accused of insurgency, all of whom had been beaten by members of the Afghan authorities after being surrendered to them by British or American forces between 2007 and 2010. Their stories make grim reading: "Prisoner X said that metal clamps had been attached to parts of his body. He gestured to his forearms, upper body and chest . . . he had been electrocuted six times. He said that he had been beaten with an electric cable, about a metre long and one inch thick. He was beaten by the commander, a small fat man. He still had marks on his back."

It is also alleged that Prisoner X was raped by a senior Afghan officer at the detention facility in Lashkar Gah. Other stories heard in court included those of Prisoner A, who spoke of being hung from the ceiling and beaten, and Prisoner D, who was electrocuted while blindfolded. Prisoner E told the court that "every night of the 20 days of investigation at Lashkar Gah he had been beaten".

Counsel for the UK Ministry of Defence (the period of investigation covers the tenures of John Hutton, Bob Ainsworth and Liam Fox) has admitted that some of these allegations are "credible" - and even the high court judgment warned that they should not be dismissed.

And yet, a joint investigation by the New Statesman and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that the world's most powerful military nations have responded not by trying to right these wrongs, but by attempting to sweep away the fundamental provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

The problem is simple, yet horrifying. British troops regularly hand over suspected insurgents to the Afghan authorities, even though torture and abuse are rife in Afghanistan's detention facilities. They do this, too, knowing that it is a breach of international law to transfer detainees to the custody of another state where they may face a risk of torture. This is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the Convention Against Torture of 1984, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950).

“The prohibition to transfer a person to a jurisdiction where he or she may be tortured is absolute in international law," says Dr Juan Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture. "The operative part of this prohibition is not the torture itself, but the very risk of torture." And although there has been an official response to allegations of this sort, you could be forgiven for not having heard of it. Called the Copenhagen Process, it has received little publicity. Its meetings are closed. Its full membership is secret. Human rights groups such as Amnesty and other interested non-governmental organisations have been excluded.

What we do know is that it is led by the Danish government and it involves 25 nations (including the US and UK), as well as Nato, the EU, the African Union and the UN. Since 2007, these players have been pushing to establish a common framework for detainee transfers in Iraq and Afghanistan. In grim committee-speak, it aims to produce an "outcome document", which it hopes will receive approval from the UN and individual countries.

The starting point for those around the Copenhagen table is that, while the principles of humanitarian and human rights conventions may be set in stone, 20th-century law is out of kilter with 21st-century conflict. Military nations need a get-out clause from the Geneva Conventions.

Thomas Winkler of Denmark's ministry of foreign affairs is leading the charge. "The dil­emma is . . . [you] have a huge body of law but, when you have to apply the law in these types of conflict or operations, we have met a number of challenges . . . that you detain somebody and that you believe that the individual either is a security threat or a criminal, how do you then deal with it?" he told the Bureau.

Winkler maintains that the Copenhagen Process meetings have been "closed" to encourage openness by the states and organisations involved. He says that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now attending meetings, and NGOs will be invited to contribute later this year, once the final draft outcome document has been drawn up. The ICRC distances itself from this assertion. A spokesperson says it was invited to participate in the process, but purely as an observer.

The present military rules in Afghanistan say that Nato-led forces have to hand over anyone they capture to the Afghan authorities within 96 hours. So far, the forces have attempted to comply with their human rights obligations by obtaining written assurances from the Afghan government, known as memorandums of understanding, or MOUs. The aim of the Copenhagen Process is to codify these assurances into international law.

As the high court testimony from the ten detainees shows, it appears that these MOUs are not always successful in protecting detainees from torture. Prisoner A told of multiple night-time beatings in an underground cell. Prisoner C recounted being hung from a ceiling for three days and nights. A common theme is the men's inability to identify their abusers - the beatings often took place under cover of darkness, or with the men blindfolded - but in those cases where identifications were made, senior officials were implicated.

“The use of memorandums of understanding is among the worst practices that states are currently engaging in," says Matt Pollard, a senior legal adviser at Amnesty International. "In effect, it is resulting in states bypassing their obligations not to transfer people to risk of torture. Basically states say: 'Yes - I'm not supposed to transfer a person to you if you're going to torture them - so please just promise me you won't torture them.' We've said categorically that that type of practice is actually undermining the prohibition of torture and other ill-treatment and other human rights obligations. It's one of the worst practices in terms of its effect on the system of human rights protection as a whole at the moment."

Juan Méndez agrees. "Diplomatic assurances do not relieve the sending countries of their state responsibility for having committed a serious breach of an international obligation." He argues that changes to the way MOUs are used "are unnecessary if the receiving country is not a torturing state and are utterly meaningless if the receiving country is known to engage in a pattern and practice of torture".

Then Méndez goes further, and makes a statement that is remarkably forthright for someone in his position. "In the course of the so-called 'global war on terror', countries have been transferring prisoners not despite the risk of torture, but precisely to facilitate torture - and to obtain the dubious intelligence thus gathered. I fear that an agreed-upon regulation of these transfers will be seen by some [prisoner-] sending countries as a way of legitimising what is clearly wrongful conduct on their part. If so, the agreement will not succeed in curbing torture and may well provide a veneer of legitimacy to it."

It's a view echoed by Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, who says that the detainees' well-being is put second to western armies' convenience. "The US, UK and others with troops in Afghanistan want to be able to capture real or alleged insurgents and interrogate them," he says, "but they do not want to build or run detention centres in Afghanistan. So they do the expedient thing and hand them over to the Afghans. For the most part, they have no idea what happens next.

“It's a hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy of wilful blindness to the risks to detainees. And, to make matters worse, we know that many people detained in Afghanistan turn out to be completely innocent."

The organisation to which detainees are handed over is the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's external and domestic intelligence agency. Its track record is deplorable and the evidence of torture at its detention facilities is overwhelming. Since 2005, there has been a raft of reports detailing how torture is rife in it and other state institutions.

In 2007, the UN high commissioner for human rights reported that the NDS's use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment was frequent. Every year since then the same concerns have been reiterated.

In 2009, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that "torture was commonplace among the majority of law-enforcement institutions". It identified 398 victims and detailed the methods of torture: sexual abuse; branding with iron bars; use of tools, a lawnmower, tyre rods, staplers; flogging with electric, iron and plastic cables on the back, waist, feet, head, face and other body parts; beating with rods while blindfolded with hands and feet tied; use of electric shocks; victims continuously chained and shackled. The report concluded that no one had been prosecuted for any of these cases.

Even the US state department country report on Afghanistan published in 2010 referred to methods of torture and abuse. These included, but were not limited to, "beating by stick, scorching bar, or iron bar; flogging by cable; battering by rod; electric shock; deprivation of sleep, water and food; abusive language; sexual humiliation; and rape". Against this backdrop, a memorandum of understanding seems a flimsy safeguard indeed.

In 2009, the Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin created a storm when he revealed that, despite an MOU, Canada did not monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan, and that detainees transferred by the Canadians to Afghan prisons were probably tortured. "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin said. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure."

He said his reports were ignored and eventually senior officials told him to stop putting his concerns in writing. Denmark's Winkler accepts that MOUs are not sufficient in themselves. Central to their success, he explains, is "aggressive monitoring": to try to ensure that the host nation - through the Afghan authorities - sticks to its part of the bargain. "We need the monitoring of not just the individuals transferred but also supervision and the co-operation at a general level with the receiving state in order to ensure that the facilities are there," Winkler told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. "If the receiving state or entity does not fulfil the obligations as part of the MOU, then you cannot transfer."

This is where the central thesis of the use of MOUs by the Copenhagen Process starts to unravel. The UK - which is held up as an example of best practice - signed a bilateral MOU with the Afghan defence ministry in April 2006. Its intentions are laudable: "Ensure that participants will observe the basic principles of international human rights law such as the right to life and the prohibition on torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment pertaining to the treatment and transfer of persons by the UK [armed forces] to Afghan authorities and their treatment."

However, a high court case brought last year by the peace activist Maya Evans exposed the fundamental failings of the agreement. At the time of the hearing, 418 UK detainees had been handed over to the NDS (the number is now more than 600). The main detention facilities are NDS Kabul, known as "Department 17", NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah.

The judgment pointed out that "written assurances in themselves do not take matters very far . . . actions speak louder than words". It continued: "UK officials in Kabul reported that despite advice from London, the MOU was meaningless locally. The NDS did not recognise the authority of the Afghan minister of defence to promise anything on behalf of the NDS."

It continues that, because of deficiencies in the monitoring system, "the possibility of other cases of abuse which the monitoring system has failed to identify cannot be dismissed". However, the British judges refused to rule that the transfer of detainees was illegal. Transfers to NDS Kandahar and NDS Lashkar Gah could continue, "provided that existing safeguards are strengthened by observance of specified conditions".

That seems unlikely to happen: the Afghan­istan Independent Human Rights Commission has repeatedly been denied proper access to NDS facilities. During one visit in 2007, detainees were hidden on a roof.

The judgment also described the position at NDS Kabul as "particularly troubling". As it stated: "Little occurred by way of UK visits before the NDS refused all access to the facility in late 2008." Access to NDS Kandahar was limited. At NDS Lashkar Gah, visits were cancelled for security reasons and the character of visits was described as falling "well short of best practice"; guards were present during the interviews, and it was only possible to see detainees in groups with the guards still in earshot.

It was only through the high court hearings that the allegations of torture and abuse came to public attention in the UK. If those in charge of the Copenhagen Process have their way, the accusations are unlikely to surface again.

In the meantime, however, British troops continue to hand over detainees to their Afghan counterparts. The UK Ministry of Defence argues that, with better supervision, the situation has improved, but confirms that accounts of abuse continue to surface.

“We take all allegations of abuse seriously and consider these in all future transfer decisions," an MoD spokesman says. "We can confirm that there [has] been a very small number of allegations received since the judgment was handed down, but cannot give full details as they can only be passed on with the permission of the detainee and may be subject to an ongoing investigation, either by UK or Afghan authorities. Where permission is given by the detainee, an allegation will be passed to the Afghan authorities for further investigation."

As Nato-led forces plan to pull out from Afghanistan, the focus on how western armies can hand over detainees without breaching international law has intensified. Before the "war on terror" the west made great play of trying to engage with torturing regimes in an effort to get them to change their ways. Now, it stands accused of complicity, the result of a cynical attempt to erode the basic principles of the Geneva Conventions, international human rights and humanitarian law.

Angus Stickler is chief reporter at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a not-for-profit organisation based at City University London

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network

This feature article was produced in association with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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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