The war that changed us

It began with a blinding flash and promises of speedy victory. Five years on the mission far from ac

The show began with blinding flashes, heart-stopping thunder, sparks which had been palaces and hovels soaring up to decorate the night sky. The Shock and Awe military tattoo had started. It was only a few weeks until its climax as the great black evil one, suddenly floodlit, bowed to the crowd and fell slowly forward on his face.

Author, director! In flier's kit, backed by a chorus line of cute American sailors, the boss advanced downstage to harvest the cheers. "Mission accomplished!" But the noise was not all applause and was not coming from the audience and seemed, improperly, to persist. Something was wrong. Would the audience please remain in their seats until a technical problem with the exit was sorted? We are still there.

What have we done to Iraq? Until we are allowed to escape from the arena, it is impossible to look back and guess. What has Iraq done to us? Here it is easier to study the damage. The fearful act of 9/11, the utter success with which that spear of hatred pierced America's heart, left the United States a smaller country. But by joining in the retaliations for that act, Britain also became smaller. "Britishness", supposed to be a brand or a list of values, was already in a poor state. Iraq - and Afghanistan - diminished the probity and reliability of the United Kingdom in almost all its overseas dealings. In European but also Atlantic affairs, the UK has become a slighter, less interesting partner in the past five years.

At home, if that's the right term for a house that has become so draughty and noisy, democracy has diminished. In the vapid lists of "British values" served up by the Prime Minister and his supporters, "fair play" always recurs. It is not fair for civilians in Peterborough to abuse RAF men and women in uniform because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the government has not played fair with the public, or even with the politicians, over those wars. The citizens are aware that they have been lied to and misled, that the independence of the British state has been rendered hollow, that control of the executive through parliament has become an old bedtime story told to make them close their eyes, that the five-year narrative of British military success in those two countries - still ela borated every day in the media - is no more than propaganda to conceal long-term mission failure, that a people can march in millions and be ignored.

All Blair's fault? All caused by what John Major's election team used to call the "Tango Bravo Factor"? Not entirely. Every one of these offences originated before 2003, some in new Labour's handling of power from 1997 onwards and others inherent in Britain's archaic institutions. The importance of Iraq was that it violently accelerated democratic decay and linked it to a short-term crisis in government ethics. People felt the jar of wheels falling off and asked: "Why are we being lied to?" Then they asked: "Who will tell us the truth about these wars and speak for us?" It's wrong to say that nobody did. At different moments, individuals such as Sir Menzies Campbell, Robin Cook or George Galloway spoke truth both to power and to the people. But none of them was able to wipe away the sense of national and personal humiliation that Iraq has left behind. Too many big men and women, who could and should have spoken out too, kept silent.

So Britain is smaller abroad. For the first time (as many commentators have pointed out), Britain abandoned its balance-of-power tradition and identified completely with the foreign policy of a stronger state. The UK was not the victim of 9/11 and had no direct motive for armed conflict with al-Qaeda or the Taliban, let alone with Saddam Hussein. The decision to go along with American retaliation through regime change did not defend British interests in the region but sacrificed them.

Sir Geoffrey Howe, speaking a few days after 9/11, listed four conditions that could justify American military action. These were that the action should be deterrent or self- defensive and not retaliatory, that there should be hard evidence of the target's responsibility for the 2001 atrocity, that long-term international support could be guaranteed and that any attack should be accompanied by a new effort to solve the Palestine question. None was fulfilled. Blair did attempt to link a token Middle East initiative to his support for Bush over Iraq, but it was never - could never have been - taken seriously by either Israel or the United States.

In spite of these omens, Tony Blair took Britain to war. His rhetoric changed from "humanitarian rescue" to "the defence of civilisation and civilised values". Many voices, from foreign statesmen to our own Foreign Office, tried to warn him that George W Bush and the neocons were an entirely new species of American leadership. It would be a fatal mistake to think he could steer and persuade them, as he had persuaded Bill Clinton and his White House over Kosovo in 1999.

Uncritical loyalty

Blair ignored them. The statesmen shrugged. The Foreign Office put its face in its hands, suddenly feeling very old. For 50 years, British diplomats had acted as the rearguard, preventing Britain's long retreat from power from turning into a rout. Now this! In the years that followed, the FO watched Blair govern from a sofa; few if any of its careful, brilliant position papers reached him or his inner circle. The vital connections between a prime minister and the "great offices of state" - Foreign Office, Home Office, Treasury - fell into neglect.

What has Britain got out of the Iraq War? Uncritical loyalty is always abused. The June 2003 extradition agreement deman ded by the US is a horrifying abdication of legal self-respect. Perhaps the most shaming, revealing moment came when Donald Rumsfeld placed his tactless call to London on the eve of war, suggesting that British troops were not really needed for the fighting and that if Blair was under pressure at home, they could restrict themselves to rear-area guard duties. But the British did fight, and Britain's reward has been to be loathed and dismissed throughout the Muslim world as America's poodle, to suffer a small but very painful Islamic terror campaign at home, and to lose credibility in Europe. It is noticeable, for example, that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are now given much warmer welcomes in Washington than British visitors; German and French opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 turns out to have cost them nothing in American attention. (One of the most stubborn British myths is that the Americans want the UK to remain semi-detached from Europe, loyally preventing the formation of a rival superstate. On the contrary, the Americans have always wanted Britain to get closer in there, and they long for a coherent EU with a single voice.)

So the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left the relationship less "special" than ever. Britain is weaker and more suspect in the world, and therefore less useful to American policies. Even the promised Trident warheads, token of renewed British nuclear dependence, are held up because the Americans have apparently used the wrong detergent to clean them up. Meanwhile, British forces have retreated into Basra airbase - the longest wait for a return flight in history - and in Afghanistan they do their best in a pointless war that everyone knows will be settled by a deal between the Pashtun and the other warlords.

How about the impact of the Iraq War on Britain itself? More accurately, how has this highly unpopular war affected the political climate, especially on the left? Organised pro-test against wars, especially expeditionary ones, has a long history in Britain. None of those movements succeeded, and yet the legacy of the protest has sometimes been as potent as that of the war itself. The "pro-Boer" campaigns against the South African war were a nursery for radical Liberal and socialist policies in the next generation. The "Law Not War" protest against the Suez invasion in 1956 abruptly ended the innocence of the postwar young, who had not imagined that the police could club women or that a British government could use criminal deceit to invade another nation. The Vietnam demonstrations were an induction into the social critique of the 1960s, even if the marchers learned little about Vietnam.

But "Not in My Name" was not the same as "Law Not War". To start with, these demonstrations were far bigger. They were also peaceful, marches of the non-marchers, whereas the Suez crowds tried to storm Downing Street and fought the police. Last, but very important, the Iraq protest had almost no articulation within parliamentary democracy. In 1956, the main opposition party - Labour, headed by Hugh Gait skell and Aneurin Bevan - used the whole labour movement infrastructure to pull people out on to the streets. In 2003, the Tories completely failed to recognise that the Iraq War was not a matter of "supporting our boys", but a menace to international order and a threat to their vision of Great Britain as a sovereign and independent state. A few - Malcolm Rifkind and Geoffrey Howe among them - saw what was at stake. But by refusing to support the Liberal Democrats and Labour rebels against the war, let alone to endorse the sea of outraged citizens with banners, the Conservatives betrayed their principles and, perhaps, their country.

Hate figures

War, which had rescued Margaret Thatcher's popularity in 1982, did the opposite for new Labour. Tony Blair became a hate figure in the same working-class parts of the United Kingdom that had once anchored their politics on hatred of Thatcher. But his grand "modernisation" project has driven ahead apparently undeterred; under Brown as under Blair as under Thatcher and Major, public services continue to be devolved to private speculators in spite of an accumulating pile of failures. New Labour's migration to the right leaves formations like the Scottish National Party commanding the social-democratic heights. At the 2005 elections, this convergence with the Tories made Tony Benn write in his diaries that "it's like three managing directors competing for the job of running Tesco's".

Has the war hastened the process? New Labour operates within exactly the same dialectic as Thatcher's governments did: as the state retreats from public service, so it advances its powers of social control. More "freedom of choice" for the consumer turns out to mean less freedom for the citizen. Fewer subsidies means more policemen. The Iraq War tempted the Blair governments and especially their home secretaries to snatch up the "war on terror" fantasy and use it to justify one repressive measure after another: extended detention without trial, new powers to search, bug and deport, the national identity database scheme, the crackdowns on asylum-seekers and immigrants, and all the other threatened or real erosions of civil liberty.

No wonder Baroness Thatcher said that new Labour was her greatest achievement. No wonder Tony Benn, looking back at the long disaster of the Iraq War, observes that, for the first time ever, the public has ended up to the left of a Labour government. Could this be the same party that, within months of winning power back in 1997, boldly handed over so much of the central state's authority to Scotland and Wales?

The outlook, after five years of war in Iraq and seven in Afghanistan, is dingy. Gordon Brown has missed the un repeatable opportunity for a new prime minister to de-nounce the war and promise "never again" for a slave rela tionship with an American president. Had he done so, he would have "spoken for Britain", transforming politics and his own prospects overnight. As it is, there are actually more Establishment voices in the US confessing that the Afghan and Iraq ventures are hopeless than there are in Britain. The longer we cling to false optimism, the harder it will be to extract ourselves from this mess.

And you happy, angry millions who flooded the streets five years ago - what do you feel now? "Not in My Name"? But a few days later it was done in your name, in spite of your passion. Blair pretended to take no notice; the next election did not throw him out; the killing has not stopped.

Does that mean that it's time to shrug and move on, that all passion against unjust war is futile? I don't think so. Demonstrations frighten governments more than they admit. Those who take part in them are changed, remembering a sense of strength that can last a lifetime. Meanwhile, the world has not moved on, but continues to burn; the madmen on all sides do not shrug but are laying new plots. Marchers with a passion for justice will be needed again, perhaps sooner than we think.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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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