Don’t ever call Hitler a socialist

By branding political extremists “socialists” or “conservatives” we allow them the entry into the mainstream that they crave.

Hitler wasn’t a socialist. I’ve never spoken to him about it, obviously, but I think I’m on safe ground here.

In the past week, a debate began chugging along merrily following the suspension of Rachel Frosh from the Tory party candidates’ list. Frosh’s crime was to retweet the kind invitation “Dear Socialists, embrace your inner Nazism”, followed by a link to Adolf channelling his inner Keir Hardie: “We are Socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system,” the wannabe dictator said in 1927. Cue lots of excited blogging about how Hitler has spent the past 80 years giving the right a bad name, when he was just a poor man’s Nye Bevan.

“There is an accepted mainstream view that the origins of Nazism lie in socialism, or that they have common roots,” Frosh wrote in a piece for one right-wing website. Her definition of the “accepted mainstream” turned out to be something about Hayek written on Wikipedia.

“I believe Nazisim [sic] and Fascism to have far more in common with socialism than conservatism,” wrote the blogger Iain Dale. “The clue is the phrase ‘National Socialism’.” On which basis, the German Democratic Republic was presumably a flourishing democracy.

According to the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, “Almost everyone in those days accepted that Fascism had emerged from the revolutionary left.” Which is true, so long as you ignore what happened to Hitler’s old comrades during the Night of the Long Knives.

Anyone who has studied Hitler’s rise to power knows he was no socialist. He was an opportunist, even a political schizophrenic. Which served him well, because in a Weimar Republic struggling – and failing catastrophically – to come to terms with military humiliation, a crisis of national identity and an economic implosion, ideology was a moveable feast. Indeed, it was so moveable, it opened the door to Hitler’s rise to power. “Who cares what he thinks?” Germany said to herself. “He’ll do for now.”

Pin the ideology on the Führer is a fun game. Actually, it’s quite a tasteless game. But we can all play it. “The government will not protect the economic interests of the German people by the circuitous method of an economic bureaucracy to be organised by the state, but by the utmost furtherance of private initiative and by the recognition of the rights of property,” Hitler told the Reichstag in 1933. Not exactly the words of a man about to break into a rendition of “The Red Flag”.

But does it matter? Yes, it does, actually. Hitler wasn’t a socialist, nor was he a conservative. He was a political mutation. And to try to place him anywhere on the conventional political spectrum is not just to abuse history but to play a dangerous game with the future.

Hitler has gone but his progeny are very much alive. In Hungary, they are calling for a register of Jews to be drawn up. One, a mass murderer, is languishing in a Norwegian jail. A few are pushing their leaflets through the front doors on east London housing estates.

There is one thing political extremists crave more than anything else and that is entry to the mainstream – and by branding such people “socialists” or “conservatives” we unlatch the door and pull back the bolt.

Hitler was Hitler, a grotesque one-off. Or he will be, if we avoid bestowing unnecessary respectability on those who dream of following him.

 

Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler addresses members of the Hitler Youth Movement at Nuremberg. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 04 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Pistorius

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder