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The facts of killing: how do we write about the Rwandan Genocide?

Twenty years on, we still struggle to comprehend the trauma.

Spéciose Mukakibibi, photographed in 1995, aged 37. Interahamwe militiamen
attacked her with machetes and killed three of her five children.
Photograph: Jenny Matthews/Panos

When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal
Story of Rwanda and Genocide

David Belton
Doubleday, 333pp, £16.99

Everything reminds me of the past. I go to Kibuye, I drive past men and I think, did you kill my mum and my brothers? Did you? And you? I go to a wedding and I have to make the speech as the head of the family and I know it should be my dad speaking. The killers killed one million people. This is not a joke. This is not an idea.

Jean-Pierre

In the 20 years since the genocide, Rwanda has become a much-studied topic, in writing that has proliferated across genres. There have been official reports by the United Nations and by human rights charities; significant studies such as Gérard Prunier’s The Rwanda Crisis (1995); literary accounts such as Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (1998); novels such as A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2000) by Gil Courtemanche; and a host of witness testimonies, by victims and killers and others, either made to journalists such as Linda Melvern, whose A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (2000) is another important book, or formally under the auspices of the International Criminal Court and other judicial bodies.

These testimonies, in particular, enter into the burgeoning field of trauma studies, an area of academic inquiry that contends with the legal, ethical and psychological effects of wars, political and sexual violence, torture and genocide. Trauma studies is a discipline that is complicated by the shifting structures of empathy and history, by having to confront the complexity of a situation in which “its subject, the massacre, is living”: a phrase from Muriel Spark’s account of the Eichmann trial.

The dynamics of mass trauma are always subject to revision according to new information received, and that is the category in which the fine book under review falls. In When the Hills Ask for Your Blood: a Personal Story of Rwanda and Genocide, David Belton, a Newsnight journalist who covered the Rwandan Genocide (and also co-wrote and produced the acclaimed film Shooting Dogs), has written a complex, compassionate and scathing account of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath.

He is not looking for solutions, and he examines the present Rwandan government’s apparent elision of ethnic differences, and other processes undertaken in the name of justice and reconciliation, with some scepticism. Employees of Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative in Rwanda, a group of young white men and women dressed in suits, whom Belton finds in the compound of the current president, Paul Kagame, sipping Cokes and howling with laughter, some time in 2012 or 2013, are not the heroes of this book.

It is primarily structured as a series of testimonies by survivors relating their experiences, from the night of 6 April 1994, when the Falcon 50 private jet of President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down over Kigali, crashing in the grounds of the presidential residence, to mid-July that year, by which time the former Hutu government and most associated militia had fled over the border to Zaire. It also describes: Belton’s own encounter with the genocide as a journalist in 1994; a trip into Zaire in the same year (it would revert to its old name, Congo, three years later) to see the effects of a million Hutu refugees, many of them killers, entering the country; a return to Rwanda in 2004; and a second return in 2012-2013, during which he picks up the story with some of his main interlocutors.

Belton covers a lot of ground, and with Rwanda that is a challenge, as everything comes with history that is still partly occulted. In 1990, Kagame’s predominantly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda from Uganda, beginning the war that would culminate in the genocide. By chance, that year, I happened to be living on the Ugandan border, and from the veranda of my parents’ house I watched lorries flooding up and down the red laterite road to Rwanda, either taking troops to the border or returning with refugees. During the same period, France, Egypt and South Africa were supplying arms to the Hutu government in Rwanda itself. France, committed to keeping Rwanda within a bloc of francophone African nations, co-operated directly with those parts of the Rwandan army most responsible for the genocide. The United States was also supplying the Rwandan government with a limited quantity of equipment and assistance, in the mistaken belief that “there is no evidence of any systematic human rights abuses by the military or any other element of the government of Rwanda” (1992 report to Congress).

The genocide against Tutsis was committed mostly by Hutu civilians, by Hutu militias of varying levels of organisation, and also by Rwandan government troops. It took place primarily according to an orchestrated programme, but it was also ad hoc: a bloody turmoil. Moderate Hutus and many people of mixed ethnicity were also killed. Most of the murder was done with machetes (in 1993 Rwanda imported three-quarters of a million dollars’ worth of machetes from China), but automatic weapons and hand grenades were also used. The machetes from 1993 were intended to be killing tools, but for years machetes and hoes had been how Rwandans tilled their twenty-yard strips of maize and beans, curling up terraced hills. Land, being in short supply, had been a factor in previous conflicts, as the book’s proverbial title suggests.

The Hutu death programme was provoked by the immediate threat of defeat by the Tutsis in 1993-94, but it built on the legacy of a popular revolution in 1959 by Hutus against their Tutsi feudal overlords. Between 20,000 and 100,000 Tutsis were killed in that revolution, and thousands fled to Uganda, Congo and Tanganyika. Within Rwanda, periodic massacres of Tutsis followed throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These caused further flows of refugees.

In Uganda, the exiled Tutsis became instrumental in the overthrow of Idi Amin and the subsequent conflicts that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. The many Tutsis in Museveni’s army acquired military skills that would help them in their fight with the Hutus. For Kagame, this was supplemented by US army training at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in his role as a senior intelligence officer in Museveni’s forces.

Discipline, commitment and a sense of manifest destiny contributed to an RPF, Tutsi victory. By mid-to-late 1993, Hutu leaders probably knew it was coming, despite the greater numbers of Hutus and a misplaced conviction in their own superiority over the inyenzi (“cockroaches”). When his plane was shot down, most likely by the RPF but possibly by extremist Hutus, Habyarimana was returning from negotiating a ceasefire.

Child of the backlash: Rwandan Hutus in the
Goma refugee camp, eastern Zaire (now Congo), 1994.
Photograph: Mikkel Ostergaard/Panos

For Tutsis and Hutus alike, ethnicity was always a fluid concept (intermarriage was fairly common), but not so fluid as some will tell you. The process of colonial reinforcement and exploitation of ethnic divisions began with the Germans (Ruanda-Urundi was part of German East Africa from 1885 until the middle of the First World War) and continued under the Belgians after the war, with the introduction in 1933 of identity cards classifying the carrier as Hutu (85 per cent of the population), Tutsi (14 per cent) or Twa (1 per cent).

Some sixty years later, on 7 April 1994, the genocide began. In the two decades since, the period of the slaughter, often said to be a hundred days, has shrunk to something closer to fifty, at least according to Belton, while the death toll was (probably) closer to a million than previous estimates of 800,000. Rightly, Belton does not want to become suffocated in the “exhausting airless argument” of numbers.

The principal figures in Belton’s narrative are Jean-Pierre, who spent over two months living underground in a hole under the winding roads of Kigali; his wife, Odette, who with her two young daughters walked 60 miles from Kigali to Kibuye, the home of Jean-Pierre’s parents on the shores of Lake Kivu, having torn up her Tutsi ID card; and Aimable Gatete, a Tutsi builder who escaped from Rwanda hidden on planks under the flatbed of a truck.

A fourth story is constructed around the quasi-fictional narrative of a man who survived the genocide but not its aftermath, the Catholic priest Vjeko Curic. A Bosnian Croat, he was, in the eyes of many Rwandans, a saintly figure who, staying throughout the genocide and defying extremist militias, helped many Tutsis escape. Gatete was among those he escorted on dangerous trips through roadblocks to Burundi, returning with convoys of food aid.

Much of the writing in all these accounts has a literary power that lifts it above normal journalistic or non-fictional practice: Jean-Pierre’s confinement in his mud-walled hole has shades of Beckett, and both Odette and Curic seem like Brechtian heroes. Or perhaps the right way of saying this is: these real people remind us that the specific historical experience of human beings in wartime or as refugees lay behind the oeuvre of those two playwrights, whose work is so often taken as describing or deconstructing the human condition as a universal, however sceptically or ironically.

The distinction between specifics and universals is one of the rifts between the non-fictional and fictional modes of trauma study. In non-fictional treatments, any observation of mass trauma must always return to the historical specifics of the particular crisis, eventually scaling down to the authentic individual testimonies that constitute the mass. A shadow of this requirement still hangs over fictional treatments but it seems to lessen over time, as the success of recent novels and films about the Holocaust demonstrates – though feelings still run high about such books as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful.

Comparison of the Rwandan crisis to genocides in other parts of the world, or other periods of history, is similarly circumscribed despite the appearance of patterns, resemblances and commonalities. The same goes for current African conflicts, as in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which have the potential for mass killing. The best we can hope for is that the international community, including African countries, becomes better at recognising (and acting on) genocide than it was in the Rwandan case.

The challenge to improve involves looking not just at the causes of genocide but at its aftermath. One aim of Belton’s book is to understand why Curic was assassinated on a Kigali street in January 1998. In part it was because, fluent in Kinyarwanda, Curic knew too much, in a country full of secrets. In part it was because he changed, becoming a more political person after 1994: there are the elements of a tragedy here.

The reason may also have to do with the complex role of the Catholic Church in implementing but also trying to prevent the genocide. An earlier section of the book introduces us to the bishop of Kabgayi, Thaddée Nsengiyumva, in effect Curic’s boss, who emerges (at least from this account) as a good Hutu, one who tried to balance politics with mercy. In 1991, Nsengiyumva issued a pastoral letter saying killing was now commonplace and that the Church was complicit in the Hutu regime’s anti-Tutsi system. Partly he was talking about his own boss, with whom he confusingly shared a surname: Vincent Nsengiyumva was archbishop of Kigali and a Habyarimana crony.

Hated by Tutsis and directly implicated in genocide, Vincent Nsengiyumva was someone whom I happened to meet on a trip to Rwanda in 1990, following the dust cloud of those lorries and trying, in a rather jejune way, to be a foreign correspondent. Back then I knew almost nothing about him, or what was happening in Rwanda, but I remember a deep sense of unease when, in the semi-darkness of his rooms, he held out his episcopal ring for me to kiss instead of shaking hands in greeting. It felt like an expression of malign power, this impasse that ended with me shaking a clenched fist. In 1994, both Nsengiyumvas were killed by the RPF, together with a third bishop and ten priests.

What can we hope to know about these situations without falling into error? It is a measure of their complexity that the French historian Gérard Prunier, probably the person with the greatest academic knowledge of Rwanda, gives three separate possible accounts of the killing of those clerics, each with different reasons and sources.

In 2004, when Belton is in Kigali with Jean-Pierre trying to find the site of Curic’s murder, a man approaches them and starts asking insistent questions. Eventually Jean-Pierre loses his temper, telling the man to go away and jabbing his finger at him:

“Don’t talk to me. Get away. Who are you to ask me these questions? I can go anywhere I like. Go. You.”

Jean-Pierre’s voice got bigger, challenging not just the man but all the silent stares of those who had stopped to gawp.

“Who are you? Where were you? I was here.”

All writing by those who weren’t there, even that as good as Belton’s or Prunier’s, remains subject to this judgement. The right to forgive is also subject to it, and the best Jean-Pierre can do, meeting the son of his own father’s killer in Kibuye, is to let out a long, weary sigh and say: “It’s OK to love your father. I loved my father, too.”

Giles Foden is a professor of creative writing at the University of East Anglia and the author of “The Last King of Scotland” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

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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