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Leaving Afghanistan: is it finally time to be positive about this blighted nation?

The Afghan presidential election has been declared a success – but as the west finalises its pull-out, what the country's prospects?

There is seldom an excess of good news coming out of Afghanistan, but until the triumphant success of the presidential election on Saturday 5 April, optimism was in notably short supply among the Kabul-based foreign press corps. There were good reasons for this. As the election drew closer and the number of attacks by the Taliban increased, Kabul was particularly badly hit and institutions associated with foreigners or the foreign-backed government were targeted with remorseless precision. In January, a suicide attack on a popular restaurant, the Taverna du Liban, killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. The Serena Hotel was hit on 20 March, killing nine; and, in what could have been a bloodbath of about two dozen foreign (mostly American) aid workers and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a guest house followed on 28 March. The Independent Election Commission was attacked the following day, just two weeks after four of its staff had been kidnapped in the eastern Nangarhar Province. The interior ministry was hit by a suicide bomber on 2 April, killing six more.

In all, three foreign journalists have been shot in the past month alone: Nils Horner on 11 March and, on the day before the election, Anja Niedringhaus and Kathy Gannon. Many expats in Kabul fled, the government closed several restaurants and guest houses used by foreigners, and the foreign press corps seemed understandably and uncharacteristically rattled. Their reporting at times reflected that sense of panic.

The steady crescendo of attacks added to the growing sense of exhaustion with the apparently interminable conflict: 13 years after the west went in to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, to destroy al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban, the troops were now withdrawing with neither objective wholly achieved. What remained of al-Qaeda had moved to the Pakistani borderlands and elsewhere, while the Taliban now control swaths of rural southern Afghanistan. Casualties among Afghan regiments on the front lines are reaching levels that are said to be unsustainable: as many as 800 police and army are being killed every month and some regiments have lost 50 per cent of their fighting troops; a few in Helmand have desertion rates approaching a similar level.

If the Afghan troops were exhausted, their American backers increasingly seemed to have lost any remaining interest in the bloody complexities of the Afghan conflict that they had fought so long and with so little obvious gain. “No one is talking about Afghanistan in Washington any more,” says Mark Mazzetti, the Pulitzer-winning New York Times security correspondent based in the US capital. “There is deep fatigue in DC and across the US over America’s longest war. It is no longer high on anyone’s priorities and in addition the White House feels a deep animosity against Karzai.”

This all matters very much, because the western-installed government in Kabul relies almost entirely on western financial support: without sustained backing it can’t pay for elections, the army, the civil service, medical and educational facilities or tele­communications. If the funding stops, or is significantly reduced, the government is unlikely to be able to defend itself – just as happened to Mohammad Najibullah’s regime, which fell to the mujahedin in 1992 after Mikhail Gorbachev cut off the money and the arms supply from the Soviet Union. “The changes which have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001 may be irreversible,” says Barnett Rubin, who recently stepped down as an adviser to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. “But they are also unsustainable.”

There were many other fears – the stuttering economy, the increasing reliance of the economy on aid and narcotics, government corruption, the poorest and most illiterate population in Asia – but looming over them all was what one Afghan official described, mixing two English metaphors, as the white elephant in the room: Afghanistan’s age-old ethnic divisions, which many observers feared could be exacerbated fatally by an indecisive election outcome.

If no one succeeds in gaining a 50 per cent majority in the election (as seems likely) there will be a run-off on 28 May, and in all likelihood it will be between a Pashtun and a Tajik candidate. That could in turn put huge stress on the principal fault line that has divided the country ever since it assumed its modern borders under Dost Mohammad Khan from the late 1850s onwards.

Afghanistan has always been, like Lebanon, a country built less on any geographical or ethnic logic, and more on the contingencies of 19th-century imperial politics. Indeed, considering its ancient history, Afghanistan has had only a few hours of political unity. More often it has been “the places in between” – the fractured and disputed stretch of mountains and deserts separating its more orderly neighbours.

For much of its history its provinces formed the warring extremities of rival empires. Only very rarely have the parts come together to attain any sort of coherent state in its own right; and as the more gloomy commentators have pointed out, it need not take much to rip the country apart again and exacerbate tribal, ethnic and linguistic fissures in Afghan society: the old rivalry between the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaras and the Durrani and Ghilzai Pashtuns; the schism between Sunni and Shia; the endemic factionalism within clans and tribes and the blood feuds within lineages. After all, Afghanistan briefly splintered in a patchwork of warlord-controlled ethnic fiefdoms in 1993-94, between the collapse of the mujahedin regime and the rise of the Taliban.

Just before this month’s election, some of the more perceptive observers noted that despite the bomb attacks there were huge queues forming to register voters across the country and excitement at the well-attended rallies; but still, caught up in the fear generated by the Taliban assault on Kabul, few predicted what was to come on election day. For, in just 12 hours on 5 April, the general mood changed from anxious and frightened to jubilant and triumphant. The scale of participation in the election was unprecedented – so vast, that all over the country ballots began to run out as early as midday.

More than a third of all Afghan provinces reported shortfalls, so unstoppable was the enthusiasm of the electorate. Despite heavy rain, nearly twice as many people – an extra two and a half million Afghans – voted in this presidential election as in the previous one in 2009: seven million out of a total electorate of 12 million. There were the odd attacks on remote polling stations and 1,200 complaints about fraud. But this was nothing compared to the mess that had been predicted, or the fraud that took place in 2009. For the first time in its history, Afghanistan was going to witness a relatively peaceful transfer of power by the ballot box in a remarkably unflawed election.

By the evening of 5 April, few could disagree that the political landscape had changed in a fundamental way. “Despite the cold and rainy weather and possible terrorist attack, our sisters and brothers nationwide took in this election and their participation is a step forward and it is a success for Afghanistan,” said a relieved President Karzai in a televised official statement.

Most excited of all were the Kabul elite, who had worried that all they had built up was about to disappear. “Huge huge day for Afghanistan,” tweeted the media mogul Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s biggest channel. “A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes. A massive victory for our people . . . and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban . . . Politically, this is the beginning of the end for [them].”

One reason for the unprecedented turnout at election rallies and in the election itself was the exceptional quality of the presidential candidates. They are, by any standards, an unusually smart and talented group. According to all the opinion and exit polls, there are three front-runners among the eight candidates who have just stood for president. The most brilliant is Dr Ashraf Ghani, or, as he renamed himself for the election, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. The new nomenclature is important: Afghanistan is still a semi-tribal society where clan and ethnic allegiance means a great deal and can bring in block votes from rural areas.

The Ahmadzai are one of the two leading clans of the Pashtun Ghilzai tribe; their only rivals are the Hotaki Ghilzai, among whom the Taliban leader Mullah Omar is the clan elder. The Ghilzais as a whole are the rivals of the Durrani Pashtuns, whose two leading clans are the Popalzai and the Barakzai. Hamid Karzai is the chief of the Popalzai and his preferred successor – and Ashraf Ghani’s main rival for Pashtun votes – is Zalmai Rassoul, who is a Barakzai from the royal family. Behind the sophistication, sharp suits and cosmopolitan CVs of all three leading candidates for president lie the tribal blocks that have defined Afghan politics for a century and a half: Ahmadzai Ghilzai v Hotaki Ghilzai; Ghilzai Pashtuns v Durrani Pashtuns; Pashtuns v Tajiks.

According to the polls, at the time of writing, Ashraf Ghani leads the race; and there is little doubt that he is the best qualified of the three contenders. A PhD from Columbia University, former World Bank official, former chancellor of Kabul University and minister of finance, Ghani has a quick wit and a formidable brain. When I was researching my book on the first Afghan war, Return of a King, Ashraf was one of the first men I visited in Kabul and the hours I spent with him in his austerely beautiful library house, filled with books, good rugs and Nuristani furniture, were probably the most revelatory of any in the whole five-year research project.

Although his specialisation in history lies well down his list of interests, coming far behind anthropology and economics, in a two-hour tutorial he gave me a long list of all the principal Persian sources for the war, many of which he was able to take down from his own shelves.

On my subsequent trips to Kabul, Ghani sent round any other books or snippets he had found, always refusing any sort of payment. Yet the same straightforward frankness and lack of dissimulation that makes him such a generous host and dedicated scholar can also cause him to be irritable and irascible. When he disagreed with some remarks I had made at a lecture in Delhi last year, he steamed straight up to the podium at the end and told me I was talking “bullshit! Bullshit!”

A Farsi video of him describing the writer and Tory MP Rory Stewart as the “son of a donkey” is still doing the rounds in Kabul. It dates back to a feud Ghani embarked on a decade ago when he accused Stewart’s Turquoise Mountain Foundation of lifting furniture designs from those developed by his wife, the Begum Rula Ghani, a formi­dable figure in Kabul society and a force in her own right.

An old friend of Ghani’s told me he feared his temper almost as much as he admired his mind. “I’m very fond of him – he’s a smart guy,” he said, “but he can be super-temperamental and is capable of totally losing the plot. I can’t even count the number of times he has thrown me out of his house. I can understand how frustrated such a bright man must be by all the idiots in Kabul – but it does worry me. If he doesn’t have the right handlers if he gets to power, he is the sort of man who could easily order an execution in a fit of anger one evening, and deeply regret it when he calms down the following morning – by which time it will be too late.”

When Ghani first stood for election in 2009, he lost so badly that the media dismissed him almost as a joke candidate. But he learned from his campaigning errors and has worked hard to make himself more appealing. As he already had strong support among the new urban youth, he concentrated on winning over rural areas. As well as adding the tribal suffix to his name, he has made himself look more tribal and less of an urban technocrat: he has grown a rather elegant salt-and-pepper beard and in his campaign photographs is usually seen wearing a mountainous Ghilzai turban.

Ghani’s most controversial – and arguably cleverest – move was to form an alliance with the Uzbek warlord and alleged war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls huge vote banks in the north. In 2009 Ghani had denounced Dostum as “a known killer”. This time he offered him the chance to become vice-president. “We need to come to a politics of inclusion, not exclusion,” he explained to Christiane Amanpour of CNN. “We must have people in the system who fought each other; without bringing these elements to genuine reconciliation and peace, we will not move towards stability.”

Like Ghani, his Tajik/Pashtun rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah is fluent, sophisticated and intelligent; but he is a smoother, suaver, less academic figure than Ghani. Ghani wears immaculately pressed white shalwar kameez; Abdullah Abdullah prefers bespoke Savile Row suits. Ghani’s home is full of low Afghan wooden chairs; Abdullah has beautiful Italian furniture. He also owns an extremely rare and valuable collection of Company School paintings of life in Afghanistan by the Delhi artists brought to the country by the British Elphinstone mission from 1808 onwards. His most recent wife, a gifted young analyst, half his age, is described by those who have met her as “the Penélope Cruz of Kabul – only much more beautiful than Cruz”.

Of the three candidates, Abdullah is the most engaging company: witty, charming and irreverent. When I last paid him a visit, he expressed irritation that Tom Ford, the then creative director of Gucci, had declared Karzai to be “the chicest man on the planet”. “I liked what Tom Ford did at Gucci,” he said, brushing a speck of dust off his cuffs. “But I would dispute that judgement.”

Abdullah rose to power as the adviser to the Tajik war hero and “Lion of the Panj­shir”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, and his house and election posters are covered with images of his former boss and hero. In the winter of 2000, a few months before Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda on 9 September 2001, Abdullah Abdullah was part of the secret meeting at which Massoud and the then almost unknown Hamid Karzai met on an island in the middle of the Oxus river to discuss how they could co-ordinate political action against Mullah Omar and the Taliban.

At the International Afghanistan Conference in Bonn, which followed the US defeat of the Taliban in December 2001, it was Abdullah and his Tajiks who supported Karzai for the post of provisional president. “Never before had someone from one part of the country asked someone from another part to rule in their stead,” Abdullah remembers. “It was a historic moment. I played my part. But I was very naive. I thought under his leadership we would build Afghanistan into a modern state, step by step. It was
doable, had we not missed so many opportunities. Many of those opportunities will not be repeated.

“For me, it is even more sad that I was part of this from the beginning. We had so much hope for a new start, and so many worries today. Now a new generation is looking
forward rather than looking to the past. But the great golden opportunity of 2001 will never be recovered.”

Abdullah was Karzai’s minister of foreign affairs from 2001 to 2005. They soon fell out and have had a difficult relationship ever since, especially after Abdullah withdrew from the 2009 election when it became clear that the polls were hugely rigged in Karzai’s favour. Abdullah chose not to take part in the run-off, citing his lack of faith in the ability of Karzai’s administration to hold a “fair and transparent” second round. “I have great respect for his father,” Abdullah told me, “but Hamid? Let’s just say he is one of the greatest actors that Afghanistan has ever produced.”

It was partly to thwart Abdullah that Karzai encouraged a third major candidate to stand. Zalmai Rassoul is a bespectacled former nephrologist who was chief of staff to his cousin Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, when he was exiled in Rome. Rassoul was fast-promoted by Karzai to be his minister of foreign affairs. A nephew of the great king Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) and a senior member of the royal family, which the Karzais have served faithfully for three generations, he is described by one of his friends as “a shy, moderate, blue-blooded, cigar-smoking, wine-drinking aristo”. He is widely said to be Karzai’s preferred choice as successor.

Rassoul is the oldest, greyest and least charismatic of the three presidential front-runners: on the two occasions I have met him – once at an audience in President’s Karzai’s office and the other at a dinner party thrown by the French ambassador – he was almost completely silent. On campaign, he reads prepared speeches and looks ill at ease having to kiss babies and perform all the usual idiocies of electioneering. Yet he is also said to be intelligent and urbane, an able administrator, and fluent in French, Italian and English, as well as most of the regional languages. It is also said he warms up slightly over a glass of cognac at the end of dinner.

The intelligence and polish of the candidates, and the enthusiasm with which Afghans have embraced them, are not the only reasons for the uncharacteristic optimism in Kabul. The election took place without accusations of large-scale rigging or any Taliban “spectaculars” to disrupt voting. This reflects the fact that security, though far from perfect, has not collapsed since Nato troops withdrew from front-line combat roles at the end of last year. For nearly a year, Nato has been doing almost none of the actual fighting in Afghanistan and its role has been limited to training; yet there has been no clear change in the battle lines between the government and the Taliban: security may have got worse in northern Helmand, where few from the government now venture at all, and also in Badakhshan; but to balance that it has improved notably in and around Kandahar. In July last year I travelled in complete safety to the Karzais’ home village of Karz, several miles outside Kandahar, a journey that would have been impossible a year earlier.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Afghanistan has changed beyond recognition since 2001. It is the fastest-urbanising country in Asia. Its cities have grown exponentially – Kabul alone has 20 times the population it had in 2001 – and people are travelling much more widely. Television, the internet and an ebullient media have opened many minds. Schools are opening everywhere, and while there is much that still needs to be done, literacy is growing fast. The Taliban may be capable of causing widespread disruption but few believe they can roll back over the country and retake Kabul or the north. They remain a rural Pashtun force, with few supporters north of Kabul.

Afghanistan’s regional relations are also a cause for some optimism. Karzai success­fully balanced the role of its important neighbours and manipulated India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, as well as the US and UK, to advance Afghanistan’s geopolitical and economic objectives. Just as the Ottoman empire survived for a century because none of the powers that surrounded it could allow any of their rivals to benefit from its collapse, so Afghanistan is likely to survive intact because a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interests of all of its neighbours.

The one anxiety is Pakistan, whose army has long been fixated on the idea that it cannot allow a pro-Indian government in Kabul and, because of that, has long turned a blind eye to the Taliban operating from bases in its territory. Nevertheless British diplomats in Islamabad take the view that the Pakistani army has changed its views and policy in the past couple of years and now fears internal jihadi instability more than it fears India.

Certainly Pakistan’s terrible self-crucifixion seems to be consuming the country at the moment, and there is hope that who­ever wins the election in Afghanistan may be able to improve relations and persuade Pakistan finally to crack down on the Quetta Shura and take out the Afghan Taliban bases within Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

What then of Hamid Karzai? There were many predictions that he would never give up power without a fight, and would find some pretext to delay or rig the election. But Karzai is acutely aware of his pivotal role in his country’s history and has become much more concerned with his legacy than anything else. He lived up to all his promises to oversee a peaceful transition of power.

However much he may be disliked by US officials, he remains popular as a unifier in Afghanistan and he will be remembered as a historic figure.

At our last meeting, I was able to ask him about his rule and hopes for the future. It was Ramadan and we were sitting at the desk in his office, eating our way through a huge platter of Afghan fruit: melons, grapes, figs and mountains of tiny Afghan cherries. Due to the fast, most business in Kabul had come to a halt and Karzai, having more time on his hands than usual, had agreed to spend three evenings with me talking about Afghanistan’s future.

I asked him first if he had any regrets.

“No,” he said. “I think I’ve done well. I stood up to foreign powers. Which I would do again. I did my best with the neighbours. Which I would do again. I established good relations with India, China, Russia, the Arab world. Managed, against all odds, relations with the west.”

And what of his own future?

“I will stay here. I am building a place just over the wall, near the French embassy. I am looking forward to taking a few days off. To have my own time. To relax. So I can recuperate fully.”

You feel this has aged you?

“People tell me it has aged me a lot. Just today, during the prayers, a friend of mine told me I look like an old man.

“I do look like an old man. I look much older than 55.”

So what was he most looking forward to, leaving the prison of this palace?

“I don’t feel imprisoned – not at all. I feel responsible, not imprisoned. And when I no longer have this responsibility, I’ll be free like a bird to go around this lovely country. I will visit people, go to bazaars . . .”

Could he really do that?

“Security is a fact of life all over the world, not just Afghanistan. The US president has much more security than I do when he goes out on to the streets of America.”

Did he really think he could stay in Kabul safely?

“Why not? I am optimistic.”

Wasn’t it delusionally optimistic to be so hopeful? Didn’t he think civil war was a possibility?

“This idea is just part of the American psychological warfare against me,” he replied, launching into what is now an obsession of his: the ill-intentions of the US “Deep State” to weaken and fragment Afghanistan.

“They keep telling the Afghan people that if they are not here after 2014, Afghanistan will collapse, Afghanistan will go into civil war, and all that. It’s complete rubbish.”

And he thought the future was bright? Even with the Taliban controlling so much of the rural south? Even with the economy in such a bad way?

“I am very optimistic,” he repeated. “Let me be clear. As long as the west has nothing bad up its sleeve for this region, Afghanistan will do very well. Mark my words.”

Afghanistan has been through so much in the past 40 years – the 1973 coup d’état, the 1978 Saur Revolution, the 1979 Soviet invasion, the 1.5 million deaths and six million refugees in the decade of resistance that followed, the collapse of the mujahedin government and the civil war of 1992-96, the seven long years of Taliban medievalism and Arab Afghan/al-Qaeda encroachment, and most recently the 100,000 casualties of the past 13 years of fighting between Nato and the resurgent Taliban. In that war, the US alone has already spent more than $700bn, enough to build every living Afghan a luxury apartment serviced by world-class health and education facilities – and to throw in a top-of-the-range Land Cruiser for each and every citizen, too. Instead, at the end of this, Afghanistan remains the poorest country in Asia, the joint most corrupt country in the world, boasting the highest illiteracy rate and worst medical and educational facilities outside a few war zones in sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the best-case scenario, it will take it several decades even to approach the living standards of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Against this background, it may seem mad to share Karzai’s optimism. Certainly, there are many reasons to hesitate to do so. Every Afghan I know well, however patri­otic they may be, has an exit strategy in place: a second passport, a secret bank account far away, a small apartment somewhere safe and relatively peaceful, just in case Kabul does go belly up.

Equally, there are a million things that could still go wrong: the withdrawal of US military and civilian aid; Indo-Pak rivalry leading to renewed support by Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban; the collapse of the fragile Afghan economy; or a growing Pashtun/Tajik fracture following a disputed election run-off in May.

But this month, for the first time in many years, it has been possible to suspend disbelief and to imagine a happy ending to this long and tragic tale. With foreign troops in Afghanistan, it was always possible for the Taliban to portray themselves as a legitimate, patriotic resistance movement fighting for freedom from foreign rule. With those foreign troops now either withdrawn, or locked up in their barracks, and with a free vote having taken place across the whole of Afghanistan, without systematic rigging, and with unprecedented public support and swaths of the population standing up to be counted as democrats, that legitimacy of resistance is now over. It is possible to hope that a new era of Afghan history might have just begun.

William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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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