Rowan Williams in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images
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Between church and state

As Rowan Williams prepares to step down after nearly ten years as Archbishop of Canterbury, a former aide ponders the challenges confronting his successor.

Politicians are accustomed to the media distorting whatever they have to say for dramatic effect – every discussion is a row, every initiative a push for power. So it is with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Anglican apparatchiks have been busy playing down the suggestion that their Church is planning to appoint a “global president” to relieve the next archbishop of some of the workload. The line is that Dr Rowan Williams, in a valedictory interview in the Daily Telegraph, merely said that the job was too big for one person. The Telegraph thought otherwise.

But the story stirred some emotions, not least relief that Tony Blair had converted to Roman Catholicism and so would not be available for the job. And it drew attention to just how political is the role of archbishop of Canterbury. Not only is Williams presented as a more virulent opposition to the present government than the Labour Party, but what he has to say is presented in the media about as sympathetically as Boris Johnson’s denials that he wants to be prime minister.

Lambeth Palace is treated as another chamber of parliament on the south bank of the Thames. It follows that the next archbishop, due to be announced shortly, walks into a highly political job. But should it be so? Should the archbishop want it to be so?

In Faith in the Public Square, his last book as archbishop, Williams calls the Church a “political seminar . . . God transforms society and not just human individuals”. This theme characterised his decade in office. Last year, while I was working for him, I heard him say in one of the speeches included in the book that “it’s not a matter of the Church binding its vision to the agenda of this or that party, not a matter of the Church creating a political party to embody its vision and its priorities. Much more, it’s a matter of the Christian gospel motivating a grass-roots politics and activism of generosity and mutuality.”

We start, therefore, with a paradox – the Church of England is deeply rooted in British political life, yet it transcends party politics. Williams has managed this difficult relationship with the nation’s politics remarkably well. With carefully chosen interventions, the outrage of politicians and in some quarters of the media may be seen to have demonstrated that he has got this aspect of his job bang on.

When he suggested in 2008 that our legislature might recognise aspects of sharia in our civil law, some of the more excitable newspaper commentators ranted about tongues being cut out and adulterers being stoned to death. It was left to the Conservative MP Peter Bottomley calmly to point out on BBC radio that, among a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim in the UK, only one person is prevented from marrying according to the rites of his or her own culture – and that this is inequitable.

Since then, Williams may have been more measured in his contributions but he’s hardly been less of a political animal. He has spoken out frequently against welfare cuts, successfully fronted the campaign to prevent the government selling off our national forestry to its mates as tax dodges, quietly held David Cameron’s feet to the fire over his “big society” rhetoric, criticised our policies on Europe and, of course, caused a minor storm in Westminster with a leader comment on the quality of our political life when he guest-edited the New Statesman in June last year.

It’s a tough act to follow. Whoever succeeds him in the early days of 2013 will need to maintain the momentum that Williams has established, without being taken hostage by any parliamentary faction. It’s a prospect complicated by the politically atypical nature of the Christian world-view. If one is to generalise, Christian politics are often economically progressive and socially conservative. As Andy Flannagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement, puts it: “The reality is that the group of passionate believers working with Citizens UK on a living wage campaign are also campaigning for a financial transaction tax, while also running a drug rehab centre and also campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain the same. Where do you fit those folks into your broadsheet?”

I very much doubt that the next archbishop of Canterbury knows that he is archbishop yet. More to the point, I rather doubt that the sometimes leaky Crown Nominations Commission, which is meant to come up with a name for the Prime Minister to carry to the Queen, knows either, though I hear that the odd bishop’s summer holidays have been interrupted by these grandest of headhunters.

All we do know is that, to maintain the political momentum, it will need to be someone of personality and guts. In Cameron’s summer reveries, he must have wished to be presented with a candidate who has neither. Or one who has plenty of both but would happily wave the Prime Minister’s pet proposals for gay marriage through General Synod. Yet there are precious few of those and it might be a tad overambitious to suggest that Dr Jeffrey John, the openly gay Dean of St Albans, was denied the bishoprics of Reading and Southwark under the current incumbent of the See of Canterbury in order to be fast-tracked to become his successor.

So, it will come down to the usual, orthodox suspects. The price on the former bookies’ favourite John Sentamu of York has lengthened as it’s dawned on observers that his principal qualifications for the job are being evangelical and black. The short-odds favourite spot has been filled by Christopher Cocksworth of Coventry, who is young enough to be favourite next time, too. Richard Chartres of  London, unkindly called “the Prince of Wales in drag” because of his closeness to the heir to the throne since they were undergraduates together at Cambridge, could still be the leader who ushers in women bishops while keeping traditionalists (like himself) on board. Graham James of Norwich showed well in the hard going of a report on homosexuality. Then there are dark horses such as John Inge of Worcester and Nick Baines of Bradford.

To be honest, they all seem wearied by the whole Canterbury candidacy gig and only one of them – best left nameless –would still kick fingers away to get the job, such are the obvious political pressures of the role. By contrast, the mood in the Church’s superstructure remains rather buoyant. Far from sharing the illiterate media view that Williams is a weirdy-beardy, the Church of England’s civil servants have been close enough to his political and social contributions during the past decade to want the next archbishop to keep up the parliamentary pace.

“The office can’t help but be thought of as political,” a very senior Church official told me recently. “Nor can its incumbent operate in a space hermetically sealed from the world of regular politics – precisely because the heart of the archbishop’s calling is to articulate the teachings of the gospel about how we as individuals form societies that work together for the common good. Salvation doesn’t come in isolation.

“It’s the worst kind of secularising instinct that presumes that a religious leader with a prominent position in public life can be a true advocate for and exemplar of the Christian message by confining himself to being part superadministrator of the Church’s business and part constitutional ornament, wheeled out on grand state occasions.”

That echoes Turbulent Priests?, a pamphlet written by Daniel Gover and published last year by the think tank Theos. It assessed the political contributions of the three archbishops of Canterbury since 1980: “[Archbishops’] participation in political debate helps lift that debate, however briefly, above the short-term and partisan, and (changing metaphors) ground it in more substantial (and often more accessible) ethical considerations.”

But the voice of Mandy Rice-Davies echoes down the decades: they would say that, wouldn’t they? And what of those who aren’t in the Christian tent? An irony is that the Church of England, established in law, is our state church, with the monarch both its supreme governor and head of state, but that our national religion is at its best when it’s a thorn in the side of that state. It follows that an archbishop of Canterbury would more usually be a friend of Her Majesty’s Opposition than of her government. So, at present, there is a knuckle-dragging faction on the Tory back benches which would happily see the Archbishop butt out of what it considers its sovereign territory. “The Church should get back to its prime business of praising the Almighty, saving souls and considering its own diminishing position in this society,” Brian Binley, the MP for Northampton South, has said.

We might surmise that the last bit of that statement is somewhat bold, coming at a time when the diminution of his own party’s position in society is accelerating so quickly. But it is also very odd – first, because Tories such as Binley are among the first, along with the rightwing press, to demand the voice of the bishops when issues such as marriage, abortion and euthanasia are on the agenda. These, I presume, they consider matters of personal morality, as if morality were absent from other areas such as taxation, unemployment, immigration and asylum, the running of the economy, or, for that matter, European policy. Perhaps Binley believes they are amoral issues, but I rather doubt he’d say that publicly.

The Archbishop occupies a seat in the upper chamber of the legislature, and as long as he does so, he has a duty, not a choice, to participate. The other side of this is that his is arguably the most powerful unaccountable political job in the realm. Even the monarch gets to sit in the House of Lords only once a year – and then she can’t vote. The Archbishop is there all year round, voting away on behalf of a mixture of his own conscience and that of his congregants. And third and most importantly, he honours the gospel imperative to serve the poor – not just the economically poor, but anyone who is vulnerable, marginalised or weak.

Is Christianity essentially socialist? The new archbishop will be enthroned in Augustine’s seat in a failing economy with a hardline, Conservative-led government (and, after this month’s reshuffle, who doubts that that is what we have?). As a Church, we are drawn inexorably towards the question of where today our faith is rooted, economically and politically. In short, the new archbishop will be examined to establish whether he is Labour or Conservative.

Williams’s successor will, inevitably, avoid the question, taking refuge in that line about transcending party politics. But frankly it is hard to construct a case for the interests of the poor being best served by concurrently cutting welfare payments and the top rate of income tax, by making those who are already suffering most pay the price of the economic collapse while protecting the financial elite who precipitated it, and by continuing to pretend that wealth creation is of itself serving the common good by virtue of mystical trickle-down benefits, when events since 2008 demonstrate that trickle-down hasn’t worked. The rich have run off with the money.

The smug refrain, from parliamentarians and some clerics alike, is very often a quotation from Jesus: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is a neat little demarcation that apparently sorts the relationship between Christianity and secular authority. It certainly conforms Brian Binley’s world-view: the big boys will manage the money, while the church makes jam for the fete. The trouble is the passage in Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t say that at all.

Leo Tolstoy pointed out that Christ “not only does not encourage any obedience to power but, on the contrary, points out that in everything which belongs to God it is not right to obey Caesar”. That may stand as the pithiest brief for the next archbishop of Canterbury as he faces the little Caesars across the Thames from Lambeth Palace.

The question arises of how many in Westminster can work with the new archbishop if he chooses to heed Tolstoy’s words. To do so, the common ground they must find is working for the common good. In truth, that has been an idea successfully annexed by the political left since Margaret Thatcher championed individualism over collectivism in the 1980s and consequently froze out a Church of England that had historically been characterised as “the Tory party at prayer”. (Relations between the Church and the Thatcher government weren’t helped by the publication, in 1985, of Faith in the City, a report into urban poverty and a “call for action by Church and nation”  commissioned by the then archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. Stung by the Church’s insubordination under Runcie, Thatcher hand-picked his successor, George Carey, who proved to be altogether more emollient.)

Cameron at least nodded in the direction of a notion of the common good with his talk of the “big society”, even if his faith in it faded in and out with his Christian faith, a religious conviction like radio reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns, as he put it in a phrase borrowed from Boris Johnson. And it was telling that Tim Montgomerie, the Christian editor of the influential ConservativeHome website who is a proponent of Tory “modernisation” on issues of social justice, should have reacted so intemperately to Williams’s guest-editorship of the New Statesman. As he saw it, his party was being accused of what he hoped it had left behind.

As for the Labour Party, like the Church of England, it is working out its future relationship with the archbishop by examining the one that is passing. “What Rowan Williams has achieved is to continuously restate the importance of compassion in the public realm and the emphasis on the common life that we all share, one that reaches beyond the transactional elements of orthodox economics,” Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham and head of the party’s policy review, told me. “These types of intervention will be ever more important as the character of the country shifts through the process of austerity, where the poor are increasingly demonised and the weak pick up the tab for a financial crisis that is not of their making. We will need such alternative voices all the more in the future.”

Stephen Timms, the MP for East Ham, who is a former chief secretary to the Treasury (and a Christian), sets the bar even higher for the new archbishop. “It seems to me that, with Rowan as Archbishop, there has been a new intellectual self-confidence about the Church of England. In a period when the question ‘Where do our values come from?’ has been a pressing one, his has been a distinctive, compelling and authoritative voice. He has managed to be pretty fearless in speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalised, taking a lot of flak at times for doing so, without being partisan or gratuitously giving offence.”

No pressure, then. If that isn’t a big enough challenge for the new archbishop, there are two other mighty obstacles to effective political engagement. The first is those troublesome folk in the media. As the Christian Socialist Flannagan puts it: “Rowan’s voice has challenged vested interests in the financial and corporate sector who have multimillion-pound PR departments to speak for them. His successor will have the challenge of articulating the incredible breadth of what is going on in and through all the different strands of the Church in the UK, be that debt advice centres, youth work or homeless shelters. But he will be doing that into a media milieu that increasingly doesn’t want complexity in its reporting of the Church. It wants boxes. It wants the UK to be like the US. It wants liberals and conservatives, or liberals and evangelicals. It wants ‘nice Christians’and ‘nasty Christians’.”

The other political stumbling block is the Church’s own executive. When in early 2011 Williams signed a petition against the government’s proposed forestry sell-off, I was told in no uncertain terms that “the Archbishop doesn’t sign other people’s letters”. I replied that, on the contrary, he just had. This self-important panjandrum looked pained and asked me unsmilingly where I thought we’d be if we allowed the Archbishop to do what he wanted. Sir Humphrey Appleby would find today’s Church of England his natural habitat.

The Crown Nominations Commission must come up with a candidate who can cope with the politics not just of Westminster, but of his Church. What does that candidate look like? Flannagan is in no doubt: “Rowan led with the nuance necessary, rather than retreating to the safety of a tribe. I pray for another like him.”

George Pitcher was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s secretary for public affairs from 2010-2011. “Faith in the Public Square” is published by Bloomsbury (£20).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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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